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Friday, June 21, 2024

Jordan Henderson to Ajax: What awaits the former Liverpool captain in Amsterdam?

Six months ago, it felt like Jordan Henderson was limbering up for the last act of his career at Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s side needed to renovate their midfield, but even if new arrivals like Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai meant his playing time might have diminished a bit, he would at the very least have been afforded the dignified winding down of his time at Anfield that a Premier League and Champions League winning captain deserved.

As it is, he is about to sign for Ajax, who from Henderson’s perspective at this stage are less a football club and more a passing lifeboat, jumped into after he decided that neither the cash nor the opportunity to grow the game in Saudi Arabia were worthwhile compensation for having to play football there.

His options, it would seem, were limited, particularly when another potential suitor, Juventus, decided he wasn’t for them. Not that many clubs in England seemed keen, and returning home would have been tricky from a tax perspective anyway.

On the face of things, Henderson appears to have landed on his feet. He’s leaving Al Ettifaq and moving to one of the most storied football clubs in the world, where he will still not exactly be earning a pauper’s wage, and is about as close to the UK as you can physically get without setting off a klaxon at His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

But is this truly a good move? Storied Ajax may be, this is not the team of Johan Cruyff or Clarence Seedorf or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It’s not even the Ajax of Antony.

Henderson is joining an Ajax team that has been an utter clown show for much of this season, albeit one that has stopped being squirted in the face with water from a plastic flower quite as much as it was a few months ago.

Since Erik ten Hag left for Manchester United in 2022, the team has essentially been gutted, their best players sold off for sometimes extravagant fees which have been imprudently reinvested.

Mohammed Kudus and Edson Alvarez went to West Ham, Jurrien Timber was signed by Arsenal and Fulham bought Calvin Bassey last summer. That’s on top of the departures the season before, when Lisandro Martinez and Antony followed Ten Hag to Manchester, plus Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui went to Bayern Munich, Andre Onana moved to Inter and Sebastien Haller was sold to Borussia Dortmund.

That has left the squad unrecognisable from that which won the Dutch title in 2021-22. But while Ajax are used to selling their top talent and then pretty good at replenishing their stocks, their recruitment this season has been calamitous. Former Arsenal transfer guru Sven Mislintat was hired in April, spent north of €100million on new players but was then promptly fired in September. Internal politics were a factor but most of the players he signed simply did not reach the required standard.

Even so, few expected this season to be quite so abysmal. Ajax are fifth in the Eredivisie: a disappointing position for a club of their standing and one which in most other seasons would be classed as a crisis.

Yet, the nadir came at the end of October, when Ajax were humiliated by champions-elect PSV, whose 5-2 win that day sent the Amsterdam giants to the bottom of the table. It was, statistically and emotionally, their worst start to a season. At that stage, they had just one win from their opening eight games, and came a few days after manager Maurice Steijn — a surreal choice from the start, hired on the basis of a plucky sixth-place finish with Sparta Rotterdam last season — was sacked.

Ajax made the worst start to a season in their history (ANP via Getty Images)

Since then, in the league at least, things have been more positive. Ajax have been unbeaten in eight games, winning six and drawing two under new interim coach John van ’t Schip. They remain 23 points behind Peter Bosz’s PSV, who extraordinarily have won all 17 league games so far. But the title isn’t a realistic aim for Ajax, more to continue the relative upturn in results this year.

Which is something they haven’t quite managed all of the time. They were rather meekly ushered out of the Europa League at the group stage, winning only once in an admittedly quite tricky group that featured Brighton, Marseille and AEK Athens. They now face a playoff against Bodo/Glimt to gain entry to the Conference League.

But the biggest humiliation came in December, when Ajax suffered a humiliating 3-2 defeat to amateur fourth-tier side USV Hercules in the KNVB Cup. It wasn’t just the first time they had ever lost to an amateur side in the competition: it was the first time they had ever failed to score at least four goals against one.

Van ’t Schip did manage to distance himself from this particular farce, though — quite literally in fact, since he missed the game because he was attending his son’s wedding in Australia, not that this was of much comfort to the Ajax fans.

“This is the greatest debacle in the history of Ajax,” said Fabian Nagtzaam, from the Ajax supporters association. “It feels like a building has toppled on me, like I’ve been driven over by a bus.”

Still, it wasn’t all bad news: USV forward Tim Pieters, who scored their first two goals, is a medical student and lives in a 12-person house share, all of whom put a €15 bet on him scoring and USV winning the game, at odds of 751/1. They collectively won a very tidy €150,000.

But, to repeat, things still aren’t as bleak as they were in the autumn, and from Henderson’s perspective this might turn out to be about as good a move as could be realistically expected, given the circumstances.

Not least because, in theory, Henderson fits quite nicely in this Ajax team. They generally play a 4-3-3 system, which he is obviously used to from his years at Liverpool, in which he could feasibly play either on the right or at the base of the midfield.

But maybe the main reason Ajax have signed him is his experience. The Dutch club are famous for their youth development and stacking their teams with top homegrown talent, but in their most successful sides — the group that won the Champions League in 1995, or the side that got to the semi-final in 2019 under Ten Hag — there was always at least one experienced head to help guide the kids. Frank Rijkaard fulfilled that role in 1995, Daley Blind in 2019.

This season, they don’t really have that, particularly since the departures of Dusan Tadic and Davy Klaassen, who joined Fenerbahce and Inter respectively in the summer. Even by their standards, this is an absurdly young team: of the 25 players at the club who have made a league appearance this season, 17 are 23 or under. Chuba Akpom is 28 but is inexperienced in top-division football, having played most of his career in the EFL. The only player that fits the bill is the 32-year-old Steven Berghuis yet, in comparison, Henderson brings a completely different level of experience.

This current crop of youngsters is simply not as good as in previous years. Of the homegrown players, midfielder Kenneth Taylor was once viewed as the next big thing, but he has regressed. The theory behind signing 33-year-old Henderson is not just to simply bring a proven player into the team, but someone who could guide their wayward youth.

Who knows whether this will turn out to be a good move for Henderson. Perhaps returning to the top level after his controversial move to Al-Ettifaq will prove too much. Perhaps playing in the Eredivisie, probably a higher general standard than the Saudi Pro League but some way behind the Premier League, will get the best from him and he will thrive. Perhaps he will be revitalised by his role as part player, part mentor.

But it’s hard to get past the fact Henderson has managed to get himself into this grim situation, where a club he wouldn’t have looked twice at this time last year, in a poorer league and going through a generational institutional crisis, is the best option for the autumn of his career.

(Top photo: Neal Simpson/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)

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