A New Approach at Ajax’s Youth Academy

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In the second part of his interview with us, respected Dutch coach and KNVB instructor Job Dragtsma talks about changes he has seen at the Ajax Youth Academy in Holland. Job went through the academy as a player and has been heavily involved with coaching at top division teams in the country. Currently he is the coach at FC Inter Turku in Finland. 

How have Ajax (or other teams) changed their approach to training youth players through their academy?

Recently I have noticed changes at Ajax in Holland in regards to how they approach their youth training. Rather than focusing on teams and tactical development they are looking solely at the individual. I worked at AZ Alkmaar for five years, which along with Ajax and Feyenoord have one of the best youth academies. Similar changes are not yet being made there, so this is something that is unique to Ajax and coming from Johan Cruyff.

Players and their individual development are of course the most important priorities, but I feel like the way of playing within a team is still important. You start with the basic ingredients of the meal (technical skills) but then you are looking for the sauces and flavors which are missing from their game. At Ajax they are bringing in a lot of specialists from soccer and from other sports (including judo and gymnastics) and making programs where players are more or less completely individual and not belonging to teams. They still play for teams but that isn’t the priority.

When I was growing up we played outside a lot – climbing trees, running through fields and so on – but kids don’t do that so much now. They train at clubs but they don’t exercise outside of their scheduled hours. Ajax are trying to find all of those moments (like climbing trees) by bringing in specialists to train players in those movements.

My belief is that you should first work on your way of playing, then you get players in certain positions, then you look at the tasks for those positions (and at every age group they can add more pieces to that), then you can add in the various specialists. Without some of these pieces you can lose the team and tactical understanding.

So what do their actual training sessions look like at Ajax now?

They have brought back a lot of former players to act as head coaches of the various junior teams. Then during the session the midfielders might go with Ronald de Boer, the strikers are working with Marco van Basten and so on. There is a lot good in that, but I think it should be more structured and coming out from the way of playing, not just from the individualized approach. The team is still important in football. Also, not every former player makes a great coach or can structure things in a good way.

What do you think the impact will be on future professional players and teams?

It can be a good thing, but the team is still important. The team has to play in a certain way, that must be clear for all the players. From out of that you can go on to the individual player and try to make him better and better in all ways. Feyenoord follows a more traditional approach to their academy, and they are located in a most populous region for youth players in Holland. As a result they get a lot of players, which allows them to have a high level of quality in their academy. I’m sure AZ and the other clubs will be watching to see what the outcome is of the new Ajax approach and whether it brings anything more.

The clubs should be the ones who decide what and how they want to teach their players. It shouldn’t necessarily be something that is controlled from the Federation level. It doesn’t have to be the ‘Dutch’ 4-3-3, it could be 4-4-2 like Swedish teams do, or other formations. From there you try to build your scouting system and other components to structure your club around developing your model and see what the outcome is. Ajax have put lots of money into specialist trainers but I don’t know if it brings more. If you bring in a really good striker trainer one or two times each week to help the normal coach to educate the academy strikers, I believe there is a significant benefit in technical development and excitement from the players. But I think that comes second to the team development.

We also talked to Job about how he runs his academy at FC Inter in Finland. Read all about it here.

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