The academy spotlight: Ajax and Barcelona

The academy spotlight: Ajax and Barcelona

“YOUNGSTERS NEED OPPORTUNITIES — everyone needs time. With all conditions being equal, a home-grown player has a better chance than one who comes in from abroad. The Xavis and Iniestas took ten years to get to where they are.” Guillermo Amor, former La Masia graduate and FC Barcelona player

Fans of a club look at a team sheet and recognize the names, numbers, and positions of the players. Dedicated supporters look at a team sheet and recognize the players who, in their world, need to be on the team sheet but for whatever reason, aren’t included. Then, there are the people, true football people, who understand how a football club operates and who appreciate that in football, there is always something going on behind the scenes, away from the press on the pitches of the academy.

These are the people who understand that a really good academy not only sow the seeds of its own future, but reap its own harvest. To them, the academy is of service to the community it represents. True football people understand and respect that great academies are so selective that they spend more time crossing names off their list than adding new ones to it.

The entity of the football academy is an enigma of sorts. Some clubs are happy to be “selling clubs”, those who ready the talent to point of sale. Other clubs, purely “buying clubs”, have the capital and brand recognition to snap up any player that falls on their radar — players who are first team-ready and, with any luck, will be marketable on and off the pitch. The game is as stratified as ever.

Some clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich have become national brands themselves and balance their player development with the power of the chequebook to sign any player on the club’s wish list. An iconic club like Ajax, like many others, cannot boast the power of both worlds and thus depend on the production of its academy youngsters to sustain the club in a cyclical system of a “player for cash” exchange.

Very few people know that the best clubs employ scouts whose sole purpose of being associated with the club is to justify the removal of a prospect in a concerted effort to devote all the energy and resources to the talented youngsters who are “worth” investing the football club’s time, energy, coaching resources, and money into developing. Football clubs that have historically produced some of the best players have both recognised and balanced the difference between development for the good of the player and development for the good of the club.

A club like West Ham United, with its renowned reputation for developing home-grown British players despite the influx of foreign talent available in the modern football market, represents the type of club whose system is based on producing wave after wave of proficient players that must be moved on to other clubs. West Ham United, a club that graduated players of the pedigree of Sir Trevor Brooking, Bobby Moore, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick and Glen Johnson, is one of the benchmark academies in producing home-grown talent in England, yet has not been able to fully reap the rewards of its academy in actual Premier League play and standing.

One of the most debatable questions in football-centric conversation revolves around what club has the best football academy? The answer itself is subjective and harrowing in that there is probably no definitive answer to what academy is “the best”. However there are the benchmark academies in football that others aspire to emulate.

Since the purpose of a football academy is produce players that the club can ultimately integrate into the reserves and eventually the first team or sell off for a profit, the academy structure remains one of the murkiest milieus in football. The state of the modern game has truly revealed the haves and the have not’s in professional football almost to the point that player development inevitably subsides to player identification and expedition to the big spenders. It’s important to recognise that player development and player identification are two integral components to a club’s sustainability and progress. Based on their close developmental models, the two academies in focus here will be La Masia and De Toekomst.

Starting at what many currently recognise as the best football academy in the world at FC Barcelona, La Masia (The Farmhouse) is responsible for fostering the talent, representing the Catalan culture, and providing the proper footballing education for a club that has reached the pinnacle of player development and integration into its first team. Producing players the likes of Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernández, Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Pedro Rodríguez, Cesc Fàbregas, Gerard Piqué and Andrés Iniesta to name a few, does not just happen through player identification or sheer luck.

The rigors and scouting place precedence on the players’ ability to acclimate, integrate, and execute the ‘Barcelona Way’ of football. In fact, La Masia uses a system that many other academies bypass in matching a player’s personality and ability to learn and absorb information into its recruitment process. Players at La Masia are groomed to respect the Catalan culture and exude the club credo Més que un club (More than a club).

Perhaps what is most impressive about La Masia is the simplicity of the pedagogical approach that instils in each player the confidence to execute the sophisticated style and speed of play to devastating effect. Many academies produce players capable of passing the ball intricately and who understand the importance of positional interchange on the pitch. The academy has equated footballing brilliance with the identity of not only FC Barcelona, but of Spanish football beyond just producing attractive football.

Some consider players graduating from La Masia to be “complete” players capable of the short, crisp passing combined with the fluid movement and balance necessary to execute the unique tiki taka style selflessly. The pass, receive, move, create mantra is schooled into players with such attention to simplistic detail that players go from playmaker and provider to selfless defender for the good of the club’s ethos.

