If there is one word to use to describe the approach of Ajax to transfer business over the last couple of seasons, ‘intelligent’ would not be one of them. 

Although fair sums have been brought in (hello Antony), there is no hiding from the big money that has been spent on players who have, by and large, provided very little impact. A huge total of €222 since the start of the summer 2022 transfer window, to be exact. The strategy proved so disastrous that Director of Football Sven Mislintat was fired after a mere 5 months in the role. The coach Maurice Steijn lasted only 11 games. It also wasn’t long ago that fans were storming the Johan Cruyff Arena and Ajax were near the relegation zone with 5 points from their opening 7 games, their worst-ever start to an Eredivisie season. The club was – to put it mildly – a well-publicised mess. 

It is this context that makes Ajax’s signing of Champions League and Premier League winner Jordan Henderson all the more surprising – and impressive. 

All the focus has been on the initial motivations for Henderson’s controversial relocation to Al-Ettifaq in the Saudi Pro League, and then of his sudden desire to jump ship like an awkward date who has quickly realised the whole thing was a bad mistake. 

This has therefore diverted attention from what it actually means for his new club – a sensible move with immediate benefits on and off the pitch. In other words, the complete antithesis to how Ajax has approached recent player recruitment. 

Financially prudent, efficiently executed 

First and foremost, Ajax must be lauded for moving so quickly to get Henderson on board. It has been widely reported that there were not a huge number of immediate options available to him, yet outside of the Premier League there would surely have been a number of European clubs eager to sign him this January. Let’s not forget that this is a player who lasted 12 seasons at Anfield, 8 of them as captain, totting up almost 500 appearances. Someone who has accumulated 81 caps for England, being an important player for Gareth Southgate in their last 3 international tournaments. And Ajax has managed to get him without spending a penny on a transfer fee. He is now the highest earner at Ajax, and whilst some have voiced concerns about committing a big salary to a player who turns 34 this year, he has still agreed to a salary that is less than a third of what he was previously on, according to De Telegraaf. If you want good players, sometimes you have to spend good money on them. Committing him to a contract until the summer of 2026, rather than a short-term deal, also sends a positive message to fans that this is a genuine investment for the club, rather than a mere stepping stone for the player. 

Solving the midfield muddle 

From a footballing standpoint, Henderson is an excellent addition for interim head coach John van ‘t Schip. Although he was no longer good enough to start regularly for Liverpool, he remains a well-rounded central midfielder who will fill a giant Edson Álvarez-shaped hole in the middle of the park. The quality Mexican was not sufficiently replaced and whilst Henderson is not a like-for-like replacement, his ability on the ball (perennially underestimated), tactical awareness, and intensity are similar. In the Premier League, he was unfairly pigeonholed as a midfield workhorse when he was actually crucial to the success of Jürgen Klopp’s side. Hence why he was voted Liverpool’s Player of the Season when lifting the Premier League trophy in 2020. 

He will not just add stability and aggression to the Ajax midfield but progressive passing (his Premier League passing accuracy was often around 84-86%) and an ability to make well-timed forward runs to create and score. An ideal example is his goal against Senegal at the last World Cup. A total of 33 goals and 61 assists during his Liverpool career – in a side where this was not his main responsibility – is not to be sniffed at. One would think he will find more goal-scoring opportunities in the Eredivisie. At present, Ajax has many midfield options but just as many problems. Players such as Benjamin Tahirović, Kristian Hlynsson, Sivert Mannsverk and Silvino Vos are far too inexperienced, even for a youth-focused team like Ajax, to achieve the success their fans demand. Meanwhile, those with the experience have either suffered from loss of form (Kenneth Taylor) or injury (Branco van den Boomen). The fact that not a single Ajax midfielder is in the top 10 for Eredivisie assists, opportunities created, passes, pass accuracy, interceptions, duels won and sprints is damning. The need for Henderson is clear. 

Delivering leadership that has been lacking

And that need is not just in technical footballing ability but something conspicuous by its absence for Ajax this campaign – leadership. The clean up from earlier in the season has been underway for a few months, with Ajax eight Eredivisie games unbeaten at the time of writing. The ship has been steadied but there is still a sense when watching them play that many of the holes have only been temporarily plugged; that the whole thing might start sinking again at any moment. As such, Henderson is the experienced Captain it needs. The armband will remain on Steven Bergwijn, yet Henderson will be the one all will turn to for the stern, confident hand to keep them moving forward. The player everyone will be seeking to learn from. Very few in the current squad have experience of challenging for trophies. Many are only in their first or second seasons as a first-team player. The optimal blend that clubs like Ajax aim to go for – of young starlets and wise, older heads – has not been there. With an unlikely challenge for European football now a possibility, Henderson’s nous and high standards on the pitch and at the training ground could be vital. 

A point to prove 

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Henderson himself needs this move to work. One of the criticisms leveled at him was that he was still good enough to play in the top European leagues and was distracted by the sweet scent of massive Saudi wages, lured into feast on a luxurious career wind down when his stomach should have been still up for a fight in a more competitive environment. For many reasons, some not directly linked to football, his reputation has taken a battering. After six months in a less intense environment, can he still cut it in European football? Can he convince his national manager in a short space of time that he is still good enough to be selected for Euro 2024 this summer? The demanding Ajax fans will expect him to step up instantly. He is a big name for the club, as shown by the record sales of his shirt. Can he live up to the hype? Yet this ultimately is all just another positive for Ajax. This is not a player who wants to gradually ease his way into retirement. He wants competition, he wants to push himself, to prove himself. Not just to Ajax but to those who have criticized him.

In short, Ajax have recruited an experienced player who knows he needs to perform, in an area of the pitch where they needed reinforcements, for a squad crying out for leadership. And they’ve done it quickly and for no fee. As January transfers go, it is a very good move for the club. It goes against the trend this season – but well done Ajax. 

Joe Baker (14 Posts)