The fact that the youth academy at Ajax Amsterdam (Ajax) is named De Toekomst is indicative of the ethos that the club is built around. De Toekomst translates to English as The Future.
Ajax have a reputation around the world as perhaps the premier developers of young talent, the list of players that have come through the doors of De Toekomst reads like a who’s who of some of the most talented players to have played the game. Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Franck De Boer, Ronald De Boer, Aaron Winter, Patrick Kluivert and of course the late great Johan Cruyff to name but a few.
Recently the emphasis on the type of player that the club is developing has changed somewhat. There are still a number of talented wide players in the youth setup – something that has always been seen as key to the Ajax philosophy – but now we are seeing more technically proficient central players appearing.
Ajax place a great emphasis on small sided games and one on one or one on two work within their system in order to develop technical mastery of the ball and create environments in which young players are continually having to make decisions and solve problems without the immediate input of coaching staff. This focus on individual development has started to show signs of success with the profiles of the most talented young players currently at the club.
For the purpose of this article I have identified four of the most talented prospects in the Ajax system. I have deliberately left out the extremely talented Danish forward Kasper Dolberg simply because he has already cemented his position as a first team regular. All of the players profiled here have the potential to become regular members of the first team squad and are on the verge of making their breakthrough.
Frenkie De Jong
Position: Central Midfielder
Frenkie De Jong is a central midfielder who has already shown the versatility to play a number of different roles in the team. He is equally comfortable as the deeper midfielder controlling the play from deep or as the more advanced player looking to link in to the attackers.
As well as possessing an excellent range of passing with the ability to go long or short with ease De Jong also has the vision and technique to link play in tight areas with his ability to cushion passes and flicks between defensive structures to find team mates.
He is a capable finisher when he gets the chance in front of goal although he could still add more goals to his game.
In terms of weak points De Jong still needs to develop his defensive ability and although he is physically able to recover position when the opposition transitions to attack he can still be guilty of switching off during periods of the game.
Here we can see De Jong advancing in to the middle third of the field with the ball at his feet.
He has space ahead of him to continue driving with the ball should he see fit but he is also intelligent enough to recognise that the opposition are sitting with a high defensive line. As he moves forward he reads the movement of the striker who is bending his run to stay onside and access the space between the two central defenders. De Jong is able to clip the ball forward in to space showing the ability to weight the pass perfectly for the striker to run on to the ball.
In this example Ajax are in a more established attacking position and this time De Jong looks to support the attacking movement by running from deep.
When he takes possession of the ball on the edge of the area the inclination of many younger players would be to shoot immediately running the risk of the shot being blocked.
Instead De Jong continues his run across the penalty area in to a pocket of space allowing him to strike the ball in to the bottom corner accurately.
Here De Jong links in with the attacking line to devastating effect.
As he initially takes possession of the ball from the player in the wide area he immediately flicks the ball around the corner to the striker. Instead of standing still after this movement he continues an angled run between the defensive structure.
The attacker immediately returns the ball in to the path of De Jong and he is able to move in for a chance on goal.
Matthijs De Ligt
Position: Central Defender
Matthijs De Ligt is a young central defender whose composure and reading of the game resemble that of a much older and more experienced player.
His potential and the regard in which he is held by the club is shown in the fact that he has already started matches for the first team although he is yet to secure a regular first team place.
As well as being solid in the defensive phase of the game De Ligt is very much a defender in the modern mould with his ability to bring the ball out from the back and play quick vertical passes through the lines of the opposition providing a welcome addition to the Ajax attacking phase.
Here we see Ajax in an established attacking phase against a well set up defensive block from the opposing side.
De Light is comfortable moving forward to join the attacking phase either when running with the ball at his feet or passing the ball in to advanced areas.
On this occasion he has moved forward to provide a deeper passing option to the man in possession to try to provoke the defensive block to move out. Instead as the ball comes back to him he is under no pressure and is able to release an excellent shot towards the top corner of the goal.