Perhaps the real juggernaut of youth development is Ajax’s academy. For over thirty years, the blueprint at Ajax’s academy, De Toekomst (The Future), has provided such a systematic blueprint for player development that the mighty Barcelona pulls much from its philosophy. Much like La Masia, the Ajax Jeugdopleiding has supplied the Oranje with a regular stream of talents like Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, Ruud Krol, Nigel de Jong, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Rafael van der Vaart, and Wesley Sneijder. But, the academy’s extensive and impressive list of former understudies tells only part of the story of De Toekomst. With the exception of La Masia, based on the backbone of the Ajax philosophy instituted by Johan Cruyff, few academies have produced the pedigree of player capable of slotting into any system in any league around the world, and about 30% of the players in the Eredivisie were at De Toekomst at one point in their careers.

The style of play at Ajax not only prides technical and tactical proficiency, but it demands that players value and exhibit the requisite level of continuity. At Ajax, the constant evaluation of a player falls under the judgment and assessment of the chief scout for each age group. On average, 30 of 160, or roughly one out of every five players will drop out or be dropped after their first season at the academy. Such a context of evaluation is based on the comprehensive reports that the club communicates with the player and his parents.

There are a multitude of conditions setting Ajax apart from many youth academies. The first is communication. Recall that the real football people understand that top academies spend more time gleaning their lists of players deemed surplus to requirements. This means the need for transparency is paramount at a club like Ajax.

Communication with the parents is objective, balanced, and put into perspective for all players. After all, a youth player at Ajax is already a star in his own mind and in the opinion of his parents, but at Ajax, he is merely a learner, not the finished product. Characteristics such as ball control, one-on-one ability (defensive and offensive), attitude, athletic capabilities, and ability to combine with teammates and take instruction are measured constantly.

The Ajax development system, however, goes even further and places judgment on the needs of club. For example, at most clubs a left-footed player might be valued and retained because of the shortage of good left-footed players. However, at Ajax, the number of proficient left-footed players might be higher based on the intense technical focus, meaning the selection standards are ramped up.

Part of what makes Ajax’s youth development different is the strict discipline of the selections made. Youth teams at the club are comprised of 16 players based on their dominant foot. So, four right-footed players are designated to play the 2, 6, and 7 positions and four left-footed players are selected to play the 5, 8, and 11 positions. A pool of three players will make up the 3 and 4 position and three players will compete for the 9 and 10 positions. This system extends from the under-10 team to the senior team at Ajax, ensuring that each player has played at least three functional and defined positions during their maturation process at the club.

As selective as Ajax is, its output of talent is remarkably high. Part of this is due to the systematic evaluation method with the acronym TIPS that Ajax uses to evaluate players. T stands for Technique, I is for Insight and Intelligence, P is for Personality, and S is for speed. At a club like Ajax, the system demands players operate both as cogs in the great machine, but with the ability to play fast, creative, and free-flowing football. The differentiator, however, is not technique, which can always be improved (think 10,000 touches a day), but the Insight/Intelligence, Personality, and Speed of a player. At both La Masia and De Toekomst, the assessment is so rigorous that it borders on a rubric comprised of the intricacies that most youth players will never learn.

La Masia and De Toekomst represent the evolution of the modern game. One club, Barcelona, pulls and credits much of its advancement to the model at Ajax, but in so doing, has pushed the envelope of total football development beyond “Total Football”. With the global reach and prestigious platform in La Liga and as a universal brand, Barcelona produces not only talented individuals, but talented teams. Ajax is still at the cutting edge of player development and finds itself in the niche environment as a valuable producer of amazing footballers and football education. In many respects, the two academies represent the same thing — the constant will to improve.

Football is a game of many industries. Like players, football clubs develop identities that dictate their role in the landscape of the world’s game. Some football clubs produce players, others merely buy the best-in-class footballers to assuage the demands of the modern game; and yet, there are those football clubs who can masterfully do both.

Even in an age of big spending, whimsical owner wheeling and dealings, an influx of non-football money being pumped into the game, and astronomical transfer fees and wage bills have glossed over true player development for preference of “the finished product”. Over the decades, the word “academy” has evolved from the modus operandi a club instituted to mould and develop the specific type of player it coveted to a buzzword many use ad nauseam to inflate their own image. The reality is great players do not grow on trees, but they do grow in the institution of the football academy — the foundation of the professional game. And long may it continue.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3

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