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Should Aston Villa fear Ajax?

When the round of 16 draw took place for the Europa Conference League, there's no denying the team that every Villa fan was looking at was Ajax. Having just dropped down from the Europa League following a 14-year stint in the Champions League, both Aston Villa and Ajax feel like two big sharks in what many see as the smaller Conference League pond. Villa and Ajax were indeed drawn against one another in what could easily be a tie worthy of the final itself.


Ajax are undoubtedly a giant of European football, and by far the biggest team in the Netherlands. But they find themselves in UEFA’s third tier competition for a reason, so should Aston Villa fear this current version of Ajax?



The Downfall of AFC Ajax


To answer this question, we must first look at the recent history of Ajax and how everything has gone disastrously wrong over the past few years. Ajax are well known across the globe for being one of, if not the best team for scouting young superstars and then selling them on for huge fees to the European elite. They then have no issues in starting the process all over again, all while maintaining their place at the top of Dutch football and continuously securing a UEFA Champions League place year after year, even reaching the semi-final of the competition as recently as 2019. Essentially they were the real-life example of what we all try to do in Football Manager.



However, fast-forward to 2024 and Ajax have failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in well over a decade, finishing in 3rd place last season and currently struggling in 5th place this season, while also being knocked out in the group stage of the Europa League. Many onlookers from afar may simply point to the loss of current Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag as the reason for this downfall, but the problems at Ajax are rooted much deeper.


Just weeks before the departure of ten Hag, Ajax lost their longtime Technical Director (aka Director of Football), and former Ajax & Arsenal player, Marc Overmars. Overmars was responsible for buying and selling young talent from all around the world. Whilst ten Hag would seamlessly place them into his squad and coach them to become some of the best players in Europe, it was a match made in heaven. Nicolás Tagliafico, Lisandro Martínez, Hakim Ziyech, Matthijs de Ligt, Jurrien Timber, just a small handful of players brought in for cheap and sold for megabucks. There's maybe no better example than Frenkie de Jong who was brought in for €1 and then sold for €86 million to Barcelona just three seasons later.


It would all come crashing down in the space of just a few months though. Erik ten Hag had unsurprisingly been poached by Man United, but the resignation of Overmars was a true shock to the Ajax supporters. It came to light that Overmars had sent unsolicited pictures of a sexual nature to female staff members at Ajax, as well as there being multiple complaints of him harassing many of the female employees. He simply had to go, and rightfully so. However, Ajax simply weren't prepared to lose their best manager in years, alongside their Director of Football in the space of a few short weeks. It's no over-exaggeration to say it would be the equivalent of Villa suddenly losing Emery and Monchi both before the end of April.



It also turned out that many of the star players signed by Overmars & ten Hag were due to Overmars' personal contacts, rather than there being an entire data and analytics department like you'd see at teams such as Brighton or Borussia Dortmund. So not only had Ajax lost the two men responsible for the structure of the entire club, they'd also lost their direct line to the constant flow of young talent that had kept them at the top of Dutch football for so long.


The following year or two was a shambles. Ajax spent most of the year searching for an Overmars replacement, meanwhile the team missed out on Champions League qualification. This meant that current players wanted out, and signing new ones became more difficult. The new manager was quickly sacked and the club would finally replace Overmars with former Dortmund and Arsenal chief scout, Sven Mislintat.


Unfortunately for Ajax, Mislintat only made things worse. Ajax fans mostly believe that the club should only be run by former Ajax players/legends, so the arrival of a German scout with no former links did not go over well. However, Mislintat didn't help himself in the slightest. He ended up letting a huge amount of senior players leave, which isn't unusual for Ajax, but the replacements simply weren't good enough. Many of them had little to no first team experience, and the new crop of youngsters appeared woefully out of their depth. You'd be forgiven for assuming this was due to lack of funds, but Mislintat actually spent a whopping €100 million on essentially a group of flops. It led to their star man Dušan Tadić requesting the termination of his contract due to the lack of quality being brought in.



