Just three weeks ago, Ajax seemed set for a simple summer of building on a season full of progress and further promise. An unexpected appearance in the Europa League final in Peter Bosz’s first year in charge raised expectation for a vibrant young team and a coach capable of taking them forward.
After their defeat to Manchester United in Stockholm, Bosz said the only thing that could prevent him from coaching Ajax next season would be his sacking. Two weeks later, however, the Dutchman was unveiled as Borussia Dortmund’s new trainer, amid reports that issues between him and the hierarchy led to him fleeing Amsterdam.
There was no sacking. Instead it was an “irreconcilable difference”, in the words of CEO Edwin van der Sar, that led to a nasty split.
It had been reported in the Dutch press around Bosz’s departure that issues had been growing between him and his assistants Dennis Bergkamp and Hennie Spijkerman, goalkeeping coach Carlo l’Ami and conditioning coach Bjorn Rekelhof from the beginning. By the end of the season, communication was minimal and although Bosz had refrained from making a fuss about it and did not prevent them from working with players, he wanted things to change for next season and to have all of them replaced.
Upon his arrival, Ajax had already allowed him to bring in one assistant in Hendrie Kruzen, who follows him to every job, and his massive changes to the first-team made them more daring and imposing. But for him to seek power beyond that and for the decision makers to lose such control was a step too far and they would not accommodate it. The German interest offered him an escape and he took it.
“Peter stood firmer [after Dortmund’s approach],” Van der Sar told NOS.
“We have chosen for the long term. As a club, we have a goal that we want to achieve in a certain way.
“We discussed the situation several times with Peter. It was also about the roles within the technical staff… We wanted to keep him and that did not work out."
Bergkamp dismissed reports of fights with Bosz, but it is clear the issues were severe and the latest fiasco further exposes the unclear structure within the technical leaders of technical director Overmars, Van der Sar and Bergkamp – an assistant who acts as the link between first-team and youth system.
They were placed in charge of technical decisions as a result of the massive overhaul Johan Cruyff instigated in 2010. The view is to protect the philosophy by ensuring the team play in accordance with their principles and promote young players through the youth system, allowing decisions to be made based on sporting interests. Crucially, it allows them to maintain a profile for players and coaches to ensure they can replace key departures.
The results of this development, then, will have a big say on the credibility of the legendary trio to run the club.
In protecting the balance of power, Ajax have replaced the man who guided them to a first European final in 21 years with Marcel Keizer, promoted after a strong season with the reserves in the second tier.
It is a big call to make given Keizer’s lack of experience as a coach, but his profile makes him a reasonable candidate.
The nephew of club legend Piet Keizer, he is an unknown quantity in many respects, having had a quiet life in football until now.
He rose through the youth system at the same time as the likes of Bergkamp and the De Boer brothers, but played just a few first-team games before going on to Cambuur, De Graafschap and Emmen.
As a coach, he underwhelmed until last season. His only spell in the Eredivisie until now lasted just a few months at Cambuur, overseeing their relegation at the end of 2015-16. A few months later, he succeeded Jaap Stam at the helm of Jong Ajax.
As a proponent of their philosophy, the 48-year-old’s attacking style guided Jong Ajax to second place in Dutch football’s second tier, improving on last season’s ninth. He had a superb squad, but they became a direct and effective side that creates big chances, scoring 93 goals in 28 league games – a significant increase on the 59 of the previous year.
Abdelhak Nouri and Frenkie de Jong were particularly bright under him and have already started to break into the first-team. In Andre Onana, Davinson Sanchez, Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek and Justin Kluivert, he has already coached some key first-team players. The transition from Bosz to Keizer should be a quick one.
"From the moment there was a chance we would be looking for another coach, Keizer was the suitable candidate for the technical heart," Van der Sar said upon his signing. "He knows the players, the organisation and believes in the philosophy of the club."
His work has been noted by Ronald de Boer, who tipped him as the ideal candidate for the job, saying: “He made them fantastic. He has very good training exercises. He is tactically very skilled. Jong Ajax play very tactical and attacking football.”
And Bergkamp is a fan of him as a coach, saying Keizer “knows the Ajax culture and what comes with it. I said to him, ‘you must be flexible. With Jong Ajax, you play against different teams that clash with your own ideas’. He saw that as a challenge, not as an obstacle.”
Ajax’s initial plan was reportedly to make Keizer the assistant to Bosz’s successor, but they had already identified him as a future first-team coach.
They have been forced to speed up that process, but the hope is that he builds on the excitement of the former Vitesse boss. Crucially, as a product of the culture and subscriber to the philosophy, fallouts with those upstairs are unlikely to occur.
Van der Sar, Overmars and Bergkamp allowed Bosz to leave to preserve the long-term direction of Ajax. In Keizer, they believe their philosophy and culture has turned up a coach who can carry on the development of this generation and justify their rigid stance on how the club move forward.