AFC Ajax – The Youth System Every Club Should Aspire to Have
“You need both quality and results. Results without quality is boring; quality without results is meaningless.” – Johan Cruyff
Ajax’s fine youth academy is called ‘Die Toekomst’ or ‘The Future’. Founded in 1900, the club plays the so-called ‘Total Football’ approach in a 4-3-3 system invented by the great Dutch manager Rinus Michels. It is this ideology that makes Ajax stand out across Europe; the adoption of a single philosophy that everyone working at the club gets taught at an early age is admirable. They let their footballers express themselves freely on the pitch without any restrictions.
The basic goal of the club is that they bring through at least three players into the first team every two years, anything less than this is seen as a massive failure. This process begins right at the bottom of the pyramid with player recruitment. Their preferred zone of recruitment is in the 50km area surrounding Amsterdam but they do stretch further if the right player with the correct style of play comes along. For instance, if a player such as Christian Eriksen comes along, they would not hesitate to sign him.
They have 50 scouts patrolling the Netherlands, looking for the latest talents and 5 more scouts across Europe. The youngsters they find have to go through a test stage called the ‘talentdagen’ where the coaches find out if they are good enough to be signed to a youth contract. Players’ desired skills would be ball control, positioning, technique and intelligence; there is an emphasis at Ajax on technical ability over pure power.
The youth team is trained in the same way as the first team, so players who make it are already accustomed to Ajax’s style of play, training, behaviour and house rules. They strive to play the attractive, offensive-minded, creative, fast and fair football that Ajax are recognized for. There are around 220 youth players at the club at all times and in the Eredivisie at least 30% of the players have been trained at Ajax at some point in their careers, a remarkable statistic. The club has all age groups at the club with 5-year-old children up to Under 19s and reserve teams.
The ideal coach at the club would be an ex-player who has had experience at the highest level of the game. These coaches have substantial influence on talent development and are trusted with keeping with the Ajax philosophy at all times, the only formation the players are allowed to be taught is 4-3-3 as it is in the clubs tradition. The most talented players are all but guaranteed a first team place by the age of 16 or 17, which is extremely rare in the modern game and should be admired. It is also immediately noticeable that everyone at the club refers to Ajax as ‘we’, a sign that the club is a family focussed on developing youth at all times. It is extremely rare that any player will spend his whole career at the club, all the transfer fees that they receive for the players they sell go towards improving their youth facilities and training.
One of the most prestigious names in UEFA competition, Ajax lifted the European Cup three times on the bounce during the Dutch-defining Total Football era of the early 1970s. And they know a restoration is possible, having reached similar heights under Louis van Gaal in the mid-1990s when they won the Champions League again in 1995. There aren’t many clubs in the world who have any sort of comparison in terms of history and they are extremely proud of the fine history they have. However, in the last few years they have become a ‘talent factory’ which produces great young talent but is forced to sell to top clubs once the player reaches their potential due to economic pressures of the modern game. There’s no doubt Ajax have suffered from the trend of domestic leagues going global. The modest television revenues drew in by the Eredivisie in recent years leaves them at a disadvantage on the European stage, forcing them to sell most of their rising stars as soon as they reach a particular market value. The most recent examples include Gregory van der Weil and Jan Vertonghen who were sold to PSG and Tottenham Hotspur respectively in the summer of 2012. They are constantly bringing new youth players into the side which allows them to utilise their talents for longer and also get them more exposure to secure larger fees for them when they do go. Ajax stated themselves in a recent match day programme that the modern game hasn’t been kind to the club but the Amsterdammers are making a comeback, as Manchester City found out to their cost in Holland earlier in the 2012-13 season.
Now let’s take a closer look at some of the great players they have brought through their famous system:
Probably the most famous player to come through the ranks of Ajax, Cruyff was a true master of ‘Total Football’ and is recognised as one of the greatest players to ever play football. He won the Ballon d’Or three times and was named European Player of the Century in 1999. He also won 9 Eredivisie titles with Ajax and Feyenoord, 3 European Cups with Ajax and a La Liga title with FC Barcelona. He is famous for his ‘Cruyff turn’, which is copied and mastered by many footballers across the world. After a fine playing career he went on to manage two of his former clubs Ajax and FC Barcelona, where he instilled a similar philosophy to his hometown club. He remains and influential advisor to both clubs and a fine ambassador to football.
