Ajax, Barcelona and the importance of a strong youth system
One can tell a lot about a football club from its youth system. The progressive club, steered by men of vision and intellect, will recognise that producing homegrown players is not only cost-effective, but also the most realistic way of implementing a long-term legacy of success. It will pump funds into the scouting, teaching and overall development of top youth players, building a team around a core of its own academy graduates rather than spending recklessly on transfers.
In football, creating a productive youth system is perhaps the closest thing to controllable idealism. The tale of La Masia, though well worn, still remains a study in football perfection. That a nondescript eighteenth century farmhouse could, with the forward-thinking philosophy of a few men and the inexorable sprawl of FC Barcelona, be transformed into a physical and symbolic breeding ground for some of history's greatest footballers should act as inspiration.
In its theoretical sense, creating a fine youth system at a top club can be that easy. A considerable amount of investment, coupled with visionary direction, can get an academy off the ground. Then, a club must employ a strong technical staff of scouts and coaches who share that uniform philosophy in order to find and develop talented players who will complement its overarching ideals.
In the case of Barça, a club of renewable wealth, the visionary direction was supplied by the inimitable Johan Cruyff. By the time Cruyff seized managerial control at the Camp Nou in 1988, the old La Masia building had long been used to house Barcelona youth players who lived outside the city limits and therefore required accommodation. However, its symbolic standing as a place of education in the Barça ethos was only precipitated when Cruyff determined to reboot the entire club.
One of his core beliefs centred around a youth system that would be the envy of a footballing world, a place where the best young players would not only prepare physically like professionals with regulated diet and conditioning, but also be tutored in the technical intricacies of a definitive passing style.
The first wave of La Masia graduates truly schooled in devout Cruyffism brought great success to the Catalan club. A clutch of players, including versatile midfielder Guillermo Amor and a certain pivot named Pep Guardiola, helped form the base of a Barça side that won six La Liga titles and a European Cup throughout the 1990s.
In La Masia, the key concepts of Cruyff's philosophy were taught from an early age, with a heavy coaching emphasis on vision, composure, technique and intricate ball control. The many levels of Barcelona, ranging from pre-teen children right through to Barça B, were coached in a uniform manner, with the same playing style and systems used to afford familiarity.
Accordingly, when youth players graduated into Cruyff's first team plans, they were prepared, resulting in a versatile core that played fluid football. The case of FC Barcelona showcases youth production as an effective means to building a firm legacy and enhancing a powerful identity. Eventually, the development of homegrown talent at La Masia became a club tradition, synonymous with FC Barcelona itself.
“The player who has passed through La Masia has something different to the rest, it's a plus that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt since the time you were a child,” says Guardiola, highlighting one of the brightest rewards for any club attempting to build a successful academy.
The organic products are bound to resonate with their fans while also helping to shape the meaning, direction and vision of a football club. In essence, youth players can be viewed as the physical embodiment of a club’s philosophy: either your team will have plenty of vibrant prospects sure to provide a sustainable future or it will struggle to produce and toil frustratingly in a tailspin of short-termism.
It is vitally important that a club sends the correct message to its fans. A sparkling youth system not only affirms that message of care with tangible evidence, but also opens new possibilities in branding, public relations and squad construction. It's one of the true barometers of a football club's health.
Therefore, I doubt we have seen a healthier club than the Barça spearheaded by Guardiola from 2008-2012. During this period, Barça played some of the most scintillating football our planet has ever known. The tiki-taka style, involving a cast of wee men fizzing about and finding achingly beautiful passes en route to sublime goals, had us all squirming in absolute delight. At times, it was just petrifying to watch. We had never witnessed such stupefying levels of athletic symbiosis.
That Barcelona team was the best I have ever seen, and they have the medals to prove it. Pep navigated a fine assortment of players to 15 trophies in five years, including three straight La Liga crowns and two UEFA Champions League triumphs. They were almost invincible. The simplified secret to Barça's success? A world-beating youth academy that educated players in the minutiae of 4-3-3 before they could even shave and insisted on levels of professionalism descendent of Cruyff.
While at the helm, Pep Guardiola handed professional debuts to 22 La Masia graduates. During a period where Barça produced one eye-watering statistic after another, this is perhaps the most absurd.
In effect, La Masia churned out four or five first-team-ready players every year. And we're not talking rough diamonds. No, we're talking Busquets, Thiago and Deulofeu; Bartra, Cuenca and Tello. In addition, Pep inherited an epochal core of homegrown players, with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and, of course, Messi ready to hit astonishing peaks.
Furthermore, Victor Valdés, Bojan, Pedro, Pique and Puyol were all alumni of Barça's mesmeric school. These players cost absolutely nothing by way of transfer fees and brought an array of attributes that Barça used to rewrite the history books: incredible vision, insatiable passing ability, searing pace, killer finishing, tactical acumen, guts, guile, heart, swagger. It was a monument to shrewd business. It was a victory for sustainable long-termism. It was the sweetest of homemade cakes.
