Ajax v Rangers: Can Dutch giants build again after Antony & Ten Hag exit?

Alfred Schreuder
Alfred Schreuder’s Ajax have won every game in the Eredivisie this season
Venue: Johan Cruyff Arena, Amsterdam Date: Wednesday, 7 September Time: 17:45 BST
Coverage: Listen to live Sportsound or BBC Radio 5 live commentary and follow text updates on the BBC Sport website & app

Standing at the foot of a never-ending staircase leading to the heavens, the monochrome surroundings are a pilgrimage to legend.

A giant 14 is emblazoned on the wall to the left. Adjacent is a mammoth black and white mural of a face adorning what feels like every wall in the place. In front, a bronze statue is sculpted in the image of the same man. Johan Cruyff.

The stadium now carries his name, the iconic venue now a shrine to past glories and moments of magic from the Dutch great.

While the stadium’s grand entrance is a nod back to a wondrous and glorious past, once again Ajax are gazing into the future through a fresh lens. A new manager and a new rake of players have arrived, searching for more glory.

But, as they prepare to kick-start their Champions League campaign, how will the Eredivisie champions fare?

Dealing with loss

The old mantra of “it’s better to have loved and lost…” will have been used more than a bicycle puncture repair kit around these parts in recent years as Ajax fans console themselves over the players who have ridden off into the great beyond.

Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Kasper Dolberg, Hakim Ziyech, Donny van de Beek and more have all left for big clubs and for big money. A glance through the ins and outs over the last five years and you’ll see Ajax is not a club which stands still.

Yet the departure of three-time title-winning Erik Ten Hag for Manchester United was a body blow. So was the loss of Brazilian forward Antony, who followed his coach to Old Trafford in acrimonious circumstances.

Lisandro Martinez had already gone to Manchester. And right-back Noussair Mazraoui had left for Bayern Munich.

Antony scored on his Manchester United debut at the weekend in the 3-1 victory over Arsenal

“A lot of fans were unhappy about how much the club cares about finances,” Finley Crebolder, the editor of Get Belgium & Dutch Football News, told BBC Scotland.

“In their heads, Ajax already had a pretty good summer financially. They’ve already sold some players for a lot of money so they didn’t want [Antony] to leave.

“They showed how reluctant they were to let Antony go and the they didn’t let Edson Alvarez go to Chelsea. They are trying to change this reputation they have as a selling club.”

The next generation

While the Ajax board – led by former player Edwin van der Sar – have cashed in big time over the summer, they’ve also not been shy at spending, either.

Tens of millions of Euro have been thrown at giving new coach Alfred Schreuder a chance of building on the legacy of his predecessor.

Calvin Bassey was brought in from Rangers for a fee expected to top £20m; Brian Brobbey has come in from RB Leipzig midfield; and defender Jorge Sanchez has been lured from Club America.

However, the shrewdest piece of business might be the acquisition of Steven Bergwijn from Tottenham for over 30m Euro. Such has been the Dutch international’s early impact, with six goals in five matches, that Antony has yet to be truly missed.

“They are definitely a weaker team,” says Crebolder. “You’ve got the players who have left and the one that’s hardest to replace is Mazraoui. They’ve not replaced him at all. But Antony isn’t such a big loss because Bergwijn has compensated.”

Can Schreuder hit new heights?

It is early days, but there is optimism around what is being built by Schreuder.

After all, this is Ajax. The footballing philosophy runs deep here. Patience, possession and panache are all cornerstones and, under the 49-year-old, that’s unlikely to change.

A former assistant to Ten Hag, the man who won the Belgian title last season with Club Brugge is familiar with the demands and responsibility. A gaze up at the wall now and then will do that.

A 5-3 Dutch Super Cup defeat to PSV Eindhoven was far from the ideal start, but five straight wins have more than steadied the ship with heavy beatings meted out to Groningen and Cambuur in the process.

In the league, Ajax have completed the most 10-pass sequences (83), have the highest average possession (69%), with an xG of 4.25. Defensively, they have faced the most shots (35), but only conceded three goals.

Steven Bergwijn
Steven Bergwijn, centre, scored twice in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Cambuur

Impressive, yes, but the group is still a work in progress.

It is far too early to know if the bright early start can be maintained, while former Netherlands great Rafael van der Vaart has been critical of captain Dusan Tadic, reportedly describing him as “hopelessly out of form”.

But there is a quiet confidence about the Dutch giants still, even if pragmatism may well be the word whispered in the Cruyff corridors as the Schreuder era commences.

“We have a good squad, very competitive,” the coach said on Tuesday. “We’ve had a lot of changes and it takes a bit of time to get them in the system we want. But the first 11 we had last week have been here longer, but we now have new players.

“They know how Ajax is playing coming from different countries, but in the end I think our squad is good enough to get a good season.”

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