Marco van Basten
If van Basten’s career hadn’t have been cut short in 1995 due to a horrific injury he picked up two years earlier, who knows what he could’ve gone onto achieve. He is recognised as one of the finest strikers of all time, scoring a mighty 277 goals in the 1980s and early 1990s for Ajax and AC Milan. He went on to win World Player of the Year in 1992 after an amazing year. He was a scorer of two of the most memorable goals in football history too, his spectacular volley in the Euro 88 final against the Soviet Union and an unbelievable bicycle kick in 1992 against IFK Goteborg.
Rijkaard was an extremely versatile footballer who represented Holland 73 times, scoring 10 goals. He played for Ajax, Real Zaragoza and Milan where he was deployed in several positions including centre half, right midfield and central midfield. He won five Dutch titles with Ajax in two spells, two Serie A titles and two European Cups with Milan and went onto have a successful managerial career with Barcelona and Holland amongst other posts.
What can you say about this man? An amazingly gifted striker who has been described as having ‘the best technique’ of any Dutch international footballer. Signed by Ajax as an 11 year old, he made his debut in 1986. He signed for Inter in 1993 before joining Arsenal in 1995 where he really made his name. He won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and reached a Champions League final with the Gunners. Bergkamp scored 37 goals for Holland during a ten year international career. His style of play sums up Ajax’s academy perfectly, great touch, intelligent and the finest technique you can ask for as a footballer.
One of the most respected footballers ever, he has performed wherever he has played. The first player to win the European Cup with three different clubs (Ajax in 1995, Real Madrid in 1998 and Milan in 2003 and 2007). In a playing career which has spanned 20 years and is still going in Brazil with Botafogo, Seedorf has also won 5 league titles with 3 different clubs and has played for some of the biggest clubs on the planet. He must surely be recognised as an all-time great.
Kluivert was once one of the most feared strikers in Europe, with remarkably impressive quick feet and first touch for such a tall player. He utilised his height and physical presence to dominate in the air. He is Holland’s all time record goal scorer and yet another fine player to come out of this great academy. Kluivert was part of Ajax’s golden generation of the early 1990s and he scored the winner in the 1995 Champions League final after coming off the bench. He also went on to play for A.C. Milan, FC Barcelona, Newcastle United, Valencia CF, PSV Eindhoven, and Lille OSC.
One of the more recent Ajax graduates; he deserves his place on this list. He is the current Dutch national team captain and has been an international since 2003. His most recognisable season was in 2009-10 when he guided Inter Milan to Champions League glory and Holland to a World Cup Final where he was voted one of the three best midfielders in the world. After leaving Ajax for $27million to join Real Madrid in 2007 he won a La Liga title in his first season but was eventually sold to Inter. He left Inter in January 2013 and joined Galatasaray where he hopes to resurrect his career.
These are all world class players but that is not it, Ajax have been producing fine talent for years and there are several more players who deserve a mention. The fact greats such as Johan Neeskens, Michael Reiziger, Edwin van der Sar, Edgar Davids, Ruud Gullit, Danny Blind, Marc Overmars, Frank de Boer, Ronald de Boer, Nigel de Jong, Rafael van der Vaart and Thomas Vermaelen didn’t make the list is testimony to just how great ‘Die Toekomst’ really is. They have also developed players in their early careers such as Ronald Koeman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Christian Chivu, Jesper Gronkjaar, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Kanu who had their careers resurrected after leaving the club. They don’t only produce young talent; they bring players to the club whose careers are faltering and give them a new belief in their abilities and allow them to express themselves.
Let’s hope the new generation can live up to what their predecessors did. They always produce top class talent and that has no sign of stopping. Look out for players such as Christian Eriksen, Siem de Jong, Tony Alderweireld, Daley Blind, Ricardo van Rhijn, Davy Klaassen and Viktor Fischer in the future as they are more than likely to be in and around some top European clubs if they continue to develop at the rate they are. No doubt in generations to come there will be more talent surfacing from Ajax’s fine academy. The philosophy will always stay the same and the way the players are trained will to, the production process shows no sign of stopping working. Without Ajax’s youth system we would have been starved of some of the greatest players football has ever seen, let’s just hope this great club can one day challenge for Europe’s top honors again.
Editor’s note: On Sunday, April 14, Ajax will play PSV to decide the 2013-14 Eredivisie title. For viewers in the United States, the game will be shown live on ESPN3.com at 10:30am ET. Here’s a video promoting the match: