But that is not to say it has not been adapted, altered, fine-tuned over the years. That process started in 2011, when Cruyff returned to a club that — in van der Sar’s words — “did not feel like Ajax anymore.” Cruyff and the cadre of former players he brought with him wanted not only to restore the focus on youth development, to shed highly paid, aging players, but to change the way Ajax worked.
“We focus always on the individual,” Ouaali said. “We don’t think about age groups, like the Dutch federation or like other clubs. It can be hard for coaches because they want results as well — to be successful, to be promoted to the next step up — but we try to find coaches who focus on the development of players, who learn the individual, not the team.”
The club recognized, too, that it had to work faster than before. Players were no longer staying in the Eredivisie until they were 23 or 24; they were leaving at 20 or 21, if not earlier. “At 19, they needed to be ready to play in the first team,” ten Hag said, “because at 20, they are gone.”
That meant more physical work at younger ages, and an end to players going to school outside Ajax. Now, they study at De Toekomst, so they can maximize the hours they spend in the classroom and on the training field.
Ajax borrowed methods found in Montessori education to mix age groups, and its under-18 team was abolished to “increase pressure on the talent,” Ouaali said.
The club’s second team, Jong Ajax — which plays in Dutch soccer’s second tier — no longer would be filled with senior players; now, most of its members are still in their teenage years. “We had to speed up the process,” ten Hag said. “They had to be good quicker.”
All of it was a formal acknowledgment of Ajax’s place in the 21st century soccer firmament. It is telling, for example, that Ouaali sees his job, and that of De Toekomst, not as to produce players for the first team, but to produce them for “Ajax, then the Dutch national team, then the top international level.”