Sean Graham takes a closer look at the Ajax Academy and interviews Youth Coach Edmond Claus
FEATURE Inside Ajax
THE Ajax youth system is famous all over the world, so much talent has came through the ranks of their youth system to go on and play for the first team, some have gone on to become legends. I managed to get an insight into what it takes to become an Ajax player and just how the Ajax set up works as I spoke to Edmond Claus who is the trainer/coach Ajax B2(under-16) and assistant to the head of youth.
The academy has brought through many success stories over the years but has anyone slipped through the net and went on to make it big elsewhere?
“One of the rare examples is international Eljero Elia, he had to leave Ajax when he was 15 years of age. But mostly we are correct in terms of assessing a player. Most of the players in our outflows find another professional club, but not at the level of Ajax. There is another good example. International Gregory van der Wiel, who also had to leave the Youth Academy. After his forced departure, he started playing at HFC Haarlem, a club with a professional partnership with Ajax. Thanks through our partnership, he could come back and meanwhile Gregory played several years for the first team of Ajax.”
How many coaches do you have working there?
“We have thirteen teams at Ajax, from the reserves (Young Ajax) to the very youngest pupils (F1). Each team has one coach, except the youngsters from the A1 (u-19), this team also have an assistant coach. In addition we have a large staff and personal trainers who provide training. All together approximately thirty people.”
What are the criteria that you look for?
a) In a coach
“The ideal coach should be pleased to work with people/children. He must be able to address them in a way that suits their age and playing level. But also very important: coaches must be able to develop the players and also willing to develop themselves. Furthermore, the coach must have an idea about how and what the players need to learn in what age group. It is also important for a coach to be familiar with the culture of Ajax and the way we play the game.”
b) In a player
“Before players are admitted into the youth development program, they must go through a stringent selection process. Ajax coaches and scouts use the ‘TIPS’ system for selection. Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed are the essential qualities that an Ajax (youth) player needs to possess. With the TIPS system, the most talented players become familiar early on with Ajax’s unique football style.”
If young and aspiring youth coaches from abroad wanted to learn and explore the Ajax or Dutch development model, how could they do that?
“By coming over to the playground of Ajax and see how everything goes here. But trainers can of course also follow a Dutch trainer course. The Dutch vision is a way of thinking about football.”
What facilities do you have at the academy?
“At our youth development complex called ‘De Toekomst’ (The Future), we have all facilities available for players to get to the top. Everything, both on and off the field, must be perfectly organised. Not only for Ajax 1, but also for the youth academy at ‘De Toekomst’. Only then, top performances can be delivered.”
How many Ajax teams do you have at present?
Ajax, Ajax reserves, Ajax A1, Ajax A2, Ajax B1, Ajax B2, Ajax C1, Ajax C2, Ajax D1, Ajax D2, Ajax E1, Ajax E2, Ajax E3, Ajax F1.
Can you dispel the myth that you have to go through the Ajax Juniors A1 and Ajax 2-Young Ajax, before you reach the Ajax first team, if you are lucky?
“No that is not true. Two recent examples are the Danish players Christian Eriksen and Nicolai Boilesen. They both went immediately from the A1 to the first team. That is the quickest step. But passing the Ajax reserves first is the most common step. We also call this team ‘the mini trampoline’ to the first team.”
Do all the players at the other Ajax teams train in the same way from an early age so that they have become more accustomed to the style by the time they reach the
“The youth teams are trained in exactly the same way as the first team then these boys are therefore already accustomed to Ajax’s style of play. Central reference within the club and the youth academy is the style of play (1-4-3-3), training, behaviour and house rules. Ajax strives to keep the way of playing football recognisable; attractive, offensive-minded, creative, fast, fair and preferably away from the own goal on the opponents’ half.”
Have any other sides in the world tried to copy your model?
“Yes that happens often but really copying is impossible. Our approach is born from the culture and history and is carried/supported from the club.”
Why do you think that your academy has been so successful?
“At AFC Ajax, the training of top football players takes centre stage. That is why the youth academy is also known as the breeding ground of Dutch football. The further you get, the harder it ecomes to maintain your place and to reach the ultimate objective - to play in the Amsterdam Arena, the home base of Ajax 1. Ajax’s youth academy is world famous. The goal of Ajax is to form talented youngsters into top football players. Only the very best will reach the first team after a difficult and often long and tiring road. Ajax has attached great importance to its own world renowned youth development program. In the season 2010/11, the Ajax selection largely consists of home grown players.”
Players in Holland seem to have more technical ability than many in Scotland, why do you think this is?
“We focus on technical abilities. We select and train players on (technical) football skills, not on strength and physical factors. The position play is very important to us. In the Netherlands, the fans are not satisfied with just a positive result, they want to see good football.”
During a grassroots football conversation with my friend who currently coaches at the youth level in Scotland with St.Mirren Youth Football Club, he told me, he believes that potential young talent at that level, is not scouted enough by the professional clubs in Scotland. He believes, the professional setups, let go of raw talent for the wrong reasons and far too early an age. For example, the issue of height, at the age 12 and 13 should not be considered as reason. If the country adopted an approach like Rinus Michels TIC vision, the country would maybe see a greater breakthrough of young players and limit the loss of untapped and potential talent.
What are Ajax thoughts on the scouting of such talent at this level in Holland or beyond?
“This has everything to do with the view on football. Obviously a player needs some power to keep standing up. But you can also work on that by strength training. The length of a player can’t be a reason, just look at Wesley Sneijder and Lionel Messi. We rather train and select players to stay away of the physical duels in the game by being smart, agile and keep the ball in the team.”
Have you attempted initiatives with grassroots clubs abroad, to unearth untapped talent?
“No, we have no alliance with foreign clubs, except with Ajax Cape Town in South Africa. And we only scout in the countries where the market is still affordable, for example in Denmark.”
What age do the Ajax Academy look to bring the kids in?
“Players under the age of nine.”
Do you have schooling or Education for the kids at the academy?
“In addition to football development, Ajax takes study very seriously. The club has a complete school program at its disposal. An academic coordinator and several teachers are all available for the players during their studies. “
Do the players have any special training or diets?
“Yes, all players receive individual training on many fronts. Think about technical-, position-specific-, power-, agility-, mental aspects, etc. And each player in the youth has a personal development plan. Players also get dietary advice if required.”
Many of the finest names in Dutch football history have came through your Academy- Cruyff, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Kieft, Bergkamp and Kluivert to name a few, who can we expect to look out for in the future?
“We hope that we can quickly bring the new Johan Cruyff.!”
With thanks to Edmond Claus for his time.