Ajax could play with a "sense of freedom" against Brighton amid a chaotic backdrop for the European giants.
That is according to Dutch football expert and BBC journalist Elko Born, who says the Amsterdam outfit are going through one of the worst periods in the club’s storied history.
Ajax are second bottom of the Eredivisie, manager Maurice Steijn left by mutual consent on Monday after just four months in charge, and they are without a director of football following Sven Mislintat’s sacking last month.
Despite the four-time Champions League/European Cup winners' struggles this season, Born says their troubles go further back than that.
“This decline was happening last season. Alfred Schreuder, who was previously an assistant under Erik ten Hag, was in charge and people had high hopes for him,” he said.
“But, Ajax had a bit of a nightmare and he was sacked in January. They also sold key players in Antony and Lisandro Martinez to Manchester United, plus record signing Steven Bergwijn, among others, had an underwhelming season.
“Also, in early 2022, technical director Marc Overmars was forced to leave and there was a bit of a power vacuum as he wasn’t initially replaced.
"Then in May (2023), chief executive Edwin van de Sar quit, Mislintat came in and he signed more than ten players but things quickly went sour. Under Overmars, Ajax made some great signings (including Frenkie de Jong, Hakim Ziyech, and Mohammed Kudus) but the new signings have not done as well.
"Ajax tried to rebuild with new players, Maurice Steijn and Sven Mislintat, Arsenal’s former head of recruitment, came in but the restructure has been a disaster. The players haven’t gelled on the pitch - it's their worst-ever start to a season.”
Ahead of Thursday’s clash at the Amex, assistant coach Hedwiges Maduro, 38, is acting as caretaker boss. In regards to what Roberto De Zerbi’s men can expect, that may be something of a surprise.
"He [Maduro] retired a few years ago as a player and is very inexperienced as a manager. He's been in assistant roles, but he does have the Ajax 'DNA.’ He came through the academy and played for the club, and people say that is what Ajax need right now,” said Born. “Ajax’s Europa League performances and results (draws with Marseille and AEK Athens) have been better than in the league.
“Either way, Total Football (an attacking style where players can change positions throughout the game) is a must. Ajax always play some variation of 4-3-3. Steijn was only there for a few months, but you couldn’t see a discernible style. We don’t know what will happen under Maduro but the fans want their team to attack.”
And despite their poor form, Ajax, who also had a game against rivals Feyenoord abandoned due to fan trouble when 3-0 down last month, have some players Brighton need to keep under wraps. Plus, the dreaded new manager bounce is always on the cards.
“Nearly every player has underperformed but Jorrel Hato, 17, in defence is one of the few positives. He has a bright future and could be another Ajax academy success story. He’s a good defender and is very good at transitioning from defence to attack," added Born.
“And, of course, Steven Bergwijn. He is the captain and record signing, but he hasn’t lived up to expectations. He has a lot of experience and on his day can be a big threat.
“Ajax lost 4-3 to Utrecht at the weekend. It was a terrible display. I think you can expect a reaction [against Brighton]. They played better in the Europa League than the Eredivisie. Ajax fans hope for a sense of freedom, and maybe they will loosen the shackles and improve.”