- Tactical Analysis
- Scout Reports
- Talent Radar
- The Series
When it comes to the playing staff, signings are a great way to improve the squad, both in terms of quality and depth, and indeed, are becoming the most common way. However, onlookers, especially fans of a club tend to derive great joy when a product of the club’s academy makes it through to the first team, and gains importance in it. With this in mind, we will look at some of the best youth academies across the world of football.
The second part of this series takes a look at an academy of legendary renown – Ajax Amsterdam.
It’s no surprise that the greatest Dutch club in history, and one of the most successful clubs in European competition, has arguably the best youth academy on the planet. No other club has produced more players to play in Europe’s top five leagues than Ajax Amsterdam. With a list both long and distinguished containing a ludicrous amount of incredibly gifted players (most notable of all, Johan Cruyff), the inventors of ‘Total Football’, its famed 4-3-3 system and it’s emphasis on ‘TIPS’ (Technique, Insight, Personality, Speed) will forever remain at or near the top of the youth pipeline discussion.
With the notion of ‘to be the best, you have to produce the best’ being at the forefront of club policy and tradition (the same groundwork was put forth into the now famed La Masia academy at Barcelona), Ajax has netted an incredible 33 Eredivisie titles, 18 KNVB Cup’s, 4 European Cup’s/Champions League trophies, 1 European Cup Winners’ Cup, 1 UEFA Cup and 2 UEFA Super Cup’s, Ajax is a standard bearer of what football should truly be about.
While more and more money comes streaming into the European game as each year goes by, Ajax have remained true to their roots – putting out talented and successful teams that are heavily based on academy products. It’s tough to tell if they’ll ever challenge in Europe again, with the big clubs in the biggest leagues spending astronomical amounts of money to ensure continental success. Further still, Ajax have become more of a feeder club, producing gifted players that are sold for fee’s that they spend the vast majority on improving the club inside and out.
It may be unlikely that they’ll ever lift another Champions League trophy, but it goes without questioning that they will continue to produce players who will move on to the top leagues on the continent and challenge for major honors – so many can owe their success to this titan of the European game, and so many to come will owe the same.
Note that these are players who have played professional football in and after 2000.
Born in Suriname but moving to Almere in 1978, Clarence Seedorf was one of the premier midfield talents developed in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The diminutive yet pit-bull of a midfielder was also cool as you like on the ball, possessing vision, power, technical ability and a thunderous drive from range. Upon leaving Ajax after their historic Champions League win in 1995 against AC Milan, he would go on to play for European giants in the likes of Sampdoria (who at the time were excelling), Real Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan before finishing his career with Brazilian side Botafogo. While never tasting success at the international level, he was a midfield stalwart for his country for fourteen years. Though an unsuccessful spell on the AC Milan touchline as manager is listed on his CV, there are many who think he may have a bright future in that capacity.
Perhaps the most gifted technical player to emerge from the club since Johan Cruyff himself, The Iceman was one of the silkiest yet ruthless attacking players you would have ever seen. A son of Amsterdam, Dennis Bergkamp rose through the ranks from age twelve till making his full debut at seventeen. The reputation forged in his hometown netted him an unsuccessful spell at Inter Milan before moving to Arsenal and being reborn. Though purchased by Bruce Rioch, Bergkamp would shine under incoming manager Arsene Wenger, and playing a prominent role in every title run the Gunners had under the Frenchman, including the Invincibles. His famous strike against Argentina at France ’98 will surely go down as one of the greatest goals in World Cup history, and it’s a testament to just how brilliant he truly was.
