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Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Ajax football factory

Behind their exquisite swoon of a season was the ambitious dream of Johan Cruyff, who insisted on building a youth system that prized creativity and unrigid freedom.

Written by Sriram Veera | Updated: May 12, 2019 9:16:53 am
Ajax were a step away, a minute short of making the Champions League final. (AP Photo) 

Sometime in 2012, the legendary footballer and coach Johan Cruyff together with his representatives at “De Toekomst”, the training ground of Ajax, carried a poster to a meeting with the Ajax bosses. “We develop Champions League winners,” it said. It talked about the ambition to be in top eight of Europe and inspire people worldwide with attractive football. Cruyff wanted to put up the posters at the headquarters but received ridicule. “The board and technical director were laughing at us and saying stuff like ‘you are crazy’,” says Ruben Jongkind, one of Cruyff’s coaching crew. Speaking to The Indian Express, he recalls the day when Cruyff & Co were told: “You can, if you wish, just put these posters in private in the academy, not here.”

Seven years later, Ajax were a step away, a minute short of making the Champions League final. How does a team that isn’t bankrolled endlessly—$421 million as compared to Barcelona’s $1.18 billion, Liverpool’s $ 953million and Tottenham’s $930million, and whose aura seemed forever tied to the distant past make this stunning turnaround? Young players who learnt their art at De Toekomst years ago, are the ones who put Ajax back in public imagination this season. To understand the cause and effect, we have to rewind to a decade when the emotional Cruyff, tired of seeing his Ajax dawdling along, decided to trigger a revolution.

In 2011, Ruben Jongkind, a 34-year old coach, was asked by Cruyff to come to a secret meeting. When he walked in with Wim Jonk, another former player of Ajax and the Dutch national team and then a young coach at their Youth Academy, Jongkind was goose-bumped into silence by how surreal it was. Amongst others, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, and Dennis Bergkamp sat around Cruyff analysing how to get Ajax out of the mess. Eventually, Cruyff would ask Jongkind and Jonk if they had any plans. “We showed him a paper where we had drafted our plan and Cruyff smiled, “I don’t have my glasses but I think it looks good!” That scribbled-out plan would be beefed up by Cruyff’s unique vision and passion and would come to be known as ‘Cruyff’s Plan’.

At its core, it was simple: Invest in youth, don’t hire footballers from outside unless they are way more talented than your own academy youth, believe in possessional football, play attractively—pass and defend forward. Cruyff’s style, basically. But it wasn’t easy to convince the bosses and later, Cruyff would be ditched by a few other legends who had been appointed by him and it proved a constant battle of wits and an emotional drain. Once, Jongkind did ask Cruyff why he was so hell-bent on investing in the young, why he was willing to take on the mind-numbing system for these kids. Cruyff, Jongkind remembers, was almost in tears when he replied. “I remember my childhood days. I don’t like bullies. I can’t stand injustice on the young. If they aren’t supported in the formative years, then when?”

That moment stayed with Jongkind, especially when Noussair Mazraoui, a star in the current Ajax team, was a kid who came to the academy. Mazraoui was a puny little boy, a far cry from the tall athlete of today, and was being neglected and ignored by others on and off the field. “He was considered too weak, too small and struggled to play with other kids of his age group. Even the coach said he was too weak and that he had to be let go. I had to fight for him and made a request: put him with a lot, one-year younger. He was born in late 1998 and since he hadn’t grown all that much, he was having problems with the boys who were born say January 1998. The coach reluctantly agreed, and the boy began to prosper.”

Once when he was being ignored, Jongkind took the young Mazraoui aside for a chat: “Don’t you worry, you will grow. This is just a temporary phase. It will take time but your physique will grow. I have great confidence in your skills and even though I have now put you with a team younger than you, wait and watch – you will play for first team one day. Fight on.”

A few months back, in a television show, Mazraoui can be seen thanking Jongkind, saying he was the only one who stood by him in those dark days. An intervention in spirit of Cruyff’s anti-bully stance but also with scientific temperament as its soul. It’s called relative-age effect that refers to the variation in performance because of differences in growth and development between those born early and late in the selection year (Rummenich J.N & Rogol, 1995). Cruyff’s plan had factored all this in a holistic way. “In 2017, Ajax reached the finals of Europa league, it wasn’t a coincidence. Neither is the current march in Champions League,” says Jongkind. It wasn’t always smooth progress though.


