For all the justified talk about Ajax’s fabled De Toekomst academy, a brief history of the club’s record departures suggests that their scouting team is just as adept at securing talent as their youth coaching team – if not more.

  • By George Smith
  • Follow George on Twitter

By any account of the figure, Frenkie de Jong’s switch to Barcelona will prove to be the largest amount Ajax have received for a player in the Amsterdam side’s history. Surrounding the move, many commentators were quick to pour praise upon the Ajax academy for producing another gem. This narrative, of course, is inaccurate – the player arrived at the club and went straight into Jong Ajax, having come through Willem II’s academy and making his professional debut in Tilburg.

A glance further down Ajax’s record transfer list follows a similar pattern: Davinson Sanchez, Arkadiusz Milik, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar all arrived in the Dutch capital as young players with previous professional experience but departed (for not insignificant sums) as players defined by their time with the Netherlands most successful club.

Of the current top 10 most expensive departures, only Justin Kluivert, Daley Blind, Wesley Sneijder, and Davy Klaasen rose through the academy ranks to make it to the first team and beyond. Given all of their careers since leaving, only Wesley Sneijder arguably went on to fulfil the expectations thrust upon him. It is true that Blind won trophies at Manchester United and Justin Kluivert has a decade ahead of him to excel, but the fact remains that by any measure, Ajax’s recent history has been dominated by players scouted at a young age, not nurtured at De Toekomst.

Gone are the days when Ajax – and by extension, the Dutch national team – are dominated by academy graduates. Though this is not necessarily the result of declining ability in Dutch talent, coaching provisions, or the club’s structures. Rather, it is the result of an extension of a series of networks and institutional facilities. It is in this way that former Eredivisie winners like Jan Vertonghen and Thulani Serero made their way to the club.

Since then Ajax have consolidated and expanded their operations, growing their brand and penetrating new markets – as all top clubs around the world are. In 2018 alone the club entered into a partnership with teams in China, Australia, and Japan. Their latest step was an expansion into North America, spearheaded by an office in New York City. What this has also coincided with, however, is one of the club’s longest barren run in their history: not since the 2013/14 season have Ajax won silverware, domestic or otherwise.

What this is to suggest is not that Ajax have lost their way, nor that De Toekomst is struggling to produce talent anymore. A brief glance at Ajax, Jong Ajax, and even the under-19s suggests otherwise. From the current crop, no doubt Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek, and Kasper Dolberg will command fees and achieve success that challenges this argument. Indeed, they all have come close to titles.

But fundamentally, when considering clubs fabled for their youth system, a warning should be noted: behind every great youth coach is a great scout. When discussing Ajax’s talent conveyor belt with gushing praise, remember the adjacent work done by talent scouting and ensuring young players arrive at Amsterdam in the first place.

George Smith (33 Posts)