The fact that the youth academy at Ajax Amsterdam (Ajax) is named De Toekomst is indicative of the ethos that the club is build around. De Toekomst translates to English as The Future.
Ajax have a reputation around the world as perhaps the premier developers of young talent, the list of players that have come through the doors of De Toekomst reads like a who’s who of some of the most talented players to have played the game. Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Franck De Boer, Ronald De Boer, Aaron Winter, Patrick Kluivert and of course the late great Johan Cruyff to name but a few.
Recently the emphasis on the type of player that the club is developing has changed somewhat. There are still a number of talented wide players in the youth setup – something that has always been seen as key to the Ajax philosophy – but now we are seeing more technically proficient central players appearing.
Ajax place a great emphasis on small sided games and one on one or one on two work within their system in order to develop technical mastery of the ball and create environments in which young players are continually having to make decisions and solve problems without the immediate input of coaching staff. This focus on individual development has started to show signs of success with the profiles of the most talented young players currently at the club.
For the purpose of this article I have identified four of the most talented prospects in the Ajax system. I have deliberately left out the extremely talented Danish forward Kasper Dolberg simply because he has already cemented his position as a first team regular. All of the players profiled here have the potential to become regular members of the first team squad and are on the verge of making their breakthrough.
Frenkie De Jong
Position: Central Midfielder
Best role: Advanced playmaker support
Frenkie De Jong is a central midfielder who has already shown the versatility to play a number of different roles in the team. He is equally comfortable as the deeper midfielder controlling the play from deep or as the more advanced player looking to link in to the attackers.
As well as possessing an excellent range of passing with the ability to go long or short with ease De Jong also has the vision and technique to link play in tight areas with his ability to cushion passes and flicks between defensive structures to find team mates.
He is a capable finisher when he gets the chance in front of goal although he could still add more goals to his game.
In terms of weak points De Jong still needs to develop his defensive ability and although he is physically able to recover position when the opposition transitions to attack he can still be guilty of switching off during periods of the game.
How does he look in the game though?
As you can see at first glance Frenkie De Jong does not immediately stand out when looking at his attributes. When you look a little closer though a picture begins to emerge. His technical attributes of 13 for dribbling and first touch as well as passing and technique give an excellent base for a central playmaker. Then consider his mental attributes 14 for composure, 13 for decisions and flair and off the ball, then a huge 15 for vision.
At 19 to fully develop De Jong you are going to have to expose him to first team football, Given his potential though we should see his attributes rise quickly. With a balanced personality you can also give him a better chance of reaching the top by pairing him quickly with a tutor that has a positive personality.
I see De Jong as eventually being best used as an advanced playmaker from the midfield strata. I ran a few test matches for the purposes of this article to see how he would perform in this role.
Here De Jong picked up possession of the ball in the final third of the pitch. He does not purely drop the ball off at the first opportunity. Instead he engages the immediate defender and easily beats him in a one on one situation.
It is at this point that De Jong plays the ball back when he has engaged the defensive line and drawn them towards him. As the ball is played back from De Jong it opens up an easy shooting opportunity for a team mate.
As De Jong picks the ball up in his own half of the field he again immediately looks to engage and beat the defensive player. He does so again with ease and we have already created space for the central player to run through by pushing the defensive structure back with out attacking line.
De Jong is able to move in to the empty space and time the pass through the defensive line for the attacking players to run on to.
While the attributes that De Jong has at the moment are promising it is entirely possible that he will be in line for a huge upgrade in FM18.
He is not only a promising talent in game however with many Ajax fans clamouring for his inclusion in the first team fold where he has impressed in fleeting appearances.
Here De Jong displays his ability in connecting play in the final third. As he takes possession of the ball he immediately flicks the ball through between the defensive structure in to the feet of a forward.
Instead of standing still and admiring his pass De Jong follows the ball and attacks the space taking the first time pass back from the attacker and creating an opportunity on goal.
Matthijs De Ligt
Position: Central Defender
Best role: Ball playing centre back
Matthijs De Ligt is a young central defender whose composure and reading of the game resemble that of a much older and more experienced player.
His potential and the regard in which he is held by the club is shown in the fact that he has already started matches for the first team although he is yet to secure a regular first team place.
As well as being solid in the defensive phase of the game De Ligt is very much a defender in the modern mould with his ability to bring the ball out from the back and play quick vertical passes through the lines of the opposition providing a welcome addition to the Ajax attacking phase.
What about in Football Manger 17 though?
First of all lets make sure we are all aware that De Ligt is only 17 years old in game. That means that he has another 5 years development before he reaches his undoubted potential.
His technical attributes offer an interesting base. First of all for all centrebacks we need to consider heading, tackling and marking 10,11 and 12 respectively. But then 11 for first touch and 13 for passing indicates that he is already comfortable on the ball.
Now mental attributes 11 anticipation, composure, vision and work rate. 12 for positioning and teamwork and 14 determination. Now consider just how good he is going to be when he develops fully.
Here playing as a ball playing defender with the stopper duty we see De Ligt step out of the defensive line with the ball at his feet.
