By Subendran Ravindran
Amid the hoopla of the Champions League build-up between United and Barca and the wrap-up of European leagues around the world, I turned my attention to something interesting, I recently spoke to a disgruntled Liverpool fan and he said that a system like Ajax was not responsible for the glut of great players coming out of their academy, he pointed out by giving an example of Ryan Babel (currently playing at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim) who flopped at Liverpool. He said that it was the individual and not the system; it is interesting despite his liking of Barca and their youth system and style of play, is he right about individual over system?
On the field as much as tactics are important you need capable individuals to win games, if it wasn’t we will have Blackpool and Wolves winning the Premier League if it was all about just tactics. What people forget is the process involved in getting to the pinnacle of success. Player development is very important this is why Barcelona and Manchester United are always there in the final end of major competitions year in and year out. In a recent interview with Barca player Xavi ( World Soccer magazine), he clearly admitted that the model and style of play of Barca system was from Ajax, it was indoctrinated to coach Pep Guardiola when he was a player under Dutch master, Johan Cruyff in the 90s.
Barca have a system of teaching their players to think on their feet, all are encouraged to play the first touch, their taught to interchange positions as much as possible from the day they step into the youth team. Barca have most of their players now from Catalonia and despite Messi not being from Spain, he would not have been playing football if Barca did not step in at the age of 13 to take him and his family to Catalonia. He had medical problems related to his growth, but Barca scouts saw something in him and took him from Argentina and groomed him with other Barca players like Fabregas, Xavi, Inesita and the rest. The fruits we are seeing now in this awesome Barca machine came from the Ajax system. We are also seeing the years of coaching at grassroots and grooming a group of players together for long periods coming to fruition now.
Manchester United too are reaping the benefits of the system, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes all came from the youth system. Sir Alex was careful in trimming and pruning using this as a base for the team despite not having the same glut of youth flowing from the academy in the last decade or so, but this is because of the English FA’s new 1 hour rule of picking players who are not more than an hour’s drive from the club (protection for lower league clubs). Sir Alex still managed to get the likes of Wes Brown, Darren Gibson, Darren Fletcher, Kieran Richardson, Danny Welbeck, John O’ Shea and numerous others and used them sparingly with other experienced players and signings.
Even Real Madrid as much as they get a lot of stick for not giving youth a chance has the most players from the academy playing in La Liga, granted they do not actually have a style of play like Barca, United or Ajax, but they have produced well from their system even if other clubs get the best of it now, some of the Spanish players playing now in La Liga were actually from the Real Madrid academy. While Barca moulds players for themselves, Real have developed many players who are benefiting La Liga and the Spanish national team together with Barcelona who form the backbone of it.
So the question comes back why isn’t Ajax so successful if the system is so great? It is all about economics, just when they thought they might be entering the golden era when Ajax won the Champions League in 1995 and was also in the final in 1996, Ajax became the happy hunting ground for bigger clubs and still are, so while the philosophy is great their players get snatched by more profitable clubs just before Ajax can launch a great team. The players who need more time at the youth level are fast tracked to the senior team and Ajax survive on these transfers out as it boosts their revenue, but if you look at the glut of players and if you interview players like Wesley Schneider or Xavi they will tell you how much the system helped them as they have told in numerous interviews.
We will always see players like Babel not making it through, but you will have more players like Kluivert, Kano, Schneider, Van der Vaart, Van de sar, Bryan Roy, Clarence Seedorf, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Frank de Boer, Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, Zlatan Ibramovic (all from Ajax) and many more coming out of the system, There could be many reasons why Babel did not fit into Liverpool and this only Babel or Liverpool FC will know, there were also problems on and off the field.
Compared with two current Dutch players who came out from the Ajax system and who are top of their game now; Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, Babel lost out on his formative years, He only spent 6 years (1998-2004) at youth level at Ajax compared to Sneijder who spent 11 years (1991-2002) and Van der Vaart, 7 years (1993-2000).
It gets more interesting at senior level where Babel comes out third again. Babbel only spent 3 years (2004-07) before being snatched by Liverpool, while Sneijder spent 5 years (2002-07) the same for Van der Vaart (2000-05).
Whatever the reason “systems’ like Barca, United, Real and Ajax will always be there to bring the best out of the individual and become the cream of the crop. The situation might change at Ajax with UEFA’s president Michel Platini coming out with better financial systems that regulates clubs’ spending and administration that benefits the clubs who are not financial giants, it will be interesting to see how these clubs like Ajax start to cope on and off the field.