It's official. Ajax are now too big for the Netherlands.
This giant has had some memorable cycles in the past 25 years, going back to Louis van Gaal's Champions League winning team from 1995, many of whom still roll off the tongue; Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Sar, Jari Litmanen, the De Boer brothers, Patrick Kluivert among others. Then the team that emerged in 2002 with Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart that were thrilling to watch and were regularly the highest scorers in the league.
But both of those sides had real, direct competition in the form of PSV and Feyenoord. The domestic title still required winning and despite the transition of players (Ajax have always been a selling club - look how quickly the team from 95 got torn apart by Europe's giants) there has largely been a healthy Eredivisie competition.
2019-20 Ajax might have killed it stone dead. Their dominance of matches, their numbers in every aspect of play and their virtual lack of opposition should be worrying for the scope of Dutch football going forward.
This season Ajax have scored 62 goals in 19 matches, an average of 3.26 goals per game. In their last 20 matches they are averaging 590 passes and 62% possession, with a shot-to-goal conversion rate of 0.16 (meaning for every 6.25 shots they hit, they score). Their FC Rating of 92 (What is this?) is virtually impossible for a team playing at this modest level of domestic competition to reach, yet Ajax are there.
A thrilling AZ side are hanging onto their coattails but are already six points and 13 goals behind, and their two main stars, Calvin Stengs and Myron Boadu, are unlikely to be in Alkmaar for long. And in fairness to the local opposition, barring an unfortunate turn of events twice against Chelsea, they could conceivably have 12 points out of 12 in the Champions League, too.
The dominance, the ease of victory should be a major concern. Utrecht, Heerenveen, VVV, Sparta and Feyenoord were battered for four, Fortuna and Emmen for five. The recent procession against Utrecht saw them hit an incredible 15 efforts on target and their players racked up over 1,000 touches. They are a relentless machine.
And remember this is a team that lost its two prize assets in the summer, Matthijs De Ligt to Juventus and Frenkie De Jong to Barcelona. But they managed to retain the prolific forward line of Dusan Tadic, Hakim Ziyech and David Neres, and there's a very good reason for that. Ajax are now, simply, over-resourced in almost every aspect.
Since 2016-17 they have recouped an astonishing €387.5m in transfer fees; on top of the huge revenues received for De Ligt and De Jong, add €40m for Davinson Sanchez, €33m for Arkadiusz Milik, Dave Klaassen (€27m) and Justin Kluivert (€18m). Their transfer market activity in that period has been the benchmark for clubs of their size, spending equally wisely. They have mixed those tried-and-tested at the level like Daley Blind, Tadic and Quincy Promes with others who carry significant sell-on value, Neres and Ziyech primary among them. And their acquisition costs have amounted to just €140m. Simple maths represents a financially liquid organisation.
As a result they have been able to alter their wage structure, which for so many years was limited to the range of €1.5-2m per year and not only appease the likes of Ziyech but afford Blind, dropping down from a Manchester United salary.
And the fabled Jong Ajax conveyor belt, whose downturn clearly corresponded with the Dutch national team's failure to make two international tournaments in a row and is now equally responsible for Oranje's return to Euro 2020, has another generation lined up.
But with the successes of De Ligt and De Jong it means three things - one, that the fear that 'Eredivisie level' players can't immediately transport to a higher level is unfounded; two, that a clear Ajax premium has been created, and three, that this cash rich club have absolutely zero obligation to sell. So when the likes of Donny van de Beek and Ziyech are targeted in January, their futures are built on the relationships the club has built with the players and so any movement will be strictly on their teams. It's an immensely strong position to be in.
And yes, it wasn't always like this. PSV had won three out of the last four titles prior to last season, with Feyenoord collecting the other, and Ajax seemed to be going in the wrong direction in every aspect. But the structure instilled by club legends, CEO Edwin van der Sar and Sporting Director Marc Overmars, in 2016 has been phenomenally successful. This is a club producing top quality Dutch talent again, very much in keeping with the club's history and philosophy. The likes of Lassina Traore (ST, 18), Perr Schuurs (DC, 19) and Ryan Gravenberch (CM, 17) are already being touted as first-teamers from next season and the balance sheet looks healthier than it ever has. And Erik ten Hag is quite clearly an excellent coach - his period at Bayern precedes him and he could well end up back there - but this is a system that a coach can only dream of.
Hence why both Van der Sar and Overmars have been much-coveted, VDS by Manchester United and Overmars by Barcelona. Ironically, two clubs whose hierarchical structures are an unmitigated mess and will take a monumental clear out. While they got lazy, Ajax got to work, and the results speak for themselves.
Very happy with my contract extension at this beautiful club! I started as a goalie in 1991, 3 years ago I became @AFCAjax CEO. We’ve had some difficult moments, but the good times are definitely back. And of course we want more in the future! #VdSar2023 #ForTheFuture pic.twitter.com/3XFr8CDyIu— Edwin van der Sar (@vdsar1970) November 15, 2019
But it now leaves the Dutch league at an impasse. Even in other European countries where one or two clubs have dominated (Celtic in Scotland, Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, Benfica in Portugal) this level of total and utter control, plus European performance, plus cash balance, hasn't really come together in the way it is for Ajax at the moment. Their resources are so astronomically bigger than that level of competition, let alone in Holland, that we're reaching a definitive moment in time. What happens next will be interesting to watch.