With transfer windows slamming shut, and football clubs across Europe entering the first international break of the season, it gives opportunity to take stock, evaluate and form opinion. I’ve done just that with Ajax.

  • by Craig Bradley.
  • Follow him on X @Brad8926

Ajax are in a transitional period in every footballing sense possible. In the offices, Sven Mislintat has just operated his first transfer window since becoming Director of Football in April. Maurice Steijn is the head coach tasked with getting a cohesive football team on the pitch to perform to the level the Amsterdam fans hope and expect. And the players themselves have to contend with dozens of ins and outs, learning teammates names as well as their style on the pitch.

There’s many a different narrative you could spin when looking at Ajax’s transfer ahead of the 2023/24 season. There are plenty of exciting youngsters incoming; some will provide value, some will prove expensive flops. Having so many entering to replace some key players of seasons gone by suggests no plan or structure in place. Fair? Or is this the start of Mislintat’s vision and not as haphazard as it first seems.

Goalkeeper and Defence

In the goalkeeping department, Geronimo Rulli suffered an early season injury, one that potentially cost him a transfer to Bayern Munich. With Remko Pasveer also injured, it leaves Jay Gorter as the number one, a player where it’s difficult to see what pathway Ajax had in place for him after he signed from Go Ahead Eagles — a season in the Jong Ajax team and a failed loan at Aberdeen. It looks as though he’s ended up as Ajax’s number one as much by accident as by progression. Gorter is backed up by young German stopper Diant Ramaj, signed from Eintracht Frankfurt for €4M. It’s difficult to cast a judgment on somebody with so few minutes in senior football. The other goalkeepers completing the set are Dutch born English qualified brothers Charlie & Tommy Setford and Tom de Graaff, the Netherlands youth goalkeeper. The potential within the goalkeeping ranks is unknown but for the here and now, the set leaves a lot to be desired.

The right-back position is covered by academy graduate Devyne Rensch and new signing from Viborg in Demark, Anton Gaaei. I’ve formed a view on Rensch, correct or not, that he’s not great. But I’ve convinced myself that Ajax think that if they give him enough minutes, a club with a lazy scouting department will put together Ajax graduate + senior minutes = hot property and throw a silly transfer fee at him. On Anton Gaeei, I think he’ll get a chance of making the right back spot his own. I asked a Danish friend for his view and was told ‘shades of Joakim Maehle. Runs forever, offensive aggression and tenacity’. A player who fell out of love with football as a teenager and pulled out of Viborg’s academy only to be talked into going back some time later by school coaches and his father. At 15 there was nothing to suggest he’d have a career in the game and five years later he’s earned himself a move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs, and become Viborg’s record fee received for a player.

The left-back position has seen a multitude of changes. Owen Wijndal, considered one of the best prospects in Dutch football when at AZ moves on loan to Antwerp in Belgium after one very uninspiring season in Amsterdam where ability and attitude have been questioned frequently. Does the failed transfer move say more about Ajax or Wijndal? For whatever the reason, the move has been a disaster. Anass Salah-Eddine returns from a loan at Twente and for a long time looked like he’d have a shot at becoming the first choice but Mislintat moved late in the transfer window to bring in twenty-one year old Gaston Avila, also from Antwerp for €12.50M, and Croatia international Borna Sosa from VfB Stuttgart for €8M.

Avila can also operate at centre-back. His competiton will be ‘next big thing’ Jorrel Hato. The seventeen year old burst on the scene in the second half of last season and has already made himself a fixture in the starting XI. A player the club will look to build around as they try and show other youngsters coming through that a pathway to stardom still exists in Amsterdam. Josip Sutalo signs from Dinamo Zagreb for €20.50M and is surprisingly made captain on his debut in the 0-0 draw with Fortuna Sittard. Jakov Medic is the other player competing in this positon, signed from St Pauli for €3M euros after spending many a season in 2.Bundesliga.

Outgoings from last season in Jurrien Timber, Calvin Bassey, Jorge Sanchez, Owen Wijndal and utility man Edson Alvarez show how much movement has taken place at the defensive end of the pitch and how difficult it’ll be for Maurice Steijn to get the new players to both perform to their potential and as a cohesive unit.

Midfield

Into the engine room. The aforementioned Edson Alvarez has departed, as well as club leader Davy Klaassen. Kenneth Taylor remains from last season, a player who divides opinion. I’m a fan and think eight goals from midfield last season shouldn’t be sniffed at. But it is a big season for him and he needs to become ruthless and a leader in this Ajax set up if he’s to take his game to the next level. He’s joined by a trio of signings: Branco van den Boomen, a free transfer from Toulouse; Benjamin Tahirovic, €7.50M from Roma; and Sivert Mannsverk, €6M from Molde.

Youngsters Silvano Vos, Mika Godts, Kritsian Hlynsson and Gabriel Misehouy will also be looking for game time as they strive to see if Ajax have a progression plan in place for them.

As for the three newcomers, Branco van den Boomen is a personal favourite of mine. Elevating Toulouse to a Ligue 1 club with a raft of assists at the French club. A midfield playmaker with fine ability in open play, but one of the deadliest set-piece deliveries in football. He should rack up assists aplenty in the Eredivisie. Swedish-born Bosnian international Tahirovic comes highly touted, and Mannsverk was one of the highest progressive passers outside the big five leagues at Molde, a playmaker from deep who reads the game well, an interceptor rather than a tackler. Whether utilised in a double pivot or a three, I think this can be a position of strength for Ajax.

Attack

Behind the forwards Steven Berghuis and Steven Bergwijn have critical roles to play. As much off the pitch as on it, they find themselves as experienced leaders; they need to be the glue that holds this young, new squad together. Favourite Mohammed Kudus departs and two exciting youngsters join: Carlos Forbs, €14M from Man City is a tricky, skilful, fast, direct wide-man; and Georges Mikautadze €16M from Metz, who could also be implemented as a striker — he rated high on the data metrics last season in Ligue 2.

Up front, Ajax are reliant on an underwhelming Brian Brobbey. Still to recover from a failed move to RB Leipzig, he has all the tools to dismantle Eredivisie defences but needs to show that he can be ‘the man’. His competition is new signing Chuba Akpom, €12.3M from Middlesbrough. For me, Akpom represents Ajax’s current position perfectly. Last season he was outstanding. But if you look at his 2022/23 goal scoring record as a stand alone it’s a massive outlier on anything he’s done previously. There’s no guarantee he replicates it Ajax. He had one year left on his Middlesbrough contract and was trying to strike gold while his stock is high. He’s nice on the eye and a good player. My concern would be that Ajax fans with a lesser knowledge of the EFL will look at last season’s goals record and expect that to be replicated. That’s not a given. His ceiling is high but the floor is low. I think that’s applicable for where Ajax find themselves overall, too.

Summary

That’s the squad. There are a lot of ingredients but the recipe is unknown. And this leads me to the biggest concern of all at the new Ajax. Manager Maurice Steijn comes across more McDonalds than he does Michelin star. He just doesn’t appear very Ajax. There’s already questionable quotes getting attached to Steijn’s name. After the draw with Fortuna Sittard, he said that ‘I hope the players are good enough to satisfy the expectations of Mislintat’. Is this a Steijn ridding himself of responsibility already? Last season Alfred Schreuder adopted a similar approach and he didn’t see the season out. I predict the same will happen to Steijn.




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