The Ajax scenes bore a striking resemblance to something one might expect from a low-budget apocalyptic movie. On a Sunday afternoon, footage captured on smartphones depicted a group of individuals donning balaclavas, enveloped in a crimson haze of a smoke bomb, as they forcibly smashed their way through a set of glass doors at the Johan Cruyff ArenA.
Instances of crowd disorder are not uncommon when Ajax and Feyenoord clash, and the Netherlands has sadly witnessed a resurgence in hooliganism in recent times. However, the events that transpired during the De Klassieker match this past weekend deviated from the typical football-related violence. Instead, it witnessed Ajax supporters venting their frustration by causing damage to their own club’s property.
The situation escalated when Feyenoord scored their third unanswered goal in the first half, leading to flares being hurled onto the pitch during the second half, eventually prompting the match’s abandonment. Riot police and tear gas were deployed in an effort to disperse the unruly crowd once it became evident that the game could not continue. Despite these measures, certain Ajax fans managed to break away from the chaos and forcibly gained access through the stadium’s main entrance. Eventually, order was restored, but the tangible damage had already been inflicted.
The Overmars Controversy The ultimate humiliation suffered on the field at the hands of their arch-rivals marked the breaking point, but tensions between Ajax’s board and its supporters had been simmering for months. The ongoing cycle of turmoil behind the scenes at De Godenzonen began as far back as February 2022 when Marc Overmars, the director of football, resigned from his position following allegations of sending “a series of inappropriate messages to several female colleagues.”
Upon his departure, Overmars stated, “Last week I was confronted with reports about my behavior and how this has come across to others. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that I was crossing the line with this, but that was made clear to me in recent days. I apologize. Certainly, for someone in my position, this behavior is unacceptable. I now see that, but it is too late. I see no other option but to leave Ajax.” While Leen Meijaard, the supervisory board chairman, maintained that it would not have been right for Overmars to continue in his role, he also acknowledged Overmars as “the best football director Ajax has had,” a sentiment echoed by then-CEO Edwin van der Sar.
Overmars’ sudden departure created a significant void within the club, especially in the crucial recruitment department, setting the stage for many of the challenges that would plague Ajax in the months to come.
The Departure of Ten Hag Following Marc Overmars’ exit, there was another blow for Ajax as Erik ten Hag decided to leave and take charge of Manchester United in the summer of the previous year. During his tenure in Amsterdam, Ten Hag achieved significant success, clinching the Eredivisie title in each of his three full seasons. Additionally, he guided Ajax to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2019, leaving a lasting mark on the club’s history.
Furthermore, Ten Hag played a crucial role in nurturing and developing several young talents, including Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, and Donny van de Beek, all of whom were eventually transferred to top European clubs for substantial profits. Although Ajax would have preferred to retain the services of this highly successful coach, his departure left the club in a relatively strong position. As of the summer of 2022, Ajax stood as the dominant force in domestic competitions and possessed a healthy financial reserve to further strengthen their squad.
Nightmarish 2022-23 Season Erik ten Hag would further bolster his former club’s position by persuading Manchester United to part ways with a combined €160 million (£139m/$170m) for Antony and Lisandro Martinez. In addition to the substantial transfer fees received for Sebastien Haller and Ryan Gravenberch during that summer, Ajax found themselves armed with even greater financial resources to facilitate their rebuilding process. In the absence of a replacement for Marc Overmars, transfer negotiations were overseen by Klaus-Jan Huntelaar and Gerry Hamstra.
These two individuals made significant moves by Eredivisie standards, breaking records by acquiring Steven Bergwijn from Tottenham for a league-record fee. They also made substantial investments in the acquisition of Rangers’ defender Calvin Bassey and RB Leipzig’s forward Brian Bobbey.
Alfred Schreuder was entrusted with the task of extracting the best from this newly revamped squad. To put it succinctly, he struggled to do so. Ultimately, a string of six consecutive league draws spanning from November to January, coupled with a disappointing exit from the Champions League group stage, resulted in his dismissal. Johnny Heitinga stepped in as his replacement, but Ajax’s fortunes did not see a significant upturn.
The 2022-23 season concluded with Ajax finishing a distant third in the Eredivisie, suffering elimination from the Europa League knockout round play-offs at the hands of Union Berlin, and losing the KNVB Cup final to Feyenoord after a penalty shootout. Among the high-profile summer signings, Brian Bobbey and Steven Bergwijn displayed glimpses of promise without truly shining, while Calvin Bassey became a subject of ridicule in the media due to his error-prone performances. It was evident that a substantial overhaul was needed in preparation for the following summer.
The Arrival of the “Diamond Eye” to the Rescue To their credit, Ajax recognized the need for change well before the season concluded, and in March 2023, they made a crucial appointment by bringing in Sven Mislintat as their new director of football. On paper, it appeared to be a prudent choice.
Mislintat gained the moniker “Diamantenauge” (Diamond Eye) during his tenure as Borussia Dortmund’s chief scout, owing to his remarkable knack for discovering hidden talents. He was responsible for identifying players like Robert Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembele, Mats Hummels, and Jadon Sancho. However, his reputation took a hit after he assumed a similar role at Arsenal.
During his stint at the Emirates between 2017 and 2019, Mislintat faced criticism for relying excessively on signing former Dortmund players. The likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sokratis, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan all joined Arsenal while Mislintat was there, with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, he did claim credit for shortlisting William Saliba in an interview with The Athletic, where he stated, “To be quite clear: I don’t feel ashamed of any of those transfers, on the contrary, I will always defend these guys. Not because they were my players but because they were Arsenal players and capable ones.”
After departing from Arsenal, he performed admirably at Stuttgart, helping the club secure an immediate return to the Bundesliga in his role as sporting director. He even drew interest from Liverpool at one point before Ajax secured his services.
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