Once a regular feature in the latter stages of the Champions League, Ajax can no longer be counted amongst Europe’s elite. In August, a 3-2 defeat against Austrian side Rapid Wien at the once impenetrable fortress of the Amsterdam Arena condemned them to the Europa League play-offs, where they again struggled against opposition that previously would have been bread and butter for the Netherlands’ most distinguished club. A narrow victory against the Czech Republic’s Jablonec sent them into the group stages of Europe’s second competition, where they will now be looking to make amends for a disappointing campaign in a group that also includes Celtic, another former European stalwart that have been relegated to the continent’s second tier. In fact, the fate that has befallen both Celtic and Ajax is very similar, with several overlaps in the stories of two sides that, by and large, are dominating domestically but struggling to impose themselves on a European stage that seems to become increasingly tougher with each season that passes.
Last season was easily one of the worst for Ajax, as it saw them fail to win the Eredivisie, the Netherlands’ top division, for the first time since 2010. But not only did they fail in their bid to collect their fifth consecutive domestic title, they failed to put up a fight against the eventual champions PSV, who ran away with the crown and ended up finishing 17 points clear of an Ajax side that struggled to match the attacking firepower of a very impressive PSV.
Ajax have made a strong start to the new domestic season and currently sit unbeaten at the top of the table with 19 points from their opening seven games, but it is on the European stage where their frailties are constantly being exposed. It is now 12 years since they last made it to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, whilst they have failed to reach the same stage in the Europa League in any of their last nine consecutive appearances. The once almighty Godenzonen have now been firmly relegated to Europe’s second-highest competition, and few would argue that they deserve better after a rotten few years.
But why has this happened? One of the most important reasons for their decline is arguably the wealth of money that is flowing away from the Dutch club’s pockets and into those of Europe’s elite, the seven or eight top teams that are continually dominating the sport. As a result, any talent unearthed in the Ajax side is unlikely to last long in the Eredivisie before being snapped up by the big spenders, making it difficult for the four-time European Cup winners to develop a winning team of talented individuals. Luis Suárez, Christian Eriksen, Daley Blind, Jan Vertonghen, Gregory van der Wiel and Toby Alderweireld all rose through the ranks in Amsterdam before leaving for pastures new, and Ajax have always struggled to replace them with similarly talented individuals. If Liverpool have spent the last two seasons failing to fill a Suárez-shaped hole, then what hope do Ajax have?
Constantly failing to make an impression in the Champions League is continually hurting their chances of attracting top-quality talent, as Ajax’s struggles on the European stage are doing little to entice players to a league that is now firmly part of Europe’s second tier. The Eredivisie acts purely as a stepping-stone for exciting-yet-unproven talent, allowing them the opportunity to gain vital experience before moving on to the upper echelons of European football. As previously mentioned, Suárez, Eriksen, Blind, Vertonghen and Alderweireld all made an impression at Ajax before becoming regulars in the Premier League, whilst Memphis Depay, Graziano Pellè, Dušan Tadić and Wilfried Bony all impressed in the Eredivisie before being snapped up by English clubs. The difficulty that Dutch teams have in holding onto players in order to build great teams is a problem not confined only to Ajax but is one that plagues the league as a whole.
Tied in with this is the fate that has befallen Ajax’s legendary academy, which has seen its role reduced to that of an institution that trains and nurtures young talent to be sold off to higher-ranked and more profitable leagues. Any player with a hint of promise will be lucky to stay at Amsterdam Arena past their 25th birthday, and many are snapped up several years before then. Ajax are no longer a big enough club to hold onto the youngsters that were once the lifeblood of a European powerhouse, and they now find themselves unable to offer enough to entice these young talents to make the decision to stay in the Eredivisie. Eriksen, Blind, Vertonghen and van der Wiel all rose through Ajax’s youth teams only to move on after spending a few seasons as regulars in the senior side, and they have been joined in recent seasons by Siem de Jong and Ricardo Kishna, who have left for the Premier League and Serie A, respectively, after impressing in the first team.
The stripping of young talent from Ajax’s ranks means that they are struggling on two fronts, and together they leave little hope of the Dutch giants ever returning to the upper echelons of European football. Time and time again, a good foundation of youngsters and exciting players is established before being broken up and sold off to various corners of the continent, leaving the club with no choice but to repeat a painful cycle that sees them attempt to rebuild the team from scratch only to realise that not only are they unable to produce talent quickly enough but they are also unable to offer established talent from elsewhere both the money and the promise of competitive Champions League football that those in Europe’s major leagues are able to do so.
In recent years, the club have done well to recruit promising players in Arkadiusz Milik, Viktor Fischer and Nemanja Gudelj, but how long will it be until they too are enticed away from Amsterdam with the promise of higher wages and regular Champions League playing time? Similarly, how long can Ajax expect to hold onto the likes of Davy Klaassen, Anwar El Ghazi, Joël Veltman and Jaïro Riedewald, all of whom are home-grown talents that have already attracted attention from clubs all over the continent, despite the fact that only two (Klaassen and Veltman) are over the age of 20.
Ajax are constantly fighting a desperate battle on two fronts, and they have yet to find a solution for either. Until they are able to do so, it is unlikely that we will see them trouble Europe’s big boys any time soon. And as their Champions League misery continues, so will the cycle that started this mess in the first place. It is difficult to know whether or not there is a cure for this sad tale, but one thing is for certain: things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.
Written by Ben Cullimore