Here you can see De Ligt contributing in the defensive phase of play. As the opponent moves centrally towards the final third of the pitch we see the anticipation and decision making of De Ligt come in to play.
He moves out of the defensive block to challenge the man in possession of the ball as soon as the opponent takes a heavy touch.
Not only does De Ligt win back possession he then moves up the field in possession of the ball to instigate the next attack.
Once again De Ligt shows that he is the most proactive defender as the opponent takes possession of the ball with his back to the Ajax goal.
He chooses the right time to step out and challenge the ball carrier winning the ball back for his team and preventing a potentially dangerous situation for his team.
Position: Attacking midfielder
Abdelhak Nouri has been one of my favourite young players for a while now. Capable of operating either as a six, an eight or a ten he has the playmaking ability to dictate the tempo and pace of the match from almost any central position.
He combines excellently with teammates in tight spaces and has the quality to break down opposition defensive blocks with the speed and angles of his passing movements.
Nouri could still improve in his defensive contributions with his slight frame seeing him brushed aside too easily at times and his lack of defensive intelligence can sometimes see him being caught out of position in the defensive phase.
For all of that though Nouri remains one of the players that fans of the club are keen to see getting more time with the first team.
Here we see the ability that Nouri has to accelerate through the opposition lines.
He has picked the ball up on the edge of his own area before moving out to the wide area. Despite being closed down by effectively three opposition players he displays his close control and appreciation of space to drive past the opposition players launching an effective counter attack in to the opposition half.
Nouri is difficult to dispossess cleanly with teams tending to rely on fouls to stop him when he is in full flight.
In this example Nouri has the ball in his own half with the opposition set up in an effective block having pivoted over with their most advanced line to cut off the passing angles for Nouri.
Instead of playing short past the first line or looking to drive through the lines with the ball at his feet he has the intelligence to identify the open space on the far side of the field.
He also has the technique and accuracy to play the ball over the long distance to access the space with a diagonal pass.
As Nouri is carrying the ball through the middle third of the pitch he has space open in which to drive through to with the ball at his feet.
His decision making is reliable enough however that when he identifies the space behind the defensive line and the run being made by his wide team mate he pulls the trigger on the pass.
The pass is angled in to the path of the running wide player with the perfect weight allowing him to take the ball in his stride and move forward.
Donny Van De Beek
Position: Central midfield
Another central midfielder features on our list. Perhaps this is indicative of the change of focus and emphasis that Ajax have placed on the development of their young players in the technical side of the game.
Van De Beek is another multi functional midfield player who is comfortable in a variety of positions and roles on the pitch as well as in the attacking and defensive phase of the game.
Van De Beek is perhaps most comfortable as an eight with the freedom to dictate the tempo of the match.
Here we see Van De Beek in an advanced position of the field. It is reasonably uncommon for Ajax to play direct passes of this nature through the air but on this occasion the technical ability of the young midfielder turns it in to a goalscoring opportunity.
As the ball arrives Van De Beek is aware of the movement of the central player and he immediately flicks the ball in to the central area around the defensive players for the attacker to run on to.
The ability to scan the field and identify the space and movement around him make Van De Beek an exciting prospect.
As with Nouri above Van De Beek is equally comfortable playing the long diagonal pass across the field.
With the opposition in a relatively deep defensive block in front of him Van De Beek identifies the space on the opposite side of the field and switches the play with ease.
Here Van De Beek has the ball centrally in the final third of the pitch. The space is tight with the defensive line of the opposition in a compact shape.
Instead of looking to access the wide areas or reset the ball backwards we see Van De Beek display composure on the ball pausing in possession before playing the ball through a vertical lane in the defensive line for the forward player to attack.
This type of vision and composure on the ball fits very well with the footballing philosophy of the club and its coaching staff.
I had initially planned to list five players in this piece. It quickly became apparent however that the list could have contained ten players such is the quality of the youth system at Ajax.
With the Dutch national team currently undergoing something of a crisis and rebuild they need their biggest club to get back to producing the type of technically excellent and mentally strong players that they used to.
In truth the future looks to be extremely bright for both club and country.