Everything finally came to a head on September 24th last year when Ajax went 3-0 down at home to their bitter rivals Feyenoord before half time. You've more than likely already seen the pictures. Projectiles were thrown onto the pitch and rioting amongst the Ajax fans led to parts of their own stadium being vandalised. The game was abandoned and continued three days later behind closed doors where Ajax would go on to lose 4-0. Mislintat was sacked soon after and it's now back to the drawing board for Ajax.



Ajax in 2024


After that shambolic display in September, Ajax found themselves hovering just above the relegation zone of the league they usually dominate every year. Now in March 2024, the ship has been steadied somewhat and they currently sit in 5th place, but any Ajax fan will be quick to tell you that this is still one of the worst seasons in the club's decorated history. Ajax have failed to beat any of the four sides above them this season, even losing 2-1 away to AZ Alkmaar a couple of weeks ago, a team which Villa went to and comfortably beat 4-1 recently. They've also failed to win a single game at home in Europe this season, which bodes well for Villa tomorrow evening.


As has been well documented, Jordan Henderson has recently backtracked from his infamous Saudi move and joined Ajax in the January transfer window. The majority of English fans may not like Henderson, but there's no question that he improves that Ajax midfield and is a player Villa need to look out for. Despite Ajax’s awful form, they do still have a prolific striker in Brian Brobbey who has 15 goals in the league so far this season, an incredible return in a team that is playing so poorly. And despite making an absolute meal of it, Ajax still had enough about them to make it past Norwegian side Bodø/Glimt in the last round of the Conference League knockouts.




Having said all that, this Ajax team feels a million miles away from the one that narrowly missed out on a Champions League final place 5 years ago. There's a few talented players for sure, and the team is doing better than they were at the beginning of the season. But this is still a big club in crisis mode.


Just to really shine a light on how much worse this Ajax team is in 2024, here is a list of notable departures in just the past two seasons:


André Onana

Antony

Lisandro Martínez

Ryan Gravenberch

Nicolás Tagliafico

Daley Blind

Dusan Tadic

Calvin Bassey

Edson Álvarez

Jurrien Timber

Mohammed Kudus


In contrast, here are some of the “major signings” over the same period:


Brian Bobbey (admittedly doing very well)

Steven Bergwijn

Carlos Forbs

Chuba Akpom (yes, the one from Middlesbrough)

Borna Sosa

Gastón Ávila

Georges Mikautadze

Josip Sutalo


Yes I know Ajax are famed for bringing in unknown players, or players down on their luck and turning them into world beaters. But for reasons I've already talked about, that simply isn't happening this time round, and the sheer amount of player turnover and the low standard of quality has just been too much for this side to handle.



So, Should Villa Fear Ajax?


No, this current version of Aston Villa really shouldn't be too worried about this current version of Ajax. It really is that simple. Sure, the Ajax supporters will fill out the Johan Cruyff Arena and make it a horrible place for the Villa lads to try get a win, also a win here for Ajax could be the big turning point they need, so they will be well up for it. Looking at recent games, Ajax may set up with five at the back and possibly look to hit on the counter, or even look to take advantage of Villa's poor defense on set pieces.




But man for man, Aston Villa are just much better right now, and as long as Emery takes it seriously, Villa should have more than enough to defeat Ajax relatively comfortably over the two legs. A draw away from home would probably be a decent result for Villa, with Emery's men being clear favourites when it comes to the home leg.


Aston Villa play Ajax in their first leg of knockout Conference League football tomorrow night, kick off is at 5:45pm and the action comes from the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam. Safe travels to all the fans traveling over for the game. The return fixture takes place at Villa park on March 14th at 8pm.


For more Villa content, make sure to check out the AVFC Faithful podcast with Dan & James. Dan recently released a deep dive into why being patient with Leon Bailey has led to Villa having a top class winger, and why we should have the same patience when it comes to Moussa Diaby. Check it out below, it's well worth your time.


UTV!



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