Football Features

Jordan Henderson to Ajax transfer: Can both parties pull off a redemption arc?

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 22:00, 18 January 2024

Jordan Henderson has joined Ajax following his ill-fated Middle East adventure.

The 33-year-old ended a lengthy association with Liverpool — where he lifted five major titles, including the Premier League and Champions League as captain — last summer for Saudi Pro League outfit Al-Ettifaq, managed by former Reds teammate Steven Gerrard.

The move was met with backlash due to his past championing of LGBTQ+ inclusivity within football. His proclaimed motive – to grow the Saudi Pro League into one “the best in the world” – now looks similarly insincere, as Henderson leaves during the first possible transfer window having made just 17 appearances.

On Thursday night it Henderson’s new club was confirmed as Ajax, a place where established internationals from Europe’s five major footballing nations rarely move.

On paper, it’s a union that suits all parties. Henderson plays in a top-seven domestic European league ahead of Euro 2024 while the 36-time Dutch champion’s youthful squad gains a much-needed experienced campaigner to guide them. And to say experience is missing from this Ajax team would be an understatement. Edson Álvarez, Davy Klaassen and Dusan Tadic all left in the same window last summer. Even the departure of relative youngsters Mohammed Kudus and Jurrien Timber, with 87 and 121 total appearances made for the club respectively, has been apparent.

Ajax made a fortune when it came to sales but the reinvestment is where things have gone awry. The misadventure of Sven Mislintat’s brief tenure as sporting director has perhaps set them back several years. Spending over €100m on 11 players, some of whom aren’t regularly featuring in their first-team, is a damning indictment. Mislintat was ultimately sacked and his managerial appointment, Maurice Steijn, soon followed.

In the first part of this season, unwanted records (including consecutive losses) kept piling up. Ajax posted their worst run of results since 1954 and were at one stage bottom of the Eredivisie table.

Things settled down with John van ‘t Schip’s interim hiring, which came after Louis van Gaal agreed to assist the club in an advisory capacity.

On the one hand, Van ‘t Schip has lifted Ajax from the foot of the table to fifth place (seven wins and one draw from eight played). On the other, they have just suffered a shock elimination from the Dutch Cup by amateur side USV Hercules.

How will Henderson fit in at Ajax?

Henderson’s acquisition solves a midfield issue and reaffirms how Van ‘t Schip wants Ajax to play before eventually handing over the keys. Though if we are to be fair, he’s already laid down some pieces to establish an identifiable playing style. His goal essentially aligns with the ‘Ajax model’: creativity and clever play in a proactive and fluid 4-3-3.

As much as fixing their leaky defence is top of his priority list, football matches are won and lost in midfield. Van ‘t Schip’s triumvirate should consist of a ‘controller’, ‘box-to-box midfielder’ and ‘incisive playmaker’.

Henderson is earmarked to be Ajax’s controller (or number six). This particular type of footballer has long existed in Dutch football and plays a fundamental role in the club’s traditional system, as the occupant must strike the right balance between energy and discipline. They are primarily involved in the initial build-up of attacks, as well as being tasked with retaining and recycling possession, stationed just in front of the mobile central defenders (at times becoming a ‘third centre-back’ or, as Henk Spaan once wrote, ‘point guard’).

In 2022/23, Henderson averaged 1.39 tackles, 0.91 interceptions and 67.04 passes per 90. For a ‘6’ these are generally low numbers, but it’s worth noting in his final Liverpool season he generally played in the ‘number eight’ role and this average could increase if the Amsterdammers rediscover their mojo seeing as they dominate the majority of their league matches.

Benjamin Tahirovic, who joined from Roma last summer, is expected to step aside for Henderson, thus leaving Kenneth Taylor (box-to-box midfielder) and Kristian Hlynsson (incisive playmaker) to play alongside the former Liverpool captain.