In many ways, it was also quintessentially Ajax. Huw Jennings, a renowned academy director in England, famously said that “all modern ideas on how to develop youngsters begin with Ajax. They are the founding fathers.”
The link between Amsterdam and Catalonia is embodied by Cruyff. He played for and managed both clubs, first stamping his seminal vision in Holland and then in Catalan.
After retirement, Cruyff became Ajax manager in 1985 and resuscitated the Total Football ethos of his mentor Rinus Michels. The Ajax first team played in an exotic formation and style straight from the imagination of great men, almost with a revolving conveyor belt inspired by space and distance. While the immediate gain in terms of silverware was negligible due to the steely domination of PSV under Guus Hiddink, Cruyff inculcated his vision in a place where it could grow best: the youth system.
In the case of Ajax's De Toekomst academy, many were inspired by the foundations laid by Cruyff. Indeed, several homegrown products schooled in his vision progressing to win the Champions League together in 1995.
Nowadays, Ajax is yet another club which proves that a solid youth academy is a prudent way of maintaining a club identity, philosophy and legacy. De Toekomst is now an ultra-modern school in much the same mould as La Masia. A shiny complex consisting of classrooms, workout facilities and offices for sports scientists, the academy brings character to an otherwise bland district of Amsterdam.
On the eight full-size pitches of De Toekomst, roughly 200 players are taught in a specific ideology of pass-and-move football. The TIPS model, a unique system honed at Ajax, aims to develop four key pillars of a young players' game: technique, insight, personality and speed.
A technical syllabus centred on physical attributes such as passing and shooting add meat to the TIPS skeleton. This is the Ajax philosophy, which endures through generations and safeguards the club’s historical meaning.
The list of players who have graduated through the Ajax school is almost as impressive as that of Barcelona. Rijkaard, Bergkamp and Edgar Davids; Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and the De Boer twins; van der Vaart, Sneijder and Nigel De Jong. All have walked the halls of De Toekomst before advancing to the highest levels of the world game. They have won European Cups and league titles in many different countries. They have starred on the biggest stages and shared the Ajax message all over the globe.
Therefore, almost every intellectual football fan knows what Ajax stands for. Every football club should wish for similar levels of notoriety, and an illustrious youth system can bring it. While the story of youth football naturally begins with Ajax and Barcelona, it certainly does not end at those institutions. Many of the world's largest football clubs take pride in their youth development programmes having seen it as a financially prudent and philosophically advantaged model.
In decades gone by, West Ham and Manchester United relied greatly on youth, the former churning out players such as Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole while the latter provided a golden generation with which Sir Alex Ferguson wrote history.
Further afield, the Grêmio academy boasts Ronaldinho among its alumni while Sporting CP developed Cristiano Ronaldo. The florescent revolution of Borussia Dortmund, meanwhile, was inspired by an undercurrent of exciting youth players like Kevin Großkreutz and Marcel Schmelzer.
In South America, the El Semillero school of Argentinos Juniors has taken on almost mythical significance having tutored Diego Maradona, Juan Román Riquelme and Esteban Cambiasso. Further, Boca Juniors and River Plate, behemoths of the Argentine game, take talented kids from colourful barrios and provide a vehicle towards prosperity and fame.
What unmistakable truth can be gleamed from these examples? Every professional football player must start somewhere, must be discovered and must be given a chance. By demonstrating a thorough belief and dedication to honing a competitive youth network, a club coincidentally increases its chances of unearthing the next world class superstar. Who would not want to take advantage of such opportunities?
The Premier League certainly wants to, which is where an important equipoise must be struck. Its controversial Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) aims to establish a hierarchy of English academies with relaxed rules freeing movement from lower league clubs. As a Tranmere Rovers fan, I'm naturally worried that any top prospects developed at my club could effectively be cherry-picked by Premier League powerhouses at a pittance.
The EPPP has been ushered in with many supporters arguing that it will enrich academy football within our country. I believe this to be far from true. In actuality, I feel that the EPPP could represent a death knell for the type of youth models described in this piece because the extent to which a club can construct an academy must adhere to general rules of relativity.
If one mega-rich club can stockpile talents from all over a nation, the object of youth development is entirely contradicted. I believe that more stringent geographical regulations should return, with each professional football club assigned a certain radius from which it can scout, sign and develop players. Therefore, even lower league clubs like Tranmere can dream of creating a mini-Barcelona, with young Wirral footballers enriching many aspects of the club.
If this delicate balance is not reached, Football League clubs will not only struggle from a chronic lack of quality, but will also flirt with complete extinction. A level playing field is needed to narrow the gulf in class and give every club an equal opportunity to hone its long-term ethos. The benefits of youth production outlined in this article should not be exclusive to huge clubs. We all deserve a shot at homegrown glory.