Jordan Henderson for Ajax: What awaits the former Liverpool captain in Amsterdam?
Six months ago, it looked like Jordan Henderson was preparing for the final chapter of his Liverpool career. Jurgen Klopp’s side needed to revamp their midfield, but even if new arrivals such as Alexis McAllister and Dominik Szoboszlai meant his playing time might diminish slightly, he would at least get a dignified end to his time at Anfield. What a Premier League and Champions League winning captain deserves.
At the moment, he is on the verge of signing for Ajax, which in Henderson’s view at this stage is less a football club than a passing lifeboat, one he jumped into after deciding that neither the money nor the opportunity to develop the game in Saudi Arabia was necessary. Worthwhile compensation for playing football there.
It seemed like his options were limited, especially when Juventus, another potential suitor, decided he wasn’t a good fit for them. Not that many clubs in England seemed keen, and a return home would have been difficult from a tax perspective anyway.
On the face of it, Henderson appears to have found his feet. He’s leaving the deal and moving to one of the most famous football clubs in the world, where he still doesn’t get a pauper’s wage and is as close to the UK as you can get physically without setting off the horn in his house. HM Revenue and Customs.
But is this really a good move? Ajax may be the ones with history, not the team of Johan Cruyff, Clarence Seedorf or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It’s not even Ajax Anthony.
Henderson joins an Ajax side that has been an absolute clown show for most of this season, although they have stopped getting water splashed in the face from a plastic flower quite as was the case a few months ago.
Since Erik Ten Hag’s departure to Manchester United in 2022, the team has essentially collapsed, with its best players sold for sometimes exorbitant fees that have been unwisely reinvested.
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Mohamed Quddus and Edson Alvarez went to West Ham, Jorren Tempere signed for Arsenal, and Fulham bought Kalvin Bassie last summer. This is in addition to the departures in the previous season, when he followed Lisandro Martinez and Anthony 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.
This made the team unrecognizable compared to the team that won the Dutch title in 2021-22. But while Ajax are used to selling their best talent and then being good at replenishing their stock, their recruitment this season has been a disaster. Former Arsenal transfer coach Sven Mislintat was hired in April and spent up to €100m (£86m, $109m) on new players, but was promptly sacked in September. Internal politics was a factor, but most of the players he signed did not reach the required level.
However, few expected this season to be so bad. Ajax ranks fifth in the Dutch League. A disappointing situation for a club of its stature which in most other seasons would be classified as a crisis.
However, the nadir came at the end of October, when Ajax suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of champions-elect PSV Eindhoven, whose 5-2 victory that day sent the Amsterdam giants to the bottom of the table. It was the worst start to the season, statistically and emotionally. At that point, they had managed just one win from their first eight games, and that came just days after coach Maurice Stein – a surreal choice from the start; He was sacked after finishing sixth with Sparta Rotterdam last season.
Since then, in the league at least, things have become more positive. Ajax did not lose in eight matches, winning six and drawing two under the leadership of new interim coach John van’t Schip. The team remains 23 points behind Peter Bosz’s PSV Eindhoven, who have unusually won all 17 league games so far. But the title is not a realistic goal for Ajax, it is more to continue the relative improvement in results this year.
Which is something they couldn’t manage all the time. They were meekly eliminated from the Europa League at the group stage, winning just once in a very tough group that included Brighton, Marseille and AEK Athens. They now face a play-off against Bodø/Glimt to enter the conference league.
But the biggest humiliation came in December when Ajax suffered a humiliating 3-2 defeat to fourth-tier amateur side USV Hercules in the Dutch Cup. Not only was this the first time they had lost to an amateur team in the competition, it was the first time they had failed to score at least four goals to one.
Van’t Schip did manage to distance himself from this particular travesty, though – in fact, he missed the game because he was attending his son’s wedding in Australia, which was of little comfort to Ajax fans.
“This is the biggest disaster in Ajax’s history,” said Fabian Nagtzam, from the Ajax Fans Association. “I feel like a building has fallen on top of me, like I’ve been run over by a bus.”
However, it wasn’t all bad news: USV striker Tim Peters, who scored his first two goals, is a medical student and lives in a house with room for 12 people, all of whom placed a €15 bet on him scoring and USV winning. The match has odds of 751/1. They collectively won a very tidy sum of €150,000.
But, let’s reiterate, things are still not as bleak as they were in the autumn, and from Henderson’s point of view, this may turn out to be as good a move as can realistically be expected, given the circumstances.
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Not least because, in theory, Henderson fits well into the Ajax squad. They generally play in a 4-3-3 formation, which he has clearly become accustomed to from his years at Liverpool, and in which he can play either on the right or at the base of midfield.
But perhaps the main reason Ajax signed him is his experience. The Dutch club are known for developing their youth and stocking their teams with the best home-grown talent, but in their most successful teams – the group that won the Champions League in 1995, or the team that reached the semi-finals in 2019 under Ten Hag. — There was always at least one experienced head to help guide the children. Frank Rijkaard took on this role in 1995; Daley Blind in 2019.
This season, they don’t really have that, especially since the departures of Dusan Tadic and Davy Klaassen, who joined Fenerbahce and Inter respectively in the summer. Even by their standards, this is a ridiculously young squad: of the club’s 25 players who have featured in the league this season, 17 are aged 23 or younger. Chuba Akpom is 28 years old but lacks top-flight football experience, having played most of his career in the English Premier League. The only player who would fit the list is 32-year-old Steven Berghuis, but by comparison, Henderson has a completely different level of experience.
This current crop of youngsters simply isn’t as good as they were in previous years. Among the local players, midfielder Kenneth Taylor was once seen as the next big thing, but he has declined. The theory behind signing the 33-year-old Henderson is not just to bring a proven player into the team, but someone who can mentor wayward youth.
Who knows if this is a good move for Henderson? Perhaps a return to the top level after his controversial move to Al-Ettifaq is too much. Perhaps playing in the Eredivisie, which is perhaps by general standards higher than the Saudi Professional League – but a bit behind the English Premier League – the best will come out of it and he will thrive. Perhaps he will be activated by his role as a teacher part of the player.
But it’s hard to get past the fact that Henderson has managed to put himself in this dismal position, as a club that he wouldn’t have looked twice at this time last year, in a poor league and going through a generational institutional crisis, is the better of it. An option for the fall of his career.
(Top image: Neil Simpson/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)
(Tags for translation) Liverpool