Ajax are currently in 17th place. The data shows it could be even worse.
Ajax are in freefall. A crushing fourth successive league defeat last weekend saw the club slip into the relegation zone for the very first time, while they just announced the departure of manager Maurice Steijn. The Amsterdam giants sit in 17th – their lowest league position since the Eredivisie began in 1954.
Ajax have made their worst ever start to an Eredivisie campaign having taken just five points from their opening seven games, and the crisis at the club spilled over into violence during De Klassieker last month. Their game against Feyenoord was suspended at half-time with the home side trailing 3-0 after a barrage of fireworks were thrown onto the pitch by Ajax supporters in protest against the board. Ajax fans then turned on their own stadium.
But what has gone so wrong at the Johan Cruijff ArenA?
After winning a record-extending 36th league title in 2021-22, Ajax appeared to be in good stead despite the departure of manager Erik ten Hag in the summer of 2022. They’d just claimed their third consecutive Eredivisie trophy and were seeking to win four in a row for just the second time in their history.
Few could have envisioned the demise of one of Europe’s most storied clubs in the ensuing months.
Former assistant Alfred Schreuder was tasked with replacing fan favourite Ten Hag last summer. The 50-year-old had spent time working under his predecessor in the Dutch capital and had just guided Club Brugge to the 2021-22 Belgian First Division title during a five-month stint. The Dutchman had even received Ten Hag’s seal of approval.
The now-Manchester United boss stated in his Ajax farewell interview:
“We’ve made progress and become Europe-proof. 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.”
However, Schreuder’s first season could only be described as a bitter disappointment. Ajax finished third in the Eredivisie table – their lowest league position since 2008-09. That was despite a terrific start to the season that saw Ajax win their opening six league games, doing so for the first time since 1997-98.
Schreuder didn’t even get to see out the season, though, and was dismissed in January 2023 after a seven-game winless league run which left Ajax languishing in fifth. It’s hard to say his dismissal was unjust – that run was their joint-longest streak without a victory in the Eredivisie and longest run since 1965. Ajax had also crashed out of the Champions League group stage after losing four of their six games, including a humiliating 6-1 defeat at home to Napoli – the club’s biggest defeat since 1964.
Jong Ajax boss John Heitinga succeeded Schreuder for the rest of the season but was only able to elevate the reigning champions to third place. The Amsterdam outfit had struggled to find an identity following Ten Hag’s departure, and that was evident at both ends of the pitch.
Ajax conceded 38 Eredivisie goals across 2022-23 – their most in a campaign since 2008-09 and twice as many as in the previous season under Ten Hag (18). They also attempted 630 shots, which was their lowest across a full Eredivisie campaign since 2015-16 (523), excluding the tally of 549 in the curtailed 2019-20 COVID-19 season.
Ajax finished the season 13 points behind champions Feyenoord – their biggest gap to the eventual title-winners since 2014-15 (17 points). The third-place finish also meant that Ajax would be without Champions League football for the first time in 13 years. It was a harsh reality check for the “Europe-proof” side.
The club’s much-maligned hierarchy turned to Maurice Steijn as manager this summer after he led Sparta Rotterdam to sixth in the Eredivisie table last term, their highest finish in 27 years. His side had netted 60 league goals, twice as many as in the previous campaign, while their 37 goals conceded was bettered by only three other sides.
Steijn outlined his philosophy upon his appointment, stating: “Attacking football is at the forefront of what I want from my team as a coach.”
Sadly for Steijn, this season has been nothing short of a disaster. Ajax currently sit in the relegation zone, which is their lowest league position in Eredivisie history. With a tally of just five points from seven games, it is their worst ever start to a season, eclipsing their previous low of seven points after seven games in 1964-65 and 1988-89. Steijn was sacked this week with a points-per-game record of just 0.71 – the worst such rate of any Ajax manager in the Eredivisie.
Yet the underlying numbers are perhaps even more unsettling for those in the Dutch capital. Based on Opta’s expected points model*, Ajax should actually be bottom of the Eredivisie table. They’ve been outscored by their opponents on expected goals (xG) in five of their seven games this term.
