CAPE TOWN - For Ajax Cape Town, for head coach Stanley Menzo, and for the players, it all hinges on how they perform in January next year. Fail in the opening five games next month, and it could be a very, very long season for the Capetonians.
It was the poet TS Eliot, who wrote that “April is the cruellest month”; well, for Ajax, January is shaping up to be either the “cruellest” or the “kindest”.
They have five fixtures in the month - all of them at Cape Town Stadium - against Maritzburg United, Platinum Stars, Cape Town City, Free State Stars and Orlando Pirates. Playing at home in the Mother City may be an advantage, but the Cape side will still have to do the work, put in the hard yards, score the goals, try to dominate the opposition and be mentally tough - and, so far, they haven’t covered themselves in glory in any of these aspects.
Ajax have had a torrid time this season. From game one, they’ve struggled and, throughout the last few months, the issues have continued to stack up. There’s no doubt, when the PSL resumes in January next year, something will have to give: either, they make things happen, start to play to potential, and begin a march up the standings, or they perpetuate their current plight and risk being relegated from the top-flight for the first time in the club’s history. The ball’s in their court.
Here are six issues for Ajax to ponder:
1 Promoting kids has always been the bedrock of the Ajax philosophy. Last season, it was Grant Margeman and, more recently, Sirgio Kammies has come in at right-back and immediately infused the team with some freshness and youthful energy. Based on this, it’s evident there has been something seriously wrong with the club’s recruitment over the last few years. In short, because the club’s recent signings haven’t really come to the party, they need to get in more of the academy kids; when they are ready, of course, because, at least, the youngsters will understand how important their role is, and what their contribution means to the club. Right now, to be honest, there are far too many passengers in this Ajax squad, players who just aren’t prepared to die for the jersey.
2 When the season resumes in January, surely it’s time to bring in Soumaila Ouattara, the 23-year-old central defender from Burkina Faso, who was signed three months ago. Menzo has raved about the player, comparing him to Davinson Sanchez (the Columbian defender who left Ajax Amsterdam and to join Tottenham Hotspur). Word in the corridors at the Urban Warriors is that Ouattara is, indeed, the genuine article, he just needs his opportunity. In addition to his tackling and defensive anticipation, it’s his control and passing from the back that makes him such a promising prospect.
3 Get rid of the deadwood, please. If there are players who don’t want to be at the club, shift them on. If there are players not pulling their weight, move them on. Work with those who are committed to the cause. So when the January transfer window opens next month, sort out the Travis Graham issue. The former captain wants to leave, let him. Then, attend to the Prince Nxumalo problem. The striker has gone absent without leave on a few occasions, missing training whenever he wants to. This is not the attitude of a professional footballer - he wants to go, let him. Also, run the rule over the rest of the squad: who’s interested, who wants to be there, who’s going through the motions, who’s just there for the pay cheque? And then act, decisively.
4 The transfer window will open soon, but it’s important that Ajax don’t sign rashly. It’s the panic buying in the past that has the club in the situation it is in now. They have to make sure they bring in players who are going to add something to the team, not just sit on the bench or on the sidelines. Two areas are critical: an organiser and a goal-scorer. Look at the successful clubs in the PSL and you’ll find they all have a midfield organiser, a player around whom everything ticks. This is the type of player Ajax are in desperate need of. Whether there is one available is, of course, the big question. In addition, and this is probably every club’s problem: a player who can put the ball into the net. While Tashreeq Morris is slowly getting back to form, truth be told, he is probably far better playing out wide; he is, quite simply, not a natural No 9.
5 Wing play is critical to the Ajax style. But it has been decidedly absent over the last season or two. In recent weeks, though, Thabo Mosadi has finally started to find some form, and that is great news going into the second half of the season. But, in general, this area still remains a major problem for the Capetonians. So, either they look to beef it up in the transfer window as well, or find another talented kid in the academy, and throw him in at the deep end. With teenage wingers, they’ve done it many times before. Be bold.
6 The coach? Well, now here’s something that will certainly come to the fore in a big way next month. In essence, it’s make or break time for Menzo. The Ajax management cannot allow the coach to continue if things continue to spiral. Menzo has been a tad unfortunate; on many occasions the ball just hasn’t rolled for this team and, frankly, the squad has under-performed and they have to carry as much of the blame for the dire position of the club. But, and Menzo knows this, the buck stops with the coach. If he doesn’t immediately turn things around in January, then he could soon be on a plane back to Amsterdam.