Although it must be said, when Branco van den Boomen, Silvano Vos and Sivert Mannsverk return from their respective spells on the sidelines, this should give Van ‘t Schip a selection headache with all three capable of playing as 6’s. Van den Boomen in particular was among the few Ajax players who covered themselves in glory during the club’s recent malaise. The former Toulouse midfielder though can play as an ‘8’ while Vos, who turns 19 in March, is the long-term solution here so being in rotation this early into a promising career should not be an issue. Mannsverk, on the other hand, could be a victim of Henderson’s arrival but his presence nevertheless gives Ajax’s squad depth, especially beyond this season.

Naturally, every signing comes with risks attached. Based on very recent history, Ajax know this all too well.

If Henderson, an 81-time capped England international, isn’t the club’s highest earner then he will not be far behind. Tadic had that honour when he was around. The influential Serbian playmaker, who spent time in the Premier League before making his Eredivisie return, had a transformative impact on the Amsterdammers under Erik ten Hag (including reaching an unlikely Champions League semi-final) and arrived in the same window Daley Blind re-joined his boyhood club. Incidentally, Blind, who previously shone as the ‘number six’, was a free agent last summer but a second return didn’t materialise — much to the gain of La Liga’s shock title contenders, Girona.

Another concern will be declining quality. Henderson admitted in an interview that he decided to exit Liverpool after learning opportunities this season would be limited. Jurgen Klopp wouldn’t phase a veteran out unless there was a footballing reason. The Eredivisie can’t match the Premier League for intensity, but a good Ajax ‘number six’ must possess stamina.

They need not only to be an exemplary passer — integral given how much rapid ball circulation is central to Ajax’s doctrine — but must possess an engine to cover ground, a trait valued in their pressing and positional game. Furthermore, he’s expected to play between the forward and midfield lines, essentially the conduit between defence and attack. Henderson’s predecessors all were equipped with a razor-sharp brain that complimented their energy and athleticism. The great ones seamlessly transitioned between defence and offence. They were effectively multi-functional central midfielders, blessed with technical ability and intelligence that enabled them to become Ajax’s fulcrum.

As touched upon, Henderson brings something they sorely lack at this moment. “We wanted an experienced midfielder with leadership qualities,” Van ‘t Schip said. “His arrival means a huge enhancement for our squad. Both on and off the pitch, a football player of this calibre is important for our many young players.”

It could be a culture shock for some of them as Henderson is known to being “vocal,” and Henderson was aware not all of his former Liverpool teammates appreciated it. “Some don’t mind,” he told The New York Times. “Some don’t like it.”

One-time England international Dean Ashton even admitted he wouldn’t enjoy playing alongside him. “He’d do my head in to play with him,” the former West Ham forward said following England’s win over Wales at the 2022 World Cup.

“We had great seats and we were right there, and he was absolutely screaming at Phil Foden at times – both good and bad. But if he didn’t quite close down enough, he screamed at him. When he did close down, it was so loud, it was like ‘OK, I’m doing it!’

“But I guess that’s what he brings, he brings that intensity, he brings that level of competitiveness all of the time.”

Ashton’s last point is salient. Henderson was very much an integral part of Liverpool’s success under Klopp and became the club’s first captain to lift six different trophies.

“I am happy he’s here, and I think it’s very good for our club,” Van ‘t Schip added.

The feeling is Henderson’s acquisition is more short-term thinking rather than a long-term project. As mentioned above, Ajax has the second youngest Eredivisie squad (22.6 years). By joining, Henderson becomes the club’s oldest outfield player behind reserve goalkeeper Remko Pasveer (40), and no fewer than eight teenagers become his teammates. One of these is Charlie Setford, a former Three Lions U18 international born in Haarlem who was only the second Englishman to join Ajax (after Ray Clarke 1978-79). Chuba Akpom, who joined from Middlesbrough last summer, preceded Henderson and both could find themselves in Van ‘t Schip’s team going forward.

Henderson’s impact will be measured by how far he guides those inexperienced talents as much as improving their on-field woes. The former is doable given his wealth of experience but only time will tell if Henderson is another transformative signing or transfer blunder.