Ajax: The Dutch Conveyor Belt

BY WILL JONES

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AFC Ajax are widely renowned for being one of the most successful clubs in European history. They have had a tight grip on the Eredivisie, winning an incredible 33 league titles and 18 Dutch Cups and in the process, have beaten their fierce rivals Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven to the crown of most successful club in Dutch history. As well as this domestic domination, Ajax have in past years transferred this famous brand of football to the European stage. 4 European Cups (3 in as many years in the early 1970s) and 1 UEFA Cup clearly shows the fruits of Ajax's success as it boasts a European record which can only be matched by a few. However, it is the roots of this European conquest which is the source of envy for many wealthy teams around the world.

The Ajax academy is steeped in history and is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest youth set ups of all time. The SportPark De Toekomst (literally translates as "The Future") is a conveyor belt for young talent who have had the Total Football philosophy drummed into them from ages as young as seven. This philosophy promotes a fluid system where each outfield player is trained to play in any position on the pitch. Obviously, players will eventually settle down in their preferred position, but the idea is to increase adaptability and versatility in the young footballers as it allows them to see the game from a different perspective to that which they normally would. These famed training methods instil a playing style into Ajax's youth teams which is mirrored right the way up to the first team and even to other clubs when the players who are trained at the club decide to take on a more competitive challenge.

Ajax are often seen as a selling club due to some of their most famous and successful ever players being brought through the academy and then being sold to some of the biggest clubs around the world. Although the club has dominated the Eredivise, the quality of football in the Dutch league is not as competitive (or lucrative) as the football in other countries and this causes Ajax to become a large exporter of young talent to the hungry European market. Some of Ajax's (and the world's) greatest players developed their trade at the SportPark De Toekomst before implementing this style of football at clubs such as AC Milan and Barcelona, with Marco Van Basten and Johan Cruyff both being famous examples of this.

In more recent times the Ajax conveyor belt has continued to churn out talent at a startling rate with a new prospect seemingly being unearthed every season. Although these footballers do not necessarily all come from the Ajax academy, they train in the same way and style as the youngsters and the effect this has on their playing style is evident.

Davinson Sanchez turned down Barcelona to sign for De Godenzonen for a cut price £4.5m back in 2016 from his homeland team of Atletico Nacional. Sanchez is a physical centre half who possessed these raw attributes before signing for Ajax however it was at the Dutch club where he learned the more technical side of the game and complimented his powerful stature with a more delicate playing style, enabling him to become a more well-rounded player. This development as a footballer did not go unnoticed and Sanchez was courted by some of the largest clubs in Europe before eventually signing for Tottenham for £38m, nearly a ten-fold increase on the price Ajax paid only a year earlier. Although Sanchez was not brought through the academy, he is a prime example of how the Ajax style of football is pressed into young players and how highly it is valued by larger clubs. It could be suggested that an issue for Ajax is that they struggle to retain their talent. As a counter argument to this criticism, Sanchez was brought into the squad and added steel to the defence, allowing Ajax to make it to the Europa League final and to challenge for the title. He then earned the club a large sum of money in transfer fees, allowing them to reinvest. This could be seen as a form of success and shows the emphasis Ajax puts on its youth academy & training techniques to win short term glory and to make money.

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Another promising star in the Ajax side is the Danish forward Kasper Dolberg. He was signed from Silkeborg IF by the same scout who brought Ibrahimovic and Christian Eriksen to the club and has proved to be a success in Holland. At 19 he has already won Danish, Ajax and young Dutch talent of the year awards. He possesses a great intelligence at such a young age and, in his time at Ajax, he developed his finishing ability and movement off the ball which have been huge contributors to the 23 goals he scored for the first team last season. Again, he is not a player who will spend his peak years at the club, but he has developed his trade there, bringing success to Ajax and enhancing their reputation as a place to develop for young footballers.

These are the players who have recently made their name (and their big money move). Next are some of the footballers who are on the brink of the first team and are looking for a lucky break to display their obvious talent:                                 

Justin Kluivert - a fast and tricky right winger who has followed in his father's very famous footsteps by staying at Ajax from a young age. He is still only 18 and has made a handful of appearances for the Ajax first team.

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Vaclav Cerny - another right winger, Cerny is from the Czech Republic and makes up for his small stature with pace and a good technical ability allowing him to beat his man. Been at Ajax since 2013 and is still just 19 and on the brink of a breakthrough into the first team.

Carel Eiting - an intelligent 19-year-old Dutch midfielder who is equally adept at covering the back four or carrying the ball further forwards. Still yet to make his Ajax debut but he will be hoping to grasp any chance given this season.

There is little doubt that the future of Ajax football club is bright, with many young talents progressing through the academy or being bought in for next to nothing. The emphasis on how this talent is used may have changed from the old days when players like Johan Cruyff conquered Europe with Ajax but the same core principals are still in place. The Amsterdam based club will continue to act as a magnet to young, promising footballers and in the age of teenager superstars it will surely not be long until Ajax unearth another one.