Once, in a meeting with the board members, a marketing man went on about merchandise sales when he was stopped by Cruyff. “How many T-shirts would you sell if we keep losing?” It was clear what Cruyff was hitting against but what confounded the board, to an extent, was Cruyff’s plan was so long-term that the team might continue to lose in the short-term as they built to secure a long-term revival. They weren’t willing to wait – not that the short-term results were any good.

In fact, it was the way that the first team played, defensively and not attractive without young super talents, that had first triggered Cruyff into writing the famous column, which is now regarded as the start of the Velvet Revolution.“This isn’t Ajax anymore,” Cruyff vented in September 2010 in his column in De Telegraaf after a crushing loss to Real Madrid. “Let me get to the point: this Ajax is even worse than the team from before Rinus Michels’s arrival in 1965.” Not everyone realised it wasn’t just a vent from an old man, but Cruyff was willing to jump in and get his hands dirty. It began to gather momentum in the months to come and chants went up in the stadium, “Stand up if you support Johan!” and the crowd would clear their lungs.

His proposals jolted the Ajax bosses. Don’t think in terms of teams, went one. Scratch that thinking: Individual progress over youth teams was instead the mantra. To achieve that, it was realised that the coaches ought to be asked to change their teams ever so often as they had an inbuilt bias towards team triumphs. “The thinking was if they had to keep changing teams, then they can focus on the young players more constructively,” Jongkind says.

Inspired by Montessori education, Jongkind brought in mixed-age groups at the school in the academy. “Throw in a group of kids across age groups, let the younger ones learn from older and vice-versa – it works, really does. The player is central to the whole education process. The individual learns from the collective. If there is one thing common between Pele, Messi, and Cruyff it is that they didn’t learn the games in structured academies but on the streets. Our aim was to have that kind of free-flowing hierarchy-less street atmosphere in our academy – with help of science, technology and lot of instinct.”


Cruyff had himself benefited with cross-discipline training as a kid and he encouraged Jongkind, who had coaching experience in track and field, to bring in Dutch 800m specialist Bram Som, a running-technique specialist. Som worked with the young Matthijs de Ligt, the Ajax star captain today. “When he was 13-14, Matthijs was already matured like a 17-18 year old in his game intelligence,” Jongkind says. But the coaches weren’t ready for that kind of displacement. The older team coach didn’t’ want a younger boy, who might be talented but not a finished product in an older team which might cost the team matches. The younger team coach didn’t want to let go a champion player in that age-group.

Matthijs is wonderful at central midfield but he was also playing in defense back then. “He was slow at receiving the ball and moving it forward, so we convinced the coaches to deploy and keep him in central midfield. The short-term loss to Ajax youth team’s defense has been the senior team’s long-term gain.”

The thinking projection was that as he got older he would get quicker and take quicker decisions and it was felt by the think-tank that the midfield would be a better position for him to develop those skills. “Matthijs would run like an elephant! We wanted him to run around like a tiger.” Enter van den Brom. “It all began to change. Look at him today. He also has immense game intelligence and putting him in midfield I would say was important to his career – another example of the focus on individual progress that helps the team now.”

Besides the coaching at the club Matthijs also had a mentor that helped him with analyzing video and coaching talks, former Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff. The midfielder Donny van de Beek is another jewel in the crown of Cruyff’s youth system. He was nine when Jongkind first met him and by his early teens, Bergkamp, then the Ajax coach, was so smitten that he predicted that if handled well, van de Beek could play for the first team one day.

The chief areas of development was Van de Beek’s running and slightly defensive thinking. “He was from a village from central Holland, close to where I came from and we had that connection. It was clear that he needed individual attention. It was Wim Jonk who worked with him a lot in an individual or small group setting– how to get in proper position, how to finish better. Wim decided to put him as an attacking midfielder, whereas before he was mostly used as a defensive midfielder, primarily playing a passing game.

Playing as attacking midfielder developed Donny’s ability to finish. Furthermore, during holidays Van Beek always worked with his former youth coach Harm Greving to further improve his two footedness and finishing. “He didn’t go deep with the ball and would instead pass the ball back. Our principle was that you coach forward, and have a third man run along the two men in play. Van de Beek’s positional awareness improved and once his running and power improved through our inter-sports training, he leaped ahead as a player.”

