They started this season on the back of three consecutive title wins, Frank De Boer matching the achievement of his famous predecessors Rinus Michels and Louis Van Gaal. They had also finally put their off-field issues behind them — the disputes that led to a boardroom coup 18 months ago masterminded by Johan Cruyff.
The aim was to return the club to its traditions and reconstruct the production line of homegrown players that made Ajax a model for Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Arsenal. The entire supervisory board resigned, Van Gaal was prevented from becoming a director, and Cruyff nominees joined the coaching staff, including Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars.
De Boer and his colleagues duly won the title again, with Ajax finishing comfortably ahead of their two traditional rivals PSV and Feyenoord. Normal service resumed, all was well with Ajax and therefore with Dutch football.
Yet this season has not gone to plan. Qualifying from Champions League Group H was always going to be tough, even though Milan are in the throes of their own crisis.
This has been Ajax’s worst start to a Champions League campaign. But just as seriously they’ve struggled to find second gear in the Eredivisie.
Four days after losing 4-0 to Barcelona they went to Eindhoven and conceded four more. Their defence has continued to look shaky and they have won just one game in their last five, culminating in their first home defeat of the season against Vitesse on Saturday.
“It’s not a moment to panic, this is not a crisis,” insisted full back Daley Blind afterwards. But he admitted he felt ill at the result, and after “in the dressing room it was like there was a funeral, it was so quiet”.
Going down 1-0 to a last-minute goal must have made defeat seem even worse but in reality Ajax would have been fortunate to get a point. Vitesse had several chances to win, and this was their third straight success against the champions. The old order is changing, and with it Dutch football.
One reason is that the Eredivisie has very relaxed rules about loans. Ajax and PSV both have players on loan — from Barcelona and Manchester City — but the extreme example is Vitesse, who this season have seven Premier League loanees, six from Chelsea.
Vitesse were the first Dutch club to come under foreign ownership — in 2010 when the Georgian Merab Jordania took over — and 10 days ago they announced that Russian businessman Alexander Chigirinskiy has become majority shareholder. Club ownership has not been a major issue for the Dutch football association, the KNVB, not yet.
They are, however, likely to review the rules about loans, just as England’s Football League did last year after Udinese owner Giampaolo Pozzo took over Watford.
Dutch clubs have a fantastic record at producing their own players. The argument is that lots of foreign players on loan may block the development of local talent. It also has the potential to distort competition. On the other hand Eredivisie clubs have been signing foreign players for years, notably from Denmark and Belgium, but also from Latin America.
A few of them have become household names — Romario and Ronaldo at PSV and more recently Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez at Ajax — most have been absorbed into the system without any apparent detriment to the Dutch national team.
This current Ajax squad contains 11 foreign players, mostly under the age of 21, and the youth squad has another nine. Ajax have their own twinning arrangements with foreign “affiliates”, one in Slovakia, two in Brazil, as well as its own South African satellite Ajax Cape Town.
For the new regime, managed by De Boer, blessed by Cruyff, the fundamental issue is whether they can keeper young players long enough to make their mark with Ajax rather than be tempted to go elsewhere — like Kevin Strootman at Roma or Christian Eriksen at Spurs. Making an impact in Europe is a crucial part of holding on to them.