After a season of big change and great promise, it looked like Ajax could only come back stronger in 2017-18.
Just weeks after their Europa League final defeat, their summer plans were heavily disrupted by Peter Bosz’s unexpected departure and the subsequent reports of petty disputes in the background.
All of that became secondary during pre-season when the club was ground to a halt by the devastating Abdelhak Nouri developments as the club, everyone associated to it and many more turned their attention to supporting his family.
A month later, the emotion around the Amsterdam Arena remains intense. The gigantic No.34 (Nouri's number) draped down the outside of the stadium and the tributes paid by the club and fans before and during the Champions League tie with Nice show the 20-year-old remains heavily on the minds of those in the capital. It was clearly demonstrated that even in his absence, Nouri will be part of the journey ahead.
And as they return to the regular season intent on preventing a fourth straight campaign without a trophy, there is excitement to see a blossoming team develop further.
CEO Edwin van der Sar and technical director Marc Overmars feel the talented side are in safe hands with new coach Marcel Keizer, whom they promoted from within after being faced with a lack of options to replace Bosz. The 48-year-old’s coaching record was bad before he arrived at Jong Ajax a year ago and turned them into a free-scoring side and runners-up in the second tier.
Their elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Nice marks a poor start, but he starts with a good foundation and a young team he knows well.
Besides Davy Klaassen, sold to Everton for €27 million, they have held on to the team that reached the Europa League final and already had the captain’s replacement ready in Donny van de Beek, who scored in both Champions League qualifying games.
Striker Kasper Dolberg, attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech and defender and new captain Joel Veltman remain, but there have been reports that the outstanding centre-back Davinson Sanchez is on his way to Tottenham for a huge fee.
They have little reason to fear losing anyone else, meaning Keizer will build on his predecessor's template given they have similar styles.
“He is a coach who wants to play attacking football and has not changed very much,” Veltman told Inside Ajax. “There are little details. We played a lot through wings [last season], but Keizer wants us to build more through the centre with runners getting behind the defence."
Matthijs de Ligt, Justin Kluivert and Van de Beek all worked with Keizer at times last season as they moved between the reserves and senior team and will be given key roles by the new coach again.
Frenkie de Jong, 20, also excelled in the reserve side and was given a few appearances in the first team by Bosz, including a Europa League final cameo. After impressing against Nice, he will likely challenge 31-year-old Denmark international Lasse Schone for his spot in midfield.
With Kluivert and Younes flanking 16-goal striker Dolberg ahead of Ziyech, Van de Beek and Schone or De Jong, they will create a dangerous attack capable of quick bursts down the flank and smart combinations around the box.
They dazzled in key parts of each leg against Nice, driving forward with quick runs from their own half, making good use of Kluivert's speed and encouraging the wingers to move in and link up with those in the middle.
It's not all just about the youngsters, though, as they even have a familiar but esteemed figure available as backup for Dolberg in free signing Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Ajax are on the brink of some late and much needed acquisitions at the other end too, with Colombian right-back Luis Manuel Orejuela and 23-year-old centre-back Mateo Barac from NK Osijek arriving.
They are targeting the right area, as there have been defensive issues to contend with.
Although De Ligt is a powerful defender and awesome talent for his age, he is vulnerable to being caught out of position and leaving gaping holes that central partner Sanchez must clean up. Kluivert, too, has failed to offer protection at times when Ajax are under pressure, leaving Veltman, a natural centre-back, vulnerable on the right.
Such mistakes are to be expected, but they were exposed during their Europa League run and proved costly, so Keizer must pay special attention to them when it comes to more tactical games.
Domestically, Ajax must challenge for the Eredivisie title again after taking it down to the final game of last season and Keizer is confident they can do it.
“We have a very talented group, including some older boys who know how it goes,” he told NOS . “Also, we have some top strikers. Together we have a good mix and we can compete for the championship."
They must contend with a Feyenoord side looking in good shape to hold onto their crown after making some superb purchases experienced in the Eredivisie to replace outgoing stars Terence Kongolo, Rick Karsdorp, Dirk Kuyt and Eljero Elia.
After a few months of heartbreak and trauma, though, Ajax's golden generation are desperate to bring glory back to the capital again.