Everyone involved in football has heard of the fine youth academy that AFC Ajax possesses, called ‘Die Toekomst’ or ‘The Future’. Founded on 18 March, 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 which 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, behavior, 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 U6s up to U19s 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 focused 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 the 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 utilize 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 demise, in Holland earlier in the 2012-13 season.
Ajax are striving to keep football, football. The ‘total football’ system which the Dutch created, mainly due to Ajax, is inspirational to most. However, certainly not enough credit is given to the back-room staff setup which plays an essential role in the routine and cohesion of this admired system. Roles held out by previous players such as Bergkamp, Overmars, and others (most players come back to play a part) work together in a balanced and leveled unit to coach and nurture the young prospects they scout in, into the world-class players they become.
No doubt, FIFA Fair Play will have a part to play in Ajax’s revival to Europe’s greatest if it ever comes. Bringing football away from the money and business, it is now franchised into. Hopefully.
Written by ManToManMarking