The more mainstream of the de Boer twins, the Hoorn-born defender remains probably the most gifted defensive product of the academy in the last three decades. Intelligent, technical and an eye for a killer ball (see: Bergkamp’s goal in France ’98), Franciscus de Boer was a mainstay for Ajax at the back for over a decade. A move to Spanish giants Barcelona followed and after four years at the Camp Nou, he would spend the remaining three years of his playing career at Galatasaray, Rangers, Al-Rayyan and Al-Shamal. After hanging up his playing boots he would put on his coaching sweater however, and after having a very successful tie as Ajax youth manage from ’07-’10, de Boer would take the full reigns in ’10 and has yet to relinquish them, keeping his beloved club at the summit of Dutch football with four league titles in five years in charge.
Another Amsterdam native, Patrick Kluivert was an underrated yet excellent striker who perhaps peeked before reaching the age of thirty, though much of his struggles in the second half of his career could be attributed to fitness issues. Never the less, Kluivert was ruthless in the box and known for making intelligent runs which also made space for others to operate in. Being apart of that famous Ajax team in ’95, Kluivert would then leave the club where he started at the age of eight and don the shirts of AC Milan, Barcelona, Newcastle United, Valencia and PSV Eindhoven before finishing his career at Lille in. Forays into management now see him patrolling the touchlines for the Curaçao national team in a bid to launch Caribbean football to another level.
Standing at just 5 foot 7, the Dutch maestro never the less commands enormous respect from his professional peers. Coming into the Ajax youth ranks at age seven, the native of Utrecht formed a reputation in Amsterdam that made his entire career. An absolute brilliant passer and distributer, technically above almost all the rest and a master of the dead ball, Wesley Sneijder has routinely been in the discussion of most talented players (and playmakers) in the world for almost the entirety of his career. After leaving the Dutch giants in 2007, Sneijder would go on to Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and is still currently plying his trade for Turkish powerhouse Galatasaray. To this day, many feel that he was wrongfully denied a Ballon d’Or in 2010 for his near superhuman efforts for Inter during their brilliant domestic and European campaign. Make no mistake; he’s the best Ajax product in some time.
The other talented player of the de Boer duopoly, Ronald was equally as gifted and influential as his twin. Predominantly an attacking midfielder and forward, he would join the Ajax youth set up at age thirteen, before making his first full appearance five years later. A two-year spell at Eredivisie outfit FC Twente was followed up by a return to Amsterdam where he was a key component for six more seasons, including that dash to glory in ’95. He would then go on to Barcelona (seeing a trend yet?), Rangers (where he was part of Dick Advocaat’s Dutch renaissance at Ibrox that included his brother, Bert Konterman, Arthur Numan, Fernando Ricken and Giovanni van Bronckhorst) and finally finishing his career at Al-Rayyan and Al-Shamal, also just like his brother.
Recognized by Pelé as one of the worlds 100 greatest living footballers, Edgar Davids (another native of Suriname) was one of the most complete midfielders to have played the game in the last twenty-five years. Blessed with as much fight off the ball as vision, creativity and skill while on it, the man with braids like the Predator (who could also forget his special glasses due to Glaucoma) spent six years in the youth set up before spending five successful years in the first-team, also being apart of the boys of ’95. Moves to AC Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Tottenham and a return to Ajax were all part of his CV, but questionable spells at Crystal Palace and Barnet were the only blemishes on what was a fantastic and cult-hero career.
The debate will forever continue on who was better, van der Vaart or Sneijder, and while they struggled to get on together on the pitch (often one playing at the sacrifice of the other), Rafael van der Vaart, despite a career plagued with constant injury, remains one of the most creative midfield players to come from the famed Amsterdam outfit…and boy does he have an eye for goal as well. Another set-piece specialist like the aforementioned Sneijder, van der Vaart made his full debut for Ajax at age seventeen after spending seven years in the youth set up. After creating a brilliant reputation for himself much like the Ladbrokes promotional code 2016, moves to SV Hamburg, Real Madrid, Tottenham and a return to Hamburg would follow. He currently plays for newly promoted La Liga outfit Real Betis after securing a move on a free this past summer. While his career has waned and his heyday has since been long gone, his ability could never be questioned.
