Ajax in crisis! How Ten Hag's departure has left the giants of Dutch football in disarray
Manchester United could barely be happier with the job Erik ten Hag is doing at Old Trafford. After a concerning first few weeks in charge for the Dutch coach, he has overseen a drastic change of fortunes for United, lifting them to the edge of the title race through a combination of shrewd tactical ideas and strong leadership.
Though Wednesday's draw with Crystal Palace ended their nine-game winning run, United still head into Sunday's meeting with Arsenal knowing that a victory over Mikel Arteta's table-toppers will ensure they remain in the conversation as genuine challengers to win a first league title since 2013.
Many questioned Ten Hag's credentials after he was confirmed as United's new manager back in April, but even if his team do not maintain a title push in 2022-23, there is already plenty of evidence to suggest they have found the elite, progressive coach that they have been looking for ever since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement.
Were anymore evidence needed, though, then one can look at the mess his former club, Ajax, have gotten themselves into since he left.
After a drab 0-0 at home to Twente last Saturday, Alfred Schreuder made unwanted history, becoming the first manager in Ajax history to draw four successive Eredivisie games. That run has come immediately off the back of a home defeat to rivals PSV, too.
That five-game winless streak has left Schreuder - a former assistant of Ten Hag's who returned to the club over the summer after a successful stint in charge of Club Brugge - clinging to his job ahead of Sunday's meeting with league leaders Feyenoord.
Lose that, and the defending champions will be eight points off the top of the table at the halfway point of the season, and facing an uphill task to even qualify for next season's Champions League.
"We've made progress and become Europe-proof," Ten Hag told Ajax’s official website in his farewell interview. "There's a sense of disappointment when Ajax get eliminated, even by a big club. Ajax will have to take the next step in order to meet the high expectations that people now have.
"Schreuder has the advantage that he's familiar with the club. He was there from the start. That's a huge advantage and he knows what to expect. A foundation has been laid that he can use to expand upon."
That foundation, however, included Lisandro Martinez and Antony, who were key to Ajax’s successful defence of the Eredivisie title in 2021-22. Both men followed Ten Hag to United for a combined fee in excess of £140 million, and they were not the only high-profile exits during Schreuder's first few weeks in charge.
Sebastien Haller, Ryan Gravenberch, Nicolas Tagliafico, Noussair Mazraoui and Andre Onana also left over the summer, with the new boss forced to watch on, powerless as the core of his squad was stripped out from under him.
The likes of Steven Bergwijn, Calvin Bassey and Owen Wijndal were brought in with funds raised through those sales, while Brian Brobbey re-joined the club on a permanent basis from RB Leipzig, but there is no escaping the fact that Ajax have dropped a level in quality this season.
In addition to their struggles for consistency domestically, the Dutch giants were also left reeling after a disappointing Champions League group-stage exit. Ajax finished nine points behind Napoli - whom they conceded 10 goals to in two games - and Liverpool in Group B, with their only two wins coming against a historically poor Rangers side.
Schreuder began feeling the pressure back in October, when he hit back at criticism of his summer signings and selection decisions after a much-needed 7-1 victory against Excelsior.
“The truth is that I cannot build a completely new team in three months,” he said in the extraordinary press conference rant. “I do my best, but I have to be given time. If I don’t get that it’s a shame. If they fire me for that, I don’t care. But I decide here at Ajax who plays and who doesn’t play. This team needs time. If people think it will happen in three months, forget it.
“Go and get your coaching diplomas and don’t preach nonsense on television, because you have no idea at all.”
His handling of veteran defender Daley Blind did not go down well with Ajax supporters either. Blind fell out of favour before the World Cup break and ended up agreeing an early contract termination with the club on December 27.
Blind confirmed his departure in an emotional statement and hinted that the decision was forced upon him amid reports of a fallout with Schreuder, who sent good luck messages to all the Ajax stars called up to Qatar 2022 except the 32-year-old.
“This is not how I imagined my end at Ajax, but due to ‘circumstances’ it turned out that way,” Blind, who has since been snapped up on a free transfer by Bayern Munich, wrote on social media. “I hope the right time will come to say goodbye to you. Make sure Ajax stays Ajax.”
Schreuder’s man-management skills have been questioned throughout his reign, most notably by former Ajax playmaker Wesley Sneijder. “He can't manage,” Sneijder told Dutch TV show Veronica Offside when discussing Schreuder’s relationship with Blind. “I've said it before: managing a team is much more important than setting the lines. Anyone can do that. But how do you deal with those players? And he's slowly just losing the dressing room.”
In stark contrast, Ten Hag has always excelled when it comes to commanding the respect of his squad and motivating players one-to-one. He has proved it again at United, dealing with the disruptive influence of Cristiano Ronaldo perfectly while bringing the best out of a previously inconsistent Marcus Rashford.
That is not to say that Schreuder is a poor coach - he favours a forward-thinking 4-3-3 formation and follows the same principles that Ten Hag did. But Ajax is an unforgiving place to be when the results aren’t positive.
Even Ten Hag came under pressure in his first few months at the club, but he delivered trophies consistently on the domestic scene and guided them to the 2019 Champions League semi-finals.
He also benefited from the experience of the club’s former director of football, Marc Overmars, who resigned in February last year after sending “inappropriate messages to female colleagues”.
Gerry Hamstra and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar now work alongside Schreuder, but neither are as astute as Overmars was when it came to transfers. Ten Hag's support network gave him the tools to achieve the club’s lofty goals, but the same cannot be said of his successor.
On the field, ex-Rangers star Bassey has been the subject of intense scrutiny for his performances since joining Ajax from Rangers, while fellow summer signings Lucas Ocampos, Florian Grillitsch and Lorenzo Lucca have also failed to make meaningful contributions.
Bergwijn has been the only success story, with the ex-Tottenham man netting 10 goals in 21 games this term, but he continues to be hampered by persistent fitness issues.
Schreuder, then, might not be quite the right fit for the Ajax hot seat, and seems to already be on borrowed time, but changing the manager is unlikely to prompt a dramatic transformation.
Manchester United fans have learned that the hard way this past decade. Now, they finally have the right man in charge. Ajax, it seems, no longer do.