When Pitchside Europe last looked at Ajax, in mid-February, the Netherlands' most successful club were in crisis. Johan Cruyff had gone to court to block the appointment of Louis van Gaal as chief executive, the supervisory board had agreed to step down en masse, and Ajax were eight points behind Eredivisie leaders PSV in sixth place, having won just one game in five in all competitions since the beginning of the year.
Two months on, they are six points clear at the top of the table with four matches of the season remaining and their 3-1 victory over De Graafschap on Sunday was their 10th successive win in the Dutch top flight. The defence of their league crown now seems a formality. So what went right?
"It's the famous Ajax youth system, which has helped Frank de Boer cope with injuries and provided solutions for a side hit by a number of injuries," says Majid Mohamed, a journalist at The Independent who specialises in Dutch football.
"Ajax have been starting 10 players from their youth academy recently, with only Theo Janssen (a product of the Vitesse Arnhem youth team) stopping de Boer fielding an entirely home-grown line-up. Lorenzo Ebecilio, Jody Lukoki, Aras Özbiliz, Dico Koppers, Ruben Ligeon, Ricardo van Rhijn and Daley Blind have all played their part."
Rarely can a team have hit such scintillating form with such perfect timing. Since a shock 2-0 loss at home to FC Utrecht on February 5, Ajax's record reads: played 10, won 10, scored 35, conceded four. The high point of that sequence was Wednesday's 5-0 rout of 10-man Heerenveen, which saw Siem de Jong run in a hat-trick after Heerenveen goalkeeper Brian Vandenbussche was sent off in the third minute.
De Jong's treble at Heerenveen took his tally to 11 league goals (he has scored nine since the beginning of February) and he is Ajax's top scorer, despite the fact he stands in 11th place in the Eredivisie scoring charts and has amassed 17 fewer goals than Heerenveen's Bas Dost. The Ajax surge has been a collective effort. Those 35 goals have been shared between 13 different players, with Dutch under-21 international Ebecilio notably contributing five (including a hat-trick against Roda JC on March 4) and centre-back Jan Vertonghen weighing in with four.
A significant factor in the springtime revival has been the poise of coach de Boer, who — in the words of Rudyard Kipling — has succeeded in keeping his head while all about him were losing theirs. A Cruyff appointment, de Boer kept his head down and his mouth shut during the back-room turmoil that erupted in February and is now set to become the first coach to lead Ajax to consecutive Eredivisie titles since van Gaal won three in a row between 1994 and 1996.
Cruyff was recently appointed as an advisor to Mexican club Chivas, but he remains an integral figure at Ajax. Despite resigning as a board member last week, he has been granted an unspecified future role that will enable him to "remain involved with the implementation of his football vision within the club", according to an Ajax statement. "Cruyff's blueprint is very much on track," says Mohamed, citing the renewed emphasis on youth and the successful restructuring of the coaching set-up.
The dreadful form of their title rivals has facilitated Ajax's resurgence. PSV have lost five of their last nine games, while second-placed AZ have won only three times during the same period and Steve McClaren's FC Twente have picked up nine points from a possible 21. If Ajax preserve their advantage, Twente's De Grolsch Veste stadium could find itself playing unwelcome host to a title party when de Boer's side come to Enschede on April 29.