A blog following in Dennis' footsteps. Ajax, Arsenal and Dutch football
As shown on www.goonersphere.com
The open top bus reaches the centre of the capital. A red and white crowd cheers as the club captain lifts the title trophy, the manager smiles approvingly. “We’ve done it again, we made it”, he thinks. The roar of the crowd gets louder and louder. He waves shyly as they chant his name, for he doesn’t like to be the centre of attention. But he deserves it; his team just won their third title during his tenure. They did it in style, conceding the least amount of goals while playing very attractive and attacking football.
It hadn’t been easy for our manager. Admittedly, he settled in pretty well with a 2-0 win away from home, but to take over at a big club and to be treated with a lot of scepticism is not the ideal position to be in. Especially since the club hadn’t won the league title for seven years before he took over.
If you thought I wasn’t solely talking about Arsène Wenger, I salute you. If you immediately realised I was talking about both Frank de Boer AND Arsène Wenger, we should be friends. That’s what I’m here for; writing about Dutch football and the Dutch Eredivisie, and of course Arsenal Football club. ‘Connecting the dots’, as they say.
In my first column I’ll try to educate you about my beloved Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax – the club that produced my favourite player and Arsenal legend, Dennis Bergkamp – and what the Dutch giants have to teach us in this financially challenging period in world football.
On the 5th of May, Dutch Liberty Day, Ajax clinched their 32nd and third consecutive Eredivisie title when they beat already relegated Willem II at the Amsterdam ArenA. An impressive feat in itself, but even more so considering that they lost their club captain and player of the year (the comparisons with Arsenal are stunning) the summer before. Furthermore, rivals PSV Eindhoven spent a lot of money to strengthen, buying Kevin Strootman, Dries Mertens, Mark van Bommel, Georginio Wijnaldum, Przemyslaw Tyton, Timothy Derijck, Jetro Willems, Tim Matavz and Luciano Narsingh for a grand total of 28 million pounds in the summers of 2011 and 2012, replacing almost their entire starting XI.
In that same period, Ajax had a difficult time as a club. Their entire board was replaced when Johan Cruijff stormed in and said that he ‘didn’t agree with the direction the club was going in.’, causing a lot of insecurity, changes at both board- and youth-setup level and an absolute hammering by the media, all at the same time.
So how did captain-of-the-ship Frank de Boer weather the storm? How did he manage to win back-to-back-to-back titles whilst losing not only club captain Jan Vertonghen, but also the captain before him and top goalscorer, Luis Suárez, the season before? How did he cope with the, basically government funded, spending power of rivals PSV Eindhoven?
Clarity, consistency and calmness; Three words that typify Frank de Boer. Having learned his trade under mentors Louis van Gaal and John Cruijff, de Boer’s Ajax-side plays a brand of football that reminds the world why the club brings a sparkle to the eyes and soothes the soul through its windows. Admittedly, that’s just me being dramatic, but the point still stands.
As Cruijff once said: “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing.” So how do Ajax achieve that? It’s not just a matter of spontaneously creating endless triangles on the pitch. Ajax’ style of play is a result of endless drilling, education by the manager and seeing the logic behind their combination football. As captain Siem de Jong told AD Sportwereld: “We get a lot of individual training to master the exact skills needed to play our football. Furthermore, Frank de Boer always explains what decision we have to make in certain situations, and especially why.”
For example: When Ajax build up through the centre of the pitch, they do it by letting the centre backs push up to the half way line with the ball at their feet. By doing this, the opposition midfielders have to choose between covering Ajax’ midfielders or attempting to win the ball by challenging the centre backs. They have to make a choice, one way or the other, and by making that choice they create space for Ajax to continue their attack. What may look like creativity and improvisation, isn’t. Logic, logic, logic!
The thing is: this philosophy is embedded in the entire club, creating great consistency and allowing youth players to slot into the first team when called upon. Ajax only buy players of ‘exceptional quality’, to use an Arsènism, and by doing this spend less money than their competitors whilst achieving greater results. 48,3% of Ajax’ 31 squad players joined the youth setup before making the first team. Something that, considering the spending power of our competitors, is what Arsenal should aspire to.
If you look at Arsenal’s current squad, only 7 players (Szczesny, Wilshere, Djourou, Coquelin, Frimpong, Gibbs and Bendtner) came through our youth system. Admittedly, Arsenal bought young players who immediately joined the first team, but when comparing this to what Ajax do, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Everyone knows that sugar daddy-funded clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea will always have greater spending power than the Gunners. But the fact is; we can still compete with them whilst spending way less money, purely by creating consistency and clarity in the way we build our squads.
Through years of nurturing, drilling and education, Ajax have created a team of which the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. If Arsenal manage to create the same consistency AND to hold on to key-players, both clubs have very bright futures ahead. I want to see my dream come true: Dennis Bergkamp, legend of both clubs, holding simultaneously won trophies on open top bus parades through the capital. The future is bright. The future is red and white.
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