Column: You can’t compare Ajax to any other club in the world - an Englishman started it all
1 May 2019
You can’t compare Ajax to any other club in the world. Why? Because of their strategy - you have probably never seen anything like it before.
It was actually an Englishman started it all, and then a legendary coach developed the playing concept further in the 1960s.
Read this column if you want to understand the strategy behind the team that impressed so much last night against Tottenham Hotspur.
AFC Ajax are the darlings of this year's Champions League. The Dutch club are the essence of a club with a clear and present strategy both on and off the pitch.
Strategy, plan or project; it has many names, but the ability to give a club direction and the will to fulfil it, is vital to a club´s success or failure.
In order to be successful in the highly-competitive market of football: ”Strategy is about setting yourself apart from the competition. It’s not a matter of being better at what you do – it’s a matter of being different at what you do.”
These are the words of Michael Porter, a Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School. So not only should you choose your ambitions and process, if you want to be a successful football club, you should also be different from other clubs.
No major broadcasting revenue
AFC Ajax qualified for this season’s Champions League semi-finals by kicking out clubs Real Madrid and Juventus, and they have a good chance of beating Tottenham for the final. Ajax’s home market in Holland is very small, so Ajax revenue (€92 million in 2018) from TV (€11.4 million) and commercial (€14 million) is significantly lower compared to clubs from England, Germany, Spain and Italy.
But Ajax have high ambitions, so they need to think differently and be clever.
"Everything at Ajax is all about football. We want to win competitions and prizes with attractive and offensive football. We are fully convinced that with our playing style we can also play and win in a top European context. And we do that with as many self-trained players as possible in the A-selection and in full stadiums."
Though this is taken from their annual report (Jaarverslag) 2017/18, Ajax have lived out this strategy for a very long time. At its core, the Ajax strategy is clear: they want to win by playing attacking football and with their own developed players.
They stick to it whether they win or loose.
Young players must learn the same
All the players from the youth academy learn and play the same style of play: the 4-3-3. From a young age, Ajax players learn the ability to exploit the space of the pitch though movements and combinations in triangles, thereby making the pitch wider in attack and narrower in defence. All the coaches and players have to comply with that system - no exceptions.
AFC Ajax have a very strong spirit, which keeps the club vibrant and alive. That spirit began to form in the 1930s and 1940s under the influence of Jack Reynolds.
The players own a special Ajax passport in which all achievements are noted.
The Englishman believed in the primacy of technique and encouraged his players to work with the ball in training. He also founded an early version of the Ajax youth system and ensured that all teams at every level played the same style of football.
Reynolds believed that attack was the best defence, and the Ajax philosophy was encapsulated in a saying: “Open game, open game/you can’t afford to neglect the wing.”
The Ajax philosophy was refined in the late 1960s under Rinus Michels, who found a new and aggressive tactical approach that would propel Ajax to the top of Europe.
During this countercultural era, the spirit of AFC Ajax was also being formed in conjunction with political, cultural and artistic movements in Amsterdam, which resulted in a kind of playfulness towards life.
Amsterdam is a place of intellectuals, artists, thinkers and bohemians where the club and the city are so tightly entwined that it is hard to speak of one without mentioning the other.
Youth academy is the heart of Ajax
The heart of Ajax is its youth academy called: De Toekomst, meaning The Future. Ajax have developed the so-called TIPS model, which stands for: Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed. The P and the S are generally innate properties, but Insight and the Speed can always be developed further. The players own a special Ajax passport in which all achievements are noted.
Every Ajax coach is monitored to see if they fulfil these criteria. If the standard of attractive and intelligent football is lowered in the pursuit of results, a great deal of harsh and direct criticism will be levelled at them.
The club’s struggle for offensive football is almost religious, and there are many distinguished people who preach the gospel of Ajax. Many former players and coaches have special status and act like ministers guiding the club on the right path, admonishing them if they do not behave according to the spirit and strategy.
If AFC Ajax lower their ambitions, and allow their players to degenerate from skilled artisans to mere workers, then the club will be just like other primitive teams.
Highly structured training
The way AFC Ajax play on the pitch looks anarchic and dynamic. But the organisation and training behind the style is highly structured.
There are fixed schemes and programmes for each level, down to specific positions for each player and their number on the pitch. Each player is trained on his position, and sticks to it assiduously. The running patterns and tactical demands are the same both for a player on Ajax 1 and the youth teams.
De Toekomst not only ensures success for Ajax on the pitch over and over again, but it is also the club’s business model, as it secures a steady income by selling players to other clubs.
Profit from player sales
In the last four seasons, Ajax have made a big profit on the transfer market with net transfer results of €176,4 million.
It is not every year that Ajax win a title or sell a new superstar. But on average the club regularly win titles and make a net profit on player sales.
Ajax are a robust club, so when the current top players leave the club, they have a successor ready to take their place. The club’s clear strategy ensures that everybody in the club is working in the same direction and is in sync with their fans.
There are many former players like Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Saar who work at the club to ensure that the Ajax culture is passed on.
Confidence in the club
The club were named »Ajax« after the ancient, mythological Greek warrior in Homer's Iliad.
Ajax fought in the Trojan War and is described as being of “great stature, the tallest and strongest of all the Greeks next to his cousin Achilles”.
He was also vicious, fearless, strong and powerful, but with a very high level of strategic intelligence. In the Iliad, Ajax fought an inconclusive duel with Troy's champion Hector.
Football, according to AFC Ajax, has to be attractive and playful - why else play it?
According to most accounts, Ajax died by committing suicide. Thus, unlike Achilles, he died unconquered.
Ajax are a supremely self-confident club. The leaders, coaches and players have to be if they are going to perform their high-risk, technically-based attacking style against teams who are waiting to punish any slip-up.
The players also need confidence in order to keep calm and continue to press the opponents. The coaches need to be confident to play a high-risk tactic and send young, inexperienced talent onto the pitch in important games.
But this assuredness sometimes turns into arrogance if they are beaten, because they feel they are better than their opponents and the moral winners. They have little respect for teams that play defensively and physically.
Commitment to own talents
The spirit of Ajax is about winning by playing beautiful, attacking football with homegrown players. No other European club are so committed to using their own talents and playing in a specific manner, namely the 4-3-3 with wings and attacking backs.
Only FC Barcelona come close to being so clear cut, which is only natural since it was Ajax legend Johan Cruyff who guided the Catalan club to their modern playstyle and the development of homegrown players at La Masia.
Football, according to AFC Ajax, has to be attractive and playful - why else play it?
AFC Ajax are expressive in physically articulating this ethos and are artists with the ball.
The club are willing to take risks with an attacking style of play and to let young players get their chance on the first team. Not the most efficient strategy in terms of winning titles, but one that draws a lot of attention.
AFC Ajax not only want just to win, they want to be better and to do it in an attractive way. That is football strategy at its purest and most radical, really trying to push out the element of luck on the road to success. Well, maybe not quite, as the Ajax mascot is a lynx called Lucky.
Brian Bødker MSc., senior financial consultant,, is author of the book The Legendary Ten, a comprehensive insight into the ownership, strategy, organisation, tactics and results of Europe’s ten best football clubs.