As you may know, the Academy of Ajax is named ‘De Toekomst’, which literally translates to ‘The Future’. It’s a symbolic name, a name for something Ajax is recognised for – the constant stream of youth players migrating to the first team.
Ajax’s style of play is also something they’re renowned for. This season, their offensive game with high pressure has been successful in Europe’s biggest competition, the Champions League. For the first time in a few years, Ajax is competing for three titles – though winning the Champions League, despite the side just two games away from the final, would still be an extraordinary achievement.
The squad includes a plethora of academy players and budding talents who’ve made a particularly good impression this season – fascinating and enthralling football fans globally.
Former Ajax players
Presently, there are several former players at Ajax in various positions, with Marc Overmars (Director of Player Policy) and Edwin van der Sar (Technical Director) being the two most significant names. Another key name, Dennis Bergkamp, left his post in acrimonious circumstances when former manager Marcel Keizer was fired in late 2017.
Ajax legend Johan Cruyff implemented the Technical Heart approach; for those not familiar with this philosophy, it’s essentially meant the directors wielded more influence over the team than the manager, but towards the tail end of 2017, that philosophy worked less and less efficiently. A split occurred in the Technical Heart, meaning that poor decisions – or in some cases, none at all – were made. With the departure of Bergkamp, all noses were now heading in the same direction, resulting in the resurrection of a strong squad and attractive football.
Other former professionals that work within the Ajax hierarchy include John Heitinga (Ajax U19s), Michael Reiziger (Ajax U21s), and Winston Bogarde (Ajax U21s Assistant and Individual Defending Coach). The logic here is that former players have a lot of experience as professionals, meaning they can help and advise young talents in a unique, club-specific way.
Despite this ethos being synonymous with the club’s history, it’s been particularly noticeable how Ajax have prioritised the promotion of young talents to higher teams in recent years. If a young player needs a new incentive, or if they need to be challenged more, they will be promoted to a team one level higher, sometimes two. Ajax’s current crop of young stars born around 2002-2004 is incredibly talented; and within this group, there are a lot of talents that were promoted earlier than when would be ordinarily considered appropriate. Some were already placed one team higher at the start of the season and then started training more often halfway through the season with one team even higher than that.
In the academy, player development is more important than the results, which is something Cruyff has always maintained. This season, this is especially noticeable at Ajax U21, Ajax U17, and Ajax U16, where the results sometimes disappoint – but the effects are felt long-term.
For example, Ajax U21 won the championship last season with a group of players who had been playing together in the Academy for a long time. It was a genuine team – cohesive, together – something that poses a big difference with their side this season. This year, a number of promising youngsters have been promoted to the U21s early; so the team often consists of very young talents mixed with players who haven’t moved on to the first team. Ryan Gravenberch, as an example, is already a starter for the U21s at the age of 16; it’s something great for such young talents to gain professional experience in the Dutch second division, even if the mixed bag this creates doesn’t yield immediate success.
The Ajax U17s also have to deal with this – but in a different way. A number of their more important players have been promoted to the U19s as a result of strong development, and only come back to the U17s for key fixtures. On the positive side, this opens doors for other talents and even younger players to fill those roles in the junior team – like a conveyor belt effect. But this practice means that their teams lose players to their senior sides quickly – from the 2003 group, who should be Ajax U16 this season, a lot of talents are already playing in higher teams – and because of that, the results sometimes disappoint.
In addition to promoting playing talents, trainers are also moved to higher teams to aid with their development. This is a process practiced by the club for a while now; the previous Ajax U9 head coach, for example, is now the assistant coach of Ajax U17. Ajax also have big plans for renewing and expanding the academy, with a mini-stadium to be built, as well as a new campus, and fields of various surfaces and sizes.
All of these are more or less the manifestation of the ideas of Johan Cruyff.
Scouting – Talent Days
Many of Ajax’s starlets are joining the Academy at a very young age. Ajax work together with – and scout at – amateur clubs spread around Amsterdam, and in the Netherlands as a whole. As a gesture of gratitude, Ajax often share information and/or ideas with these clubs, advising how something can be set up better in order to get a better Academy. The partner clubs, by means of coaches or youth coordinators, also regularly come to De Toekomst for lectures, courses, or youth tournaments.
Something that also yields talents for De Godenzonen are the Ajax Talent Days, organized a number of times a year to allow talents aged 6 to 10 to experience training with the club. As a result, attendees can also be recruited to the Academy, which can kickstart a glittering career in football; the best-known example of an Ajacied scouted at a Talent Day is, after all, one Rafael van der Vaart.
They’re so talented that we have to mention them again. From that 2002-2004 group, many talents have been playing at Ajax from a very young age. The likes of Ryan Gravenberch, Brian Brobbey, Kenneth Taylor, Donny Warmerdam, Naci Ünüvar, Solomon Bonnah, Neraysho Kasanwirjo, Sontje Hansen, Hossein Zamani, and Dillon Hoogewerf have been playing together for a long time now. In the last few seasons, a lot of them have been promoted to higher teams, with almost all of these talents already making their debut for the Ajax U19s.
Being promoted to higher teams is, of course, an achievement; but what makes this even better is that most of these kids were – or are – key players within the U17 groups at the age of 15 (or even 14!) They proved to be able to handle the level above them, and were promoted once again – which has been the case with most of these talents for a few seasons now. They are almost reaching the end of the Academy, coming together again in a team (Ajax U19), only two or three years earlier than would be considered normal. Time after time, they show that they can handle any level thrown at them. It is something that makes this group unique.