How Jordan Henderson could help Ajax reach Champions League play offs

When Fabrizio Romano first tweeted of a potential move for Jordan Henderson to Ajax many Ajax fans were sceptical of the chances of the move happening. What would Ajax have to offer that other clubs from big leagues could not offer. No Champions League or even Europa League in Amsterdam after the winter break, and a meagre 5th spot with 0 chance of a title challenge. 

However, around 2 weeks later on the 18th of January, Henderson actually signed a 2.5 year contract at Ajax in what was considered the shock move of the 2024 transfer window. The kit with Henderson and number 6 on the back quickly became the best selling kit in Ajax history as the fans embraced their new hero. Henderson may not be renowned for his tiki taka football prowess or for banging 20 goals a season but he could be actually exactly what Ajax need at the moment. 

Inexperienced and vulnerable

The worst season in Ajax history has seen a rollercoaster of results and emotions over the last few months. Only 3 months ago Ajax were rock bottom in the Eredivisie for the first time in history while now a Champions League play off spot is only 6 points away. Last summer saw plenty of high quality experienced players leave the club and back then newly hired technical director Sven Mislintat bought 12 mostly unknown young talents from across Europe lower leagues and 2nd divisions. A disastrous start of the season cost both Mislintat and new coach Maurice Steijn their jobs and Ajax was in a crisis unseen in years. Criticism on the new young signings was unimaginably high and the pressure was visibly getting to them. Marquee signings like Sutalo and Sosa, respectable internationals for Croatia were visibly uncomfortable playing in a side that was bereft of any tactics,confidence and form. 

Fast forward to now and the situation looks slightly more positive under interim coach John van het Schip. The team collected 30 out of 36 points in the last 12 games and cruised passed AEK to reach the Conference League knockout stages. However, most games were played against mid table or relegation candidate teams and Ajax looked extremely vulnerable at the back in each game. 

Ajax conceded 35 goals in their first 19 games, and when looking at expected goals faced it actually would rank 17th in the league only holding FC Volendam below itself. Ajax was extremely vulnerable in almost any match that they played, with even low ranked teams such as PEC Zwolle and RKC creating big chances against the young side. In the game against 16th placed RKC, Ajax had only 1 player older than 22 on the pitch, with the entire defence still eligible to play for the -21 team. Defensive vulnerabilities on the midfield and in the back combined with a lack of leadership to organise the team properly is cited as the main problem Ajax are having. 

Henderson to the rescue?

Henderson made his debut in the big clash at home against unbeaten and highly likely future champions PSV Eindhoven. The Eindhoven side has had a phenomenal start to the season winning 18 of their 19 games and scoring 62 goals in the process. The best attack against one of the weakest defences in the league it seemed imperative that PSV would score many goals. However, Henderson’s impact was immediately visible, Ajax appeared much more organised at the back and the midfield compared to previous matches, with the team defending compactly and with discipline. PSV only managed to create an xG of 1.07 in the whole match whereas PSV created an xG of 2.85 per game in the 19 games before. Henderson was seen to constantly motivate and instruct his young teammates around him to be in the right position and visibly gave them confidence in themselves to play one of their better games of the season and nick a 1-1 against the title favourites. 

Average xG against per matchxG against vs PSV
Average xG for per matchxG for vs Ajax

As you can see in the graph there is a massive difference between the chances that PSV created in general this season and in the match against Ajax. And also Ajax were way tighter at the back than they normally are this season. 

Especially when compared to the previous matchup between the 2 teams in Eindhoven where PSV had a whopping 4.40 xG, scoring 5 goals and really humiliating the fragile Ajax defence at the time. 

Clearly one match is not a representative sample size but the initial signs are positive when we look at the impact Jordan Henderson has had. It seems he has given the young players around him the necessary confidence and coaching to up their game significantly and help Ajax in the race for the Champions League spots. 

Ajax are only 6 points behind 3rd placed FC Twente. The 3rd place will suffice to reach the Champions League qualification for next season. The money the Champions League would provide is vital for the club´s financial situation and with Henderson now at the club who knows what might happen!

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