He moves forward towards the final third with space to move in to. Instead of losing the ball in a difficult area by dribbling or passing. He instead identifies the space in behind the defensive line and with an intelligent piece of movement from the striker he plays the ball beyond the defensive line.
With the ball in the defensive third of the pitch De Ligt has possession of the ball whilst being pressed by the opposition number 15.
There is a huge difference between a long pass and a direct vertical ball and what we see here is a vertical pass in to space that the attacking player can move in to.
With Kasper Dolberg in space between the full back and the centre back the vertical pass finds him moving in to space for an easy chance on goal.
It is not purely his ability on the ball that De Ligt is noted for however as his defensive contribution is equally impressive.
In this example the opposition are attacking towards the Ajax defensive third. De Ligt steps out of the defensive line to engage the man in possession and easily wins the ball. He then steps out towards the opposition half in possession of the ball to start the attacking transition.
Position: Attacking midfielder
Best role: Trequartista
Abdelhak Nouri has been one of my favourite young players for a while now. Capable of operating either as a six, an eight or a ten he has the playmaking ability to dictate the tempo and pace of the match from almost any central position.
He combines excellently with teammates in tight spaces and has the quality to break down opposition defensive blocks with the speed and angles of his passing movements.
Nouri could still improve in his defensive contributions with his slight frame seeing him brushed aside too easily at times and his lack of defensive intelligence can sometimes see him being caught out of position in the defensive phase.
For all of that though Nouri remains one of the players that fans of the club are keen to see getting more time with the first team.
Nouri already has the potential to be world class. Just look at his base attributes. 14 for dribbling, first touch and passing and 16 technique as well as 13 for free kick taking. He will cause havoc in the final third for you from the start of the game.
Now consider his mental attributes 17 for flair! 15 for vision and 14 for off the ball. 13 for aggression and composure and 12 for leadership and decisions.
He already comes completed with player traits moves in to channels, tries killer balls often and dictates tempo this combined with those attributes makes him a truly frightening prospect for the opposition.
Nouri will be best used in the attacking midfield strata as he is a fit for a number or roles.
Here we see Nouri at his dangerous best. He is extremely capable of carrying the ball through the defensive structure. He moves forward in possession of the ball and tries to tempt the defensive line from moving out and engaging him.
As he moves across the final third he sees that our right back Kenny Tete has moved in to a more advanced position and is in a large area of space.
Nouri quickly accesses the space before continuing his run in to the box.
This time the play shifts to the opposite side and we see an example of the decision making of Nouri as instead of moving forward with the ball he sprays the ball out to the opposite side to the advancing full back on the opposite side.
As with Frenkie De Jong the Ajax supporters are incredibly keen to see more of Nouri in first team action. He has impressed in limited minutes so far but his creativity would be a very welcome as things stand.
Here we see Nouri in possession of the ball in the central areas of the field. He quickly identifies the space behind the opposition defensive line and weights a perfect through ball in to the space for the wide player to run on to.
Donny Van De Beek
Position: Central Midfielder
Best role: Advanced Playmaker
Another central midfielder features on our list. Perhaps this is indicative of the change of focus and emphasis that Ajax have placed on the development of their young players in the technical side of the game.
Van De Beek is another multi functional midfield player who is comfortable in a variety of positions and roles on the pitch as well as in the attacking and defensive phase of the game.
Van De Beek is perhaps most comfortable as an eight with the freedom to dictate the tempo of the match.
Another interesting prospect for Ajax and this time one that comes with a fantastic resolute personality. To go along with that though we can see his attributes. Technically he is already solid with plenty of space to grow.
13 for dribbling, first touch, technique and passing. 12 for corners and free kicks and 11 for tackling. Mental attributes 15 for determination, teamwork and work rate and 14 for vision. 12 aggression, anticipation and bravery.
My preference for Van De Beek would be for him to develop in to controlling midfielder either in the midfield or defensive midfield strata.
Here we seen an example of Van De Beek connecting the play. As he takes possession of the ball from Riedewald he turns in one movement and plays the ball straight out to the advancing full back.
With the forward line strung along the oppositions box and their defensive line pushed out the space is open in the wide areas. Van De Beek is able to spray the ball out before sitting back in a supporting position.
This time Van De Beek takes possession of the ball in the final third of the field and is covered by a dense defensive line that is cutting off goal and the central area of the field.
He has the vision and the ability to slip the ball in to the box for the attacker to move on to in the box.
Van De Beek is perfectly suited to building the play from a deeper area of the field but he also has the creative ability to contribute in and around the oppositions box.
As the ball is clipped high towards Van De Beek in the final third of the field he quickly notes the movement of the striker who is moving forward in to space. He shifts the ball first time in to the attackers path displaying a deftness of touch.
Ajax Amsterdam has always been a popular save amongst FM players but with the latest crop of young players that the club have the future is even brighter than ever. There is an opportunity to forgoe the transfer market completely and build from the youth system itself.
It could be time to build a club in the vision of Johan Cruyff.