The average age of the Ajax first team squad has been in continuous decline for years now. With the Dutch Eredivisie reduced to nothing more than a talent factory for the bigger football leagues in Europe, the hottest prospects of the Amsterdam side generally prefer moving on to greener pastures while still in their early twenties.
True to their club culture and philosophy, Ajax tend to fill the gaps left behind by outgoing transfers with promising youngsters from their own world famous youth academy. When 24-year-old Gregory van der Wiel left for Paris in 2012, the three years younger Ricardo van Rhijn took his place in the starting lineup. Another three years later, Van Rhijn lost his spot to 19-year-old Kenny Tete. A perfect example of the constant rejuvenation of the Ajax squad throughout the years.
As long as the Amsterdammers are relatively successful, critics and pundits will praise the club for keeping a tight grip on their wallet when it comes to incoming transfers, admiring the enormous dedication towards the development of youth players. However, as soon as the results turn sour, they all point their fingers at that one notable number; the average age of the squad.
And rightfully so. While the explicit focus on the academy is admirable, guidance from experienced players is essential in the development of young talents, both on and off the pitch. A glance at the importance of Andrés Guardado at PSV and Dirk Kuijt at Feyenoord seems to prove that point. And that’s where Marc Overmars comes into play. The Ajax director of football, responsible for building a winning team, apparently underwrites the importance of experience and therefore goes on a yearly scouting expedition to find that one 30+ player who can add some much needed maturity to a team of talented teenagers.
The experienced player in question would have to fulfill an ‘Ooijer-role’, inspired by André Ooijer’s run at Ajax back in 2010. The former Oranje international didn’t feature in too many games, but was commended for his leading role in the dressing room and behind the scenes.
Overmars’ first experienced signing was a success. Seasoned veteran Christian Poulsen, who made a name for himself at Schalke 04, Sevilla, Juventus and Liverpool, came over on a free transfer from French side Évian in 2012 and went on to play 54 official games for the Amsterdammers over the course of two seasons, winning two Eredivisie titles in the process. Especially in high-profile fixtures, the Dane added valuable physical presence and leadership which the team was lacking at the time. Despite being offered a one-year contract extension at the end of the 2013/14 season, Poulsen decided to return to Copenhagen in his home country of Denmark. Overmars was forced to go back into the transfer market to find a suitable replacement, and it all pretty much went downhill from there.
Enter Niki Zimling. The midfielder, who was reeled in on loan from FSV Mainz on the last day of the summer transfer window in 2014, showed great resemblance to Poulsen at first. Both Danish midfielders with plenty of experience in international club football and with their national team. However, Zimling couldn’t fill the void left behind by his fellow countryman and flopped. He made 9 Eredivisie appearances, most of them as a substitute, before being sent back to Mainz at the end of the season.
Once again on the lookout for the next André Ooijer, Overmars turned his attention to John Heitinga. The fan favorite, who played for German side Hertha BSC at that time, signed a one-year deal with Ajax at the start of the 2015/16 season and even managed to find the back of the net in his official return game against De Graafschap, much to the delight of the fans in attendance. However, due to a lingering knee injury, Heitinga was forced to retire from professional football after making just two Eredivisie appearances.
But as the saying goes: third time’s a charm. Following positive feedback from former Ajax playmaker Rafael van der Vaart, Overmars pointed his arrows at Heiko Westermann. The 33-year-old central defender, who made 27 appearances for the German national team and enjoyed stints at Schalke 04, Hamburger SV and Real Betis, put pen to paper on a two-year deal with Ajax in July of 2016.
Up until this point, Westermann has featured in a total of 48 minutes for Ajax in the Eredivisie, but failed to leave a good impression due to numerous defensive blunders. The centre-back now plays most of his games for the reserves of Jong Ajax in the Jupiler League, but wasn’t even part of that team during their last game against NAC Breda. And so it seems Westermann will end up in oblivion, along with the other failed experienced signings.
It might be too easy to point the finger at Overmars, but we really should. For most of the players mentioned in this piece, decisions weren’t based on widespread scouting reports but simply came down to gut feeling. The director of football approached Zimling following a phone call with former Ajax and Denmark manager Morten Olsen. Overmars also ignored Tscheu La Ling’s attempt at blocking the Heitinga transfer because of concerns over his physical well-being, signing him anyway. And although there were no scoutings reports on Westermann, Marc Netto offered him a two-year contract because Rafael van der Vaart thought it would be a good idea. How is that even possible for a multi-million football company?
Sure, Overmars did an outstanding job in selling Arek Milik for €35 million to Napoli and also managed to sign plenty of talented youngsters for our youth academy, but in the end his most important task is to maintain structure and balance in the first team squad. Not only has he failed miserably at finding our own version of Guardado or Kuyt, I also feel the tense atmosphere amongst some first team players is the result of imbalance and mismanagement of the squad’s composition. Too many talented and skilled players, not enough space. You have to believe we’re on a collision course that’s going to end with a bang. Let’s just hope by that time Overmars managed to find a mature and experienced player to keep those youngsters in check, just like André Ooijer did..