A glimpse into the future that Johan Cruyff’s legacy has left behind at Ajax Amsterdam:
Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift.
— Johan Cruyff
Johan Cruijff has done more for the game of football than any other individual in the history of the sport. He built an empire in Amsterdam, sustained one in Barcelona, mentored some of the greatest minds in world football today, and revolitionized the very way the sport is played. Cruyff died on March 24, 2016. But it was only fitting that in the decade leading up to his death he left one last gift for us to enjoy.
On May 24th, Ajax are playing in a final of a European competition. That is the first time anyone can say that since 1995, when Ajax deafeated Milan 2-0 to win the Champions league with a certain Louis van Gaal. To genuinely understand how they got here in 2017 you have to go back to 2008.
Cruyff had grown tired of seeing what Ajax had become, a team with a fading youth development program that had now resorted to buying young players from elsewhere like Luis Suarez from Groningen and Klaas-Jan Hunelaar from Heerenveen.
For the next several years, amid constant bickering with club officials, Cruyff joined Ajax as a technical director and consultant, and moulded the culture of the team back to his liking. He was a major influence on successful staff hiring’s we see today at the club such as Marc Overmars, Edwin van der Sar, and Peter Bosz himself, the manager of this proud new Ajax team. More importantly, he poured resources and knowledge into the youth academy, developing players from the ripe age of 9-12 years old onwards. Make no mistake about it, we are seeing the direct result of this academy revolution right before our eyes here in 2017.
Ajax are a lot of things but they are not rich. And even more significantly, the Eredivisie, their domestic league, is not rich. This makes it almost unrealistic to think that Ajax can or will hold on to the adbundance of young talent that got them to the Europa League Final.
Ajax are full of players that will most likely be playing for large clubs in Spain, England, Germany, and Italy. Below is a humble analysis of some of the finest young gems that Cruyff’s methods of player development has yielded, as well as a tentative prediction on when they will transfer and to which club they may fit:
Home Country: Denmark
He may have less exposure, but Dolberg belongs in the same breath as Mbappe and Rashford. Aside from a fantastic awareness and understanding that you don’t often see in teenagers, some of his standout attributes include his strength, finishing ability, and knack of scoring stunning goals.
When: Dolberg has recently said he will stay at Ajax this season so if he continues his form then his departure time may be Summer of 2018.
Where: Bayern Munich
Matthijs de Ligt:
Home Country: Netherlands
Matthijs de Ligt is 17 years old and already playing at the highest level. He still makes mistakes from time to time which is, of course, forgivable for a player who is so young. But he has responded to adversity well and with maturity which is no doubt the mark of a future captain. De Ligt has terrifyingly good instincts, great strength and athleticism, and the eternally valuable ability of being able to transition into attack from the back line. Plus he has an absolute hammer of a long shot from either foot.
When: Summer 2020
Where: I could be wrong on all of these of course but de Ligt absolutely screams Barca player.
Home Country: Netherlands
Justin’s father was a part of the Ajax team that beat Milan in 1995 so he does have some shoes to fill. He is a different kind of player than his bloodline might suggest though. Patrick Kluivert was a striker, while Justin is a winger whose playing style could almost be likened to Neymar. At only 18, he is already humiliating full-backs everywhere he goes. The talent level of this lad is simply incredible. Young wingers aren’t always the most reliable to pan out but if Kluivert does he could be a serious force in world football.
When: Summer 2019
Where: He has voiced his desire to play for Barca one day and with Suarez and Messi aging that seems reasonable enough if he keeps developing.
Home Country: Colombia
Position: Centre back
Ok this one is cheating just a bit because Ajax only just bought Sanchez as a 19 year old. So although this was a fantastic piece of scouting on their part, he was not developed in the youth system of the club. Anyway, the general consensus is that Davinson Sanchez is a beast. Dominamce in the air and great tackling are the traits that define him but he is also a leader with the ability to get amongst the goals and distribute the ball well from the back. Him and de Ligt are very comparable players.
When: Summer 2018
Where: Not to be repetitive but Barca was also scouting him last year and have said it was a “mistake” to let Ajax get to him first. They have asked for another chance at him already.
Donny van de Beek/Abdelhak Nouri:
Home Countries: Netherlands
Positions: Midfield/Attacking Midfield
These two are grouped together not because their play is similar but because their situations are. They both dominated the youth ranks together and the only thing holding them back at the senior level is that Ajax are deep with developed talent in the midfield (Klaassen, Ziyech, and Schone) which makes it hard to get playing time.
Van de Beek seems eerily similar to Toni Kroos while the 5’7″ 130 lb and Nouri thrives off of his touch and vision. Think Özil but slower and easier to push off the ball but WAY harder working when he isn’t in possession.
With Klaassen likely departing for Ajax this summer, van de Beek should start with Nouri getting an increased role.
When: Summer 2019/At least 5 more years with Ajax
Where: Tottenham/Nouri seems to love Ajax and teams will be scared off by his small frame
Now these are some, but not nearly all of the players in Amsterdam that could be the new faces of world football. And the Ajax Academy has shown no signs of slowing down either. The club is a wonderful and refreshing example of culture and education trumping money in modern football. Ajax is a beautiful piece of art built by Johan Cruijff, who has left a gift to admire for years to come.