Believe it or not, they’ve been somewhat fortunate this season. Things should be even worse!
The numbers from this season really do make grim reading.
Ajax’s only league win this season came in the season-opener at newly promoted Heracles, while they are now winless in eight games across all competitions for the first time since the Eredivisie began in 1954. They have scored just 11 league goals this term, only netting fewer after seven matches in 1996-97 (five) and 1962-63 (10). Steijn’s side had attempted 110 shots in the league this season, a per-game average of 13.8. This is their second-lowest average since full records began in 2010-11, after only 2014-15 (13.6 per game).
In their last match before this month’s international break, a 2-1 defeat to AZ Alkmaar, Ajax had just six shots on goal. They last managed fewer in an Eredivisie match in January 2016 against Roda JC Kerkrade (five). Those six shots amounted to an xG tally of just 0.2 – their lowest-ever total on record in a league meeting.
But it was the game against Feyenoord that really drew attention to just how far Ajax had fallen. After the half-time interruption at 3-0, the match was resumed behind closed doors the following midweek, with Feyenoord winning the clash 4-0 and Ajax suffering their joint-largest home defeat in the Eredivisie. Ajax also had an xG total of just 0.3.
Steijn was unable to enact his philosophy in the Dutch capital. Only two sides have won fewer high turnovers in the Eredivisie than Ajax (48), while only RKC Waalwijk (three) have had fewer shot-ending high turnovers than Steijn’s charges (seven).
Only unbeaten PSV (66.2%) have averaged more possession than Ajax (61.4%), yet on numerous occasions Ajax’s patterns of play have felt lethargic. They have made 227 progressive passes in the Eredivisie, with 10 sides making more, resulting in a lot of stale possession inside their own half. Furthermore, only four teams have made fewer forward passes than their tally of 1,309.
A lot of the criticism aimed at Ajax this season has been about an apparent lack of urgency, and these numbers really do them no favours.
They look off-colour without the ball as well. The Amsterdam side have made the fewest recoveries in the division (496), and only Go Ahead Eagles and SC Heerenveen (both 396) have won fewer duels than the Amsterdam side (409).
At the back, they’ve been too open and extremely sloppy. Ajax have faced an average of 12.8 shots per game in the Eredivisie, their second-highest average since records began behind only 2014-15 (13.5 faced per game), while no side has made more errors leading to goals than Ajax’s three. The 16 goals they have conceded is their joint-most at this stage of a season (alongside 1964-65).
Sporting director Sven Mislinstat was sacked shortly after the chastening defeat in De Klassieker, with much of the blame for the side’s shortcomings laid at his door. The club had made several signings in the summer window but have been unable to replace key departed players, with Ajax’s host of young talent not finding their feet yet.
Ajax have the youngest average starting age in the Eredivisie (22y 163d), while no side has used more players in the competition (28). It’s also clear that Steijn was unable to decide on a settled team, making the most starting XI changes in the league this term (26).
With a hectic schedule, the club will need to find a way to reverse their fortunes, and fast. Ajax visit Premier League entertainers Brighton in the Europa League next up, before hosting league leaders PSV Eindhoven. Ajax already sit 22 points behind former manager Peter Bosz’s side – their biggest deficit behind first place since 2006 (24 points).
Opta’s season-long predictor still thinks Ajax will be fine long term, estimating they’ll finish the season in fifth (63.8%). But that is relative. The club have lost each of their last four league games – doing so for the first time since April 1999. With the club in turmoil on and off the pitch, the situation has never felt quite so precarious in the Dutch capital in recent history.
Assuming Ajax would be Europe-proof might not have been quite so foolproof after all.
*Opta’s expected points model simulates the number of goals scored by each side in each match based on the xG value of each shot taken, which it then uses to determine the match outcome (win/draw/loss). Each match is simulated 10,000 times. The expected points for each team in each match can then be calculated based on the proportion of simulations they win/draw/lose.