‘But Steijn is a handy sniffer’
Bas de Wit
editor of NOS Sports
Bas de Wit
editor of NOS Sports
Peter Bosz, Kasper Hjulmand or Kjetil Knutsen. One of those three would become Ajax’s new coach. But Bosz was presented in Eindhoven on Monday. Hjulmand extended as Denmark’s national coach. And Knutsen stayed around the Arctic Circle at Norwegian Bodø/Glimt.
And then Sunday evening at about seven o’clock, out of the blue, the name of Maurice Steijn dropped. Less than twenty-four hours later, Sparta director Gerard Nijkamp confirmed the news: Steijn will be Ajax’s new trainer.
Sven Mislintat, Ajax’s new technical director, seemed to have just set his sights on the arrival of a foreign trainer to succeed (interim) John Heitinga. Especially with Knutsen, things got serious, but the deal fell through.
Whereas PSV brought in a trainer with Bosz who seems to fit better in Amsterdam in terms of soccer vision, so suddenly there was Steijn at Ajax, who had never trained a top club before. At Sparta, he did a great job: he miraculously saved the Rotterdammers from relegation in the summer of 2022, to stunt the following season with a sixth place and a final place in the play-offs for European soccer.
And yet the shock wave through the Dutch soccer world was enormous. How did Mislintat come to appoint Steijn, the former coach of such modest clubs as ADO Den Haag, VVV, NAC, Al-Wahda and Sparta, to coach Ajax?
Stan Valckx also looked up at the news for a moment, but somewhere it did not surprise him either. As technical manager, Valckx brought Steijn to VVV-Venlo in 2014, which was then playing in the first division.
What did he see in Steijn at the time? “I noticed that he made ADO play realistic soccer, but that as soon as he could he also looked for the attack and put high pressure. He clearly had two game plans that he worked with. If the first plan didn’t work, he still managed to get points with a more opportunistic second plan.”
And that’s what VVV-Venlo needed at that time. When Valckx appointed Steijn, the Limburgers were playing in the first division and promotion seemed far away. VVV had finished the previous season in a disappointing fifth place and had fallen in the playoffs against FC Dordrecht.
Pair of phone calls
Valckx sought contact with Steijn after the departure of trainer René Trost. After a few telephone conversations, he knew for sure: this had to be the new man. “We quickly built a bond in those conversations and I was particularly impressed by his enthusiasm and conviction. I felt he had an enormous passion for soccer.”
That was also the first thing Steijn tried to convey in Venlo. Valckx: “It’s not only about what a trainer does on the pitch, but also how he comes across in the dressing room or in the technical staff room. He wanted to forge a unity and put a lot of time into that.”
Working toward dominance
Valckx was under no illusion that Steijn would turn VVV into an attacking tiki-taka machine within a few months. Towards dominant play had to be worked quietly.
Steijn tugged at positional play. “I attended the vast majority of his training sessions: he spent a lot of time on positional play, with a lot of exercises with ‘hitting twice,’ which increased the tempo in our game,” Valckx said.
In Steijn’s first two Limburg seasons, things got better and better. In his second year, VVV finished second behind Sparta, with soccer that contained more and more line. In 2016/2017 everything came together, says Valckx: then they played attacking soccer with well-crafted soccer, resulting in the title.
“In the championship year, we managed to dominate opponents soccer-wise for most of the matches. But also then it was the case that if it didn’t work out once, we still got a result in another way.”
After five years in Venlo, Steijn moved to Abu Dhabi, where he was fired after only three games. His season at NAC was not what was hoped for either. After narrowly missing out on promotion, he was threatened and there were signs that angry supporters wanted to visit his house, after which the coach quit.
At Sparta, resurrection followed. With the same realistic soccer as he had played in Venlo, he miraculously kept the Rotterdammers in the premier league and last season finished handsomely in sixth place.
Against lesser opponents, Steijn wanted to make the game with Sparta, as they like to see at Ajax, but against teams from the left row he very clearly left the ball to the opponent, Opta statistics show.
Steijn no first choice: no Ajax DNA, no attacking soccer and no great player career
He also did not hesitate to let his team play the long ball, only relegated Cambuur did that more often than Sparta. Ajax is in last place in this list. Where at Ajax the footballing qualities of a goalkeeper are rather looked at, the task for Sparta goalkeeper Nick Olij was very clear: in most cases he did not opt for the build-up, but for a long ball towards striker Tobias Lauritsen (1 meter 94).
His realistic soccer vision brought Steijn success at Sparta and VVV-Venlo, but a job of a different magnitude awaits him in Amsterdam. With Hedwiges Maduro and Saïd Bakkati as (probable) assistants, he must face Feyenoord and PSV next season.
Valckx: “I definitely think he is ready. The only thing that can be difficult is dealing with egos, which you have more at a club like Ajax than at the teams he trained. If the results are disappointing, they are going to play their own game.”
Still, Valckx sees Steijn succeeding quite well at Ajax. “He is someone who wants to see all facets of soccer in a team. Length, technique, positional play and power. Ajax didn’t have that mix last year. If things didn’t work out football-wise, there was no solution. And Steijn can provide that.”