“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.