Hands down the most gifted Danish outfield player since the great Michael Laudrup (who also wore the famous Ajax kit), Christian Eriksen began his youth career in his native Denmark, but it would be the training fields of De Toekomst where Eriksen would perfect his craft. He made his first-team debut at the age of eighteen (the same year where he was the youngest player at the 2010 World Cup) and went on to have three very successful seasons before moving to North London side Tottenham where he still pulls the strings. Brilliant from set-pieces and incredibly intelligent on the ball, he’s rarely ever included in the conversation of most effective number 10’s in the Premier League, but as Denmark look to re-establish themselves on the continent, the boots of the twenty-three year old maestro will surely lead the charge.
Much like Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen began his youth career in his native country (Belgium) before impressing Ajax scouts and bring brought to Amsterdam to refine and complete his footballing education. Once he debuted for the first-team at the age of nineteen, Vertonghen was a rock at the back for the Dutch giants (for whom he eventually became club captain). His time spent in Amsterdam would form the basis of his nations rise to prominence over the last four years, as Vertonghen and fellow Belgian international defenders Thomas Vermaelen and Toby Alderwiereld (now a teammate of his at current club Tottenham) all played together for Ajax – it was the bond and understanding formed there by the trio of defenders that has been a crucial component that has lead to Belgium being ranked first in the current FIFA rankings and one of the favorites in this coming summers European Championship.
A history of developing excellent youth products only means so much moving forward, and when you’re in the position that Ajax and the Eredivisie are, reliance on your academies must remain at the forefront of anything you try to achieve.
It’s unfortunate that no Dutch club can hold on to their home-grown talent for long – just this summer, reigning champions PSV Eindhoven had to bid farewell to Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum, two-thirds of an attacking triumvirate that set the world alight last season. While a healthy profit of nearly 34million pounds was recouped, it’s one example of many which gives a constant reminder that all Dutch clubs, no matter how storied they may be, have no chance of keeping their youth products for themselves, and Ajax is no different.
With that said however, the Amsterdam giants are sitting atop the Eredivisie table and much of that is owed to their brilliant defensive record of only allowing five goals in ten domestic fixtures this campaign. While center-back Joël Veltman has been increasingly growing his reputation this season as one of the best and brightest Dutch defenders, it’s been youngsters Jaïro Riedewald (19) and Kenny Tete (20) that have burst on to the scene in Amsterdam.
The 19-year old native of Haarlem began his footballing education at SV Overbos before being snapped up by Ajax at the age of eleven. After spending seven years in the academy, Riedewald got his first taste of first-team action in the ’13-’14 season, making seven total appearances and netting on two occasions. Last season he would receive more trust from manager Frank de Boer, making twenty-five appearances in all competitions, but it’s been this season where Riedewald has broken out. Ten league starts as well as five starts in Europe (Champions League qualifying and the Europa League group stage) plus being given the nod in the KNVB Cup – he’s been very solid throughout this season, prompting a call-up to the full national team where he’s featured twice during their failed Euro qualifying campaign. Should his progression continue, he could easily make the same strides that Veltman has.
A native of Amsterdam, it did not take Ajax long to snap him up at the age of ten from Zeeburgia. He would go on to spend eight years in the academy before making his full debut last season, making a total of five appearances for the club. He has been shown faith by de Boer and it’s paid off this season – Tete is now the first-choice right-back for the club, featuring in every match this season sans their KNVB-Cup fixture. Much like Riedewald, his form has received attention, and he’s now a full international for his country, playing the full 90-min in the final two Euro qualifying matches against Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic.
There is no telling where the pair of young defenders will end up, though it goes without saying that if they are good enough, surely moves away from the club will follow. Never the less, they are examples of the continued excellence shown by their club when it comes to producing young footballers that they can be proud of. Even if they do not make a huge name for themselves in the years to come, there will be many others behind them waiting for their chance.
Written by Andrew Thompson