One of the other important core principles of Cruyff’s plan was to give more encouragement to home-grown players instead of relying on trading and buying players. Only those who were humongously more talented than home players would be brought in. “You would think that would be common sense but a look around football world will tell you that it’s not. We scouted accordingly,” Jongkind says. “To have 8 or 9 home grown players in the squad means it can only be fulfilled through individual approach. You can’t think about youth football as teams but through the prism of individual players—that was what Cruyff wanted.”

The brilliant playmaker Frenkie de Jong was one such player who was brought in to Ajax at the age of 18 as he fulfilled all criteria. In the Round of 16 when Frenkie tried to dribble in his own box and failed, almost allowing Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema to score, he was confronted by a journalist after the game who told him: ‘Don’t’ do it again.’ Frenkie said, “I will definitely do it again next time but just a bit better. “That’s this Ajax in a nutshell,” the journalist DuBlanqeBogarde told the Bleacher Report.


The biggest controversy of the Velvet Revolution was the battle between two legends—Cruyff and Van Gaal. It was the clash of personalities and philosophies. “I would say the difference between them was the difference between light blue and dark blue – both wanted attractive game-play, investment in youth but where it differed was in the way they worked to achieve it. Van Gaal was structured and believed in control in the system.

“Cruyff believed that through chaos and freedom, we create the system. He was more fluid, flexible. Van Gaal was able to mould a group of players like a machine. Cruyff was a creator. At least that’s how I see it,” Jongkind says. Some board members disliked Cruyff precisely for that – they saw utter chaos where Cruyff saw freedom and creativity. “They wanted control and so they went against him.”

When Cruyff was in Ajax’s supervisory board, the board got Van Gaal as CEO without informing Cruyff. It went to court. Jongkind remembers sitting with their defense team, preparing arguments to prove that the appointment was illegal as Cruyff, as a member of the supervisory board, needed to be informed. They won the case and Van Gaal had to leave. But it would leave the board fractured and they would eventually force Cruyff out.

That and the cancer that hit Cruyff. “It was the beginning of the end of our team,” Jongkind says. “Without Cruyff we knew our days were numbered. I remember he was so philosophical about his ailment and still carried on with the work but our days in Ajax was coming to an end.” “You know what? No one from Ajax’s management, not even Overmars and van der Sar met or contacted Cruyff in his end days, even though they owed their positions to him. That hurts me even today. You might have had differences with him but to not show respect to a legend like that in that time is something I can never understand.”

Van Gaal would go on to manage the Netherlands at the World Cup and take them to third place at Brazil with his 5-3-2 formation, with its focus on counter-attacking. Then, he took over United and plunged headlong into the most commercialised football club in the world. In 2016, two months before Cruyff died, he called Jongkind and Wim Jonk and told them to spread his philosophy around the football world. For the past one year, Jongkind has been working with UAE’s top club Al Ain, creating a Cruyff oasis in the desert.

After the departure of Cruyff and his men, the Ajax first team finally appointed attacking coaches, Peter Bosz and Erik ten Hag, and finally started to purchase a few players that were direct reinforcements to the team. However, the Ajax Academy is reverting back to traditional methods of youth development and that despite the success now, Jongknid believes “will be improbable as the factory of talents will stagnate”.

In the office of the current manager of Ajax, Eric Ten Hag, two prominent photos adorn the wall. Van Gaal and Cruyff. It will chuff the Cruyff romantics that Ten Hag, through his close association with Pep Guardiola, traces his football heritage to Cruyff. In the last year or so, he has carefully added in experience to support his talented youngsters and though the heady days of here and now might not last long, it says much about Cruyff’s legacy that his Ajax has charmed and captivated the football world his way. The grassroots work he put in at the academy, his attacking style of play, his philosophy of possessional football, his wish for talented home-grown players.

“Money bags don’t score goals,” Cruyff once said. His vision might yet win his Ajax it’s greatest prize in decades in coming years. “Ajax fans have pride now. That would have to go down to what Cruyff put in place eight years ago,” Jongkind says. A lost world regained: what more can one ask for as a legacy?

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