The Ajax Academy & The Total Footballer

The modern football club is a vessel for the ideologies of individual managers. It is becoming increasingly prevalent to hear people within the sport’s upper echelons discuss football in idealistic terms, paving the way for coaches to come in and realise their own personal preferences. While this is a common thread at differing levels within today’s game, be it in Mark Hughes’ newly-refined Stoke or Diego Simeone’s rugged Atletico Madrid, these projects are essentially temporal. It remains rare for football clubs to have ideals ingrained within.

Ajax are different in this respect. The very name conjures up images of vivacious football, long-haired and low-socked creatives, tactical innovation and assertive, self-confident attacking play. The Amsterdam club are associated with these traits and have been for many decades, despite the moving on of both time and people. The club also continues to maintain a refreshing zest for player development. Their youth academy is seen as one of the finest around, with a relentless array of talent stepping of the club’s conveyor belt on an annual basis, headed for richer pastures.

The proof is in the line-ups. Look all over Europe’s major leagues and an Ajax graduate can be found. English football is well-stocked at present with Daley Blind, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen all plying their trade within its confines, while the likes of Thomas Vermaelen, Ricardo Kishna, Gregory van der Wiel and Wesley Sneijder reside in Spain, Italy, France and Turkey.

Thomas Vermaelen of Ajax, celebrates the goal of teammate Nigel de Jong

Ajax’s ability to develop youngsters into world class footballers is re-confirmed with every generation. Yet this unrivalled productive capacity cannot be isolated from the other remarkable components that make up the club’s history. Indeed, it is the ideals embedded deep within the club, ideals formed long ago, that allows Ajax to continuously nurture some of the most technically and tactically adept football players in the world. To understand the club’s successful youth development, it is necessary to go back to its philosophical origins.

Jack Reynolds was born in Manchester but was destined to forge his path abroad. After coming through Manchester City’s ranks he turned out for several other English sides in a fairly undistinguished playing career. Yet, while he failed to play at a high level, he would go on to become a hugely important figure in football history as a coach.

After moving to Switzerland in 1912 to become manager of St Gallen, Reynolds sought refuge in the Netherlands at the outbreak of World War 1. From there he was appointed manager of Ajax in 1915, a club with whom he would spend the majority of his coaching career. After leaving the manager’s role twice, initially due to an argument with Ajax’s directors, then due to the Second World War, he returned for a third spell in charge in 1945, where he crossed paths with a young striker by the name of Rinus Michels.

Michels, then in his early 20s, was a budding prospect at the time, albeit one reputed more for his work ethic than any technical qualities. Yet, in spite of his own limitations, he was intrigued by Reynolds’ vision. In Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson write that, “Reynolds … believed in the primacy of technique, encouraging his players to work with a ball in training. He also laid the foundations of the Ajax youth system, commonly working a fourteen-hour day to ensure that teams at each level played the same style of football.” Reynolds was quoted as saying, “For me, attack is … the best form of defence.”

For an English manager at that time, Reynolds’ outlook was a progressive one. His notion that mastery of the ball came before anything else, including physical exertion, as well as his desire to inculcate Ajax with an overarching style of play from first team to youth team, were not shared back home, but they became integral to Ajax. When Michels became the club’s manager in 1965, he built upon Reynolds’ work and created one of the most memorable teams in football history.

Michels did not coin the term, ‘Total Football’, but this is what his great Ajax side became associated with. The label came courtesy of the fluid, intelligent football played by the team on their way to multiple domestic and continental successes, in the process enshrining the club with a specific set of principles that retain favour to this day.

With their understanding and manipulation of space, positional interchanges and intense pressing, Ajax were football’s great protagonists of the late 1960s and continued to be so even when Michels had moved on to be replaced by Stefan Kovacs. By the time Ajax had won three consecutive European Cups in the early 70s, the club had its own clearly defined aesthetic. With an established style of play now seen as best practise, Ajax sought to produce its own players purposely for integration into this style.

