Looking at last night's events at the Santiago Bernabeu, it almost felt as though we were gazing back in a window through time. Dutch dynasty Ajax, the architects of total football, tearing apart a European powerhouse on the game's biggest stage. Something just felt right about it.
For all the talk that has been in the media today that the Amsterdam club will now be a favourite of hipsters everywhere, it can be easily forgotten just how big a name Ajax is in the world of football. The winners of four European Cups, they are a sleeping giant that has been largely disregarded by the landscape of modern football.
Success these days is all about the money, make no mistake about it. Having deep pockets does not guarantee you trophies, but a lack of funds almost certainly will stop a club from reaching those heights. This is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. The wealthiest clubs have long been the most successful, but that dynamic has been emphasised in the last two decades or so.
That has made it almost impossible for clubs like Ajax, those who depend on their youth academies and in-house development, to compete with the riches of the European elite. A team comprised of locally sourced players doesn't cut the mustard anymore.
If you look back at the talents that have emerged from the lauded Ajax youth academy in the past, it is a who's who of footballing royalty. Johan Cruyff, Clarence Seedorf, Dennis Bergkamp. The list is almost endless.
Then football became more globalised. Players started to leave Holland at a much earlier age, lured by the money on offer overseas. In Amsterdam, it became clear that their old methods could no longer thrive, and so, they adapted.
If Ajax were to become the feeders to the European big boys, they would structure their club in a way that would allow them to benefit from that dynamic. They would take gambles on young emerging talent, picking the best from the nearby Scandinavian countries, and from the lesser teams from within their own nations. When those players were inevitably sold on for large fees, that money would not be invested in a similarly expensive transfer. It would be funnelled back into the system, the youth academy and lower level, high-potential deals.
€28m: Gareth Bale annual salary
€28m: Ajax’s entire wage bill (first team, second team, youth team)
😱 Real Madrid 1-4 Ajax pic.twitter.com/TPHYALSBAN
— Adriano Del Monte (@adriandelmonte) March 6, 2019
With fans craving marquee signings more than ever, and clubs equally willing to oblige such desires, to see last night's game was a breath of fresh air. It reminded us that things can done differently. Take a look at Ajax's squad, and you see a team which has maximised their resources. It is the perfect balance of locally produced academy players, young high potential recruits, and older cast offs from other clubs that have been rejuvenated in Amsterdam.
Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong are the golden boys of the youth academy, the future of Dutch and European football. Even at their diminutive age, they already look like world class talents.
Then you have the likes of Hakim Ziyech, André Onana and David Neres, high potential players who were brought in at a young age and given the chance to develop organically in the Everdivisie.
Then we have the outcasts, those who floundered at other clubs before finding their feet in Amsterdam. Dusan Tadic is the ideal example. Having watched him for four years in the Premier League, he is someone who is almost unrecognisable in this team. With the Saints, he looked like yet another flashy winger who didn't really deliver when it mattered.
This season with Ajax, he has notched 26 goals and 15 assists in 40 appearances. His performance at the Bernabeu last night was one of the most encapsulating we have seen in the Champions League in years. Despite paying only €12m for him last summer, and his reltaivly advanced age of 30, his value has increased exponentially in less than nine months.
Combine all of these elements and you have a talented, hungry, and balanced squad. Looking at Ajax in their current form, you can't help but feel they are bucking the trend of modern football.
The question now is, how far can they go? Judging by their play over the two legs against Real Madrid, they can put it up to any team in the Champions League. When we look beyond this season, their future is less certain. Frenkie De Jong is going to Barcelona, and De Ligt will likely follow. A couple more showings like last night, and a few more could possibly follow them out the door.
Of course, this is a club that is built to dealt with such setbacks. They have gone through it all before, and will move on. Their current fortunes are down to a structure within the club, a philosophy. It is less about the players on the pitch, and more about those who put them there in the first place.
For now let's enjoy the current iteration of Ajax, because they won't be together for too much longer. At least we can take solace in the fact that another exhilarating team will soon be on the horizon.