Like many of us, Ajax come into the new year holding a sense both of hope and of despair. Alfred Schreuder, once heralded as a mastermind behind the club’s 2019 Champions League run, remains full of confidence. Yet Erik ten Hag’s former assistant and current replacement as head coach has shown repeatedly that he may not be up to scratch for a club of Ajax’s stature. Calls of #SchreuderOut reverberate across Twitter and, now with rivals Feyenoord three points clear atop the table, groaning voices are sure to increase in volume. Yet as easy as it would be to point the finger at the coach alone, a dull performance to open the curtains on 2023 was the culmination of a variety of things that have gone wrong after that fantastic run nearly four years ago.
Schreuder has been derided by fans as a coach lacking sense, but recently it has been the players who have not been competing at par. Legendary defender Daley Blind has now departed the club after World Cup winner Lisandro Martínez joined Ten Hag and Antony in Manchester last summer, opening up chances for new arrivals and youth players in defense and attack. But the system of ‘who’s up next,’ which Martínez himself benefitted from, has not been repeated under the new managerial tenure. Former AZ Alkmaar star Owen Wijndal has failed to claim a starting role, while full-back Devyne Rensch has floundered in a new central role. Wijndal was completely missing from the action in Nijmegen as Ajax opened their 2023 campaign against mid-table NEC, a pin-point example of how things have been going recently for the Dutch champions.
One might expect a club with so many high-quality players to suffer somewhat after a gruelling mid-season World Cup calendar. Indeed, many of the Ajax players who played in Qatar have been down with some sort of illness. The two Stevens, Bergwijn and Berghuis, failed to make the trip down south, while Mohammed Kudus also called in sick over the weekend. Many fans have been rightly sick of Kudus’ behaviour when he skipped out on training to try and force a move last year. Berghuis’ absence was particularly important as the former Feyenoord provocateur has been Schreuder’s best attacking piece this season. Teenage sensation Francisco ‘Chico’ Conceição picked up the slack on the frontline, making exciting darting runs from the right wing to threaten the NEC defense. The Portuguese is one of the (increasingly few) bright spots in a team which only a couple years ago dazzled opponents with displays of arrogance and flair. But the youngster is just starting to cement his spot as a starter and he couldn’t do it all alone on Sunday.
The veteran craftsman Lasse Schøne, once a key midfielder in Ten Hag’s squad, was helpless as his former teammates controlled NEC for much of the ninety minutes. The first half featured plenty of chances, only one of which was converted by Davy Klaassen, the ever-present utility man back from a solid World Cup showing. His midfield partner, Kenneth Taylor, was clearly recovering from an illness with his poor showing, having missed a sitter after the half-hour mark. But Klaassen was there minutes later to slide the ball home. Chico Conceição sent a cross deep to Dušan Tadić, who didn’t need more than a touch to loft the ball back to the far post where a grateful Klaassen stood unmarked. Although most Ajax attacks came down the left side, where Blind replacement Calvin Bassey overlapped from the full-back position, it was only Chico who provided the incisiveness we so clearly lack after Antony’s departure.
The Nijmegeners are no slouches, though, and when Ajax failed to control the game after the half-time break they managed to equalise. Ousamma Tananne, one of those Eredivisie players who slides under the radar but would make an impact at a high level, got into a dick-swinging fight with Jorge Sánchez before whipping in a beautiful free-kick for Landry Dimata to score. Veteran keeper Remko Pasveer will have to fight hard to keep his spot over new arrival Geronimo Rulli, but the old Dutchie couldn’t do a thing about Dimata’s easy goal. The lacklustre defending performances of Rensch and Jurrien Timber were probably to blame for much of NEC’s opportunities, and for a side that has only beaten Ajax once at home, they did create a fair few chances.
With time running out, and NEC opting to sit back to prevent any clear chances at Jasper Cillessen’s goal, Schreuder handed two Eredivisie debuts to a couple of players who really excite me. The bench was filled with teenage talent – granted, only due to the illness which seems to have spread across the squad – which could hint at how Ajax might reach back to those heights of 2018-19. Kian Fitz-Jim came on with ten to play and created a few good chances for himself, while Christian Rasmussen had but a minute or two to make an impact. Neither was able to break through and when Edson Álvarez’s header was parried away by Cillessen in added time, that was that.
Of course, Schreuder deserves blame for failing to take three points from the calendar year opener. But so do the players, who had ample opportunity to put the game to bed with the clear-cut chances within half an hour. But let us not forget H2, the technical team of Gerry Hamstra and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who made some tidy business with the likes of Conceição but failed to inject the squad with any short-term, high-impact talent. A key reason for Ten Hag’s success was the arrival of veteran players like Tadić and Blind who led the team with their talent and professionalism. Even with Tadić, Klaassen, and Pasveer in the lineup, it seems that sense of mature control is greatly diminished.
Ajax leave Nijmegen having dropped points for the fourth consecutive game, and more disturbingly setting a new record for consecutive matches with a goal against. Not since 1982 have Ajax conceded in fourteen-straight affairs, which would not be as frustrating if they were able to actually score more than the other teams. They are not able to capitalise on the pitch and simultaneously forego opportunities to climb up the table when rivals slip up. Feyenoord salvaged a point in Utrecht, but if Tadić and company want to take the trophy this spring they’ll have to outdo their rivals, not simply meet them at this level. That is, dropping the occasional point to a lower Eredivisie side is expected, but to make a habit out of it is to throw away whatever chance the departure of PSV’s Cody Gakpo has offered them in the league.
Yes, we enter the new year full of hope. It’s impossible not to. After Messi’s World Cup triumph, it feels just as if we are beginning a whole new season. Ajax still possess so much talent and potential: Chico has all the makings of a fan-favorite, Bassey is an exciting defensive talent, and youngsters like Fitz-Jim probably have what it takes to earn minutes off the bench. But we also enter the new year with a not-so-faint sense of despair. The Nijmegen draw is not the end of the world, and almost certainly not the end of Alfie Schreuder’s tenure. But it is a bad sign when the opening match of the calendar year questions a team’s fortitude and the only answer we can provide is, “We are doing our best.”