On Tuesday night, the footballing world was stunned by a young Ajax side strolling to a 2-1 victory against Italian giants Juventus. A 3-2 aggregate win saw the famous Dutch club advance to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, one month after embarrassing holders Real Madrid. They did so in a manner enjoyable to even the most old-fashioned of fans, but it is their work off the pitch that has caught the eye, and Chelsea can learn from it.
Ajax lined up against their Italian opponents with a team built from a mixture of homegrown talent and bargain buys. Their most expensive player, David Neres for around €12 million, spent his first season in the development squad, and their second most expensive player is a Premier League reject in Dusan Tadic.
Four of Ajax’s starting 11 were developed in the club’s famous academy, one that has produced more players currently playing in Europe’s top divisions than any other club in the world. The other seven were signed for a combined fee of £45 million, a measly £10 million more than Chelsea paid Leicester City for the services of Danny Drinkwater.
It is a modern fairytale that simply does not happen in today’s age of football. A project that was started years before any of us took notice. The plan that Chelsea must look to mirror if they are to come out of their transfer ban unscathed.
The man behind the genius work at Ajax is Manchester United legend, Edwin van der Sar. The former Dutch goalkeeper was promoted to the club’s CEO in late 2016 after working as the marketing director for four years. van der Sar’s work with the academy and player recruitment has been second to none, and the biggest reason Ajax are the most loved team on the continent.
The same cannot be said about Chelsea who are still yet to appoint a technical director after Michael Emenalo left the club in 2017. If Chelsea are to follow in the steps of Ajax, this must be the first port of call.
The most mentioned name by fans is former player, Michael Ballack. Despite never working in a similar role, the German was on the club’s shortlist last year, according to the Evening Standard’s Simon Johnson. Ballack has mainly worked in the media since his retirement from football but would be a popular appointment as Chelsea’s technical director, and is a man who knows the club inside out.
Chelsea need someone who understands the infamous culture at the club and appreciates the talent they have at their disposal. Ballack certainly ticks those boxes, but fails when it comes to having experience at shaping recruitment.
One man who is familiar with the role is Luis Campos. Currently working as Lille’s sporting director, Campos has experience with recruiting big names, both within the club and from outside. However, it was reported earlier this year that the French club have no intentions of letting their sought after director leave the club.
It is likely Chelsea will not be able to register any players from outside the club this summer, so recruiting from inside will be imperative if they are to take inspiration from Ajax. The Dutch club are famous for having a strong academy, and it was reflected in their approach against Juventus. Chelsea fans could only dream of having four academy products playing for them in the Champions League quarter-finals, but Matthijs De Ligt, Donny van de Beek, Joel Veltman and Noussair Mazraoui showed it is possible with the right structure in place.
Ajax’s academy has produced some of the best players in the history of the sport. Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert, to name a few, have all walked through the doors of the academy. Despite still being successful at bringing youngsters through the ranks, Ajax are without a national title at youth level since 2014. In that time, Chelsea have been back-to-back U18 Premier League champions, lifted the UEFA Youth League twice, and won four FA Youth Cups in a row.
The contrast in youth talent at both clubs’ disposal is minimal. The only difference is the purpose of the academies. Chelsea are a club with a financial drive, a club that uses its own academy to penny pinch, and unless this changes then the club will remain in an unwanted spiral. Players are developed at Ajax with the intentions of nurturing them into the first team for performance gains, whereas prospects at Chelsea are loaned out and developed elsewhere until they have a big enough market value to warrant selling them.
The players in Ajax’s academy are no better than those in Chelsea’s. If the latter want to emulate the success Ajax have had, giving their talented youth players a chance is essential. The inevitable transfer ban for Chelsea could be a blessing in disguise. It would force the club to put trust in players they would usually ignore, something Ajax do voluntarily. It is likely youngsters such as Reece James, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham would have been shown the temporary door again in the summer, but now they will be licking their lips at the prospect of stepping out at Stamford Bridge, and rightly so.
Chelsea’s brightest talent, Callum Hudson-Odoi, has been handed a regular starting place in recent weeks, suggesting the club are starting their possible youth-driven structure early. Their fans would be getting their wish if this is the case, but with Ethan Ampadu’s development showing no signs of progress, it is difficult to gauge which direction the club are looking to go in.
The man in charge of producing performances on the pitch at Ajax is Erik ten Hag. He demands a fun and attractive style of play, similar to that of Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri’s philosophy. ten Hag can turn unknown talents into football masters who can cope with the toughest challenges at the highest level, and put smiles on faces in doing so. Sarri did something similar at Napoli but has failed to mimic the same footballing magic at Chelsea.
ten Hag has shown that beautiful yet effective football can be taught to youngsters, which bodes well for the future of Sarri and gives fans a reason to back the Italian. However, if the club decide they want to part ways with their current manager but stick with a similar philosophy, then there are worse ideas than pinching ten Hag from Ajax in the same summer their first team roster will inevitably be raided.
Over the past two months, the footballing world has fallen in love with a young and energetic Ajax team. It has taken years of hard work behind the scenes to get to where they are, and it will likely only last until the summer, but it is a structure that Chelsea could imitate in their current situation, and remain at the top for even longer.
Written by Liam Wilson.