Ajax were halfway through last season when the feeling of inevitability set in.
This is a club where historically the best young talents rarely stick around, prised away by teams in bigger markets with more money, and as Erik ten Hag’s team progressed past Real Madrid and Juventus before eventually capitulating so dramatically against Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-final it became crystal clear that this group would be broken up.
First Frenkie de Jong, the 22-year-old midfielder, announced that he was heading to Barcelona at the end of the season in a move agreed in January, long before Ajax won the hearts of fans across the continent thanks to a thrilling attacking approach that humbled two of the continent’s giants.
Then it was the turn of Matthijs De Ligt, the centre back who joined Juventus in July and has found life a little more testing in Turin. Kasper Dolberg, the 21-year-old striker, and promising defender Maximilian Wober departed too, along with the veteran presence of Lasse Schone.
In total the Dutch champions earned £185million from player sales in one window but reinvested only £50million on new acquisitions.
Now, sixteen games into this season, there is a compelling argument to be made that they are an even greater force.
They have won their opening two Champions League group fixtures, at home to Lille and away to Valencia 3-0, which means that a victory against Chelsea tomorrow night would make their progression to the last 16 a near formality.
Preposterously considering last year’s achievements, they had to go through two qualifying rounds – beating PAOK, who Chelsea faced in last season’s Europa League, and APOEL.
Domestically Ajax are unbeaten, winning eight and drawing two games to open up a three-point gap over PSV.
In terms of advanced statistics they are also outperforming 2018-19: among other leaps, they have jumped from 2.32 to 2.52 per the xGf metric and have reduced their xGa from 1.11 to 0.9.
They are shooting more, passing more and also retaining possession better.
So how have they managed to do it despite losing their two best players? Speaking at his pre-match press conference to preview Wednesday’s game, Ten Hag reiterated more than once that “last year was last year,” stressing the importance of focusing on the present.
“We are building a new team and developing a new team,” he added. “Now we have to step up and become better. Sometimes you fall down but you also have to step up again and be better, develop. That’s only possible when you play out of your philosophy. Our attitude is to be better every day.