Ajax coach Louis Van Gaal

Johan Cruyff, who became one of football’s most iconic players as part of the Total Football era, took over as Ajax manager in the 1980s and continued on Michels’ work, albeit with a systemic modification – he preferred a rough 3-4-3 shape to the 4-3-3. Louis van Gaal would then continue with Cruyff’s 3-4-3 as he led the club to their last major European success, winning the Champions League in 1995. But, throughout the changes in manager and formation, Ajax’s youth academy continued to supply versatile, technically proficient, well-educated players. Indeed, academy graduates were the backbone of that 1995 triumph.

In the final against Milan, Ajax’s defence included Frank de Boer, Michael Reiziger and Frank Rijkaard, the midfield was dictated by Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids, and up front the line was led by Ronald de Boer, though he was replaced by Patrick Kluivert, who scored the Champions League-winning goal having come off the bench. All of these players, perhaps Kluivert aside, were individual representations of the ‘total footballer’ that Ajax’s academy was set up to produce. They were universal; capable of both defending and attacking, understanding of both their own roles and the collective system, and tactically flexible.

One year after that momentous victory, Ajax moved to a new stadium, the Amsterdam ArenA, and opened up a new youth development facility. The sporting complex, located in Ouder-Amstel, was simply yet aptly named ‘De Toekomst’, or ‘The Future.’ Since then, young players have continued to learn football the Ajax way with a great deal of success, honing their craft to clear specifications that can be traced back to the club’s success in 1960s and 70s.

The 4-3-3 system favoured by Michels is adhered to at all levels, something the club’s official website explains. “Central within the club is the style of play (4-3-3) … Ajax strives to keep the way of playing football recognisable; attractive, offensive-minded, creative, fast, fair and preferably … (in) the opponents’ half.”

Sportpark de Toekomst

The academy also continues to place emphasis on moulding versatile players in various different ways. De Toekomst’s fourteen hectares includes training areas for judo, gymnastics, basketball and track and field, all of which the youngsters are expected to take part in to aid their development not just physically, but cognitively.

As well as this, Ajax’s youth players are trained to understand more than their own position. The club avoids football’s equivalent of the division of labour by having its youngsters play in multiple different roles. This can lead to a striker playing as a goalkeeper, or a centre-back playing as a midfielder. The aim here is to ensure each individual understands not just the complexities of their own position, but those of their team-mates and opponents too. As a result, one of the great facets of Michels’ Ajax – that being the ability to rotate positions with comfort – lives on.

While the club remains a beacon of youth development, it no longer wins trophies on the continent. This is primarily due to the fact that neither Ajax nor their Eredivisie rivals can compete with the riches on offer in England, Spain, Italy and Germany. Instead, they often sell their best players before they reach their peak, reinvesting the proceeds from their transfer back into the academy and other player development activities, such as scouting.

With their reduced stature within the modern game, Ajax’s academy is more pertinent than ever. As former player and current Dutch national team manager Danny Blind said while he was assistant coach at the club, “The Ajax youth academy is like the lifeblood of this club. We’re not capable of spending large amounts of money (on) players, which means that (we) have to develop players (ourselves). We try to develop players through a specific culture, a specific philosophy, and to show them in general terms … how Ajax want to play football. It’s an advantage if players have already played in the same system for many years.”

The process is rigorous as well as idealistic, something Ed Lefeber, the club’s business and facilities manager, discussed in 2011. “When you play at Ajax, every year it’s for a year,” he said. “At the end of the season we re-assess if the development is good enough and if, meanwhile, better players have appeared. There’s quite a strict selection process to determine if you can continue to the next year.”

On average, one in every five players will drop out of Ajax’s academy on an annual basis. However those that remain, those good enough to have passed the club’s rigorous standards, often end up in the first team. The current side is a testament to this, with Ricardo van Rhijn, Joel Veltman, Jairo Riedewald, Kenny Tete, Davy Klaassen, Riechedly Bazoer, Viktor Fischer and Anwar El Ghazi all having progressed through the club’s academy to feature heavily for the top team.

It’s anybody’s guess when Ajax will next win the Champions League. Given the existing conditions, the prospect is an unlikely one, but their coaching and development program nonetheless continues to produce outstanding results. It’s thanks to that program, based on principles laid down and ingrained long before most of today’s footballers were even born, that Ajax remain a source of inspiration for football coaches and theorists everywhere.