A.F.C. Ajax’s Youth Development Philosophy with Arnold Mühren
Learn about A.F.C. Ajax’s Youth Development Philosophy with Arnold Mühren
We spent time with the A.F.C. Ajax Coach and former professional player to find out what sets the Ajax Academy a cut above the rest.
The legendary Dutch soccer club A.F.C. Ajax is known all over the world for being a club of homegrown talent. Some of the most notable players to come through the Ajax youth system are Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank de Boer and Wesley Sneijder. Ajax is a club that is not afraid to give young players an opportunity to start playing, and loves to see their youth players climb the ranks and debut in the first team. Former Ajax and Dutch national team midfielder and current Ajax Academy coach, Arnold Mühren, gives us his take on the Ajax Training Philosophy, football, and his time with our generation adidas international A.F.C. Ajax Select players.
“When you’re young, winning is not the most important thing. It’s developing as a player that is the most important thing.”
GAI: What are some of the key components of the Ajax youth development philosophy?
Mühren: We talk about the Ajax philosophy and how we work with children. The Ajax Youth Academy is well known throughout the whole world. We’ve got a very good name in working with children and bringing up children from the age of 8 to the first team. We have to do that becaus e we can’t compete with countries like England, Italy, and Spain – countries like that. We haven’t got the money for it, to compete with them. So what we’re trying to do is produce our own players. When they come to the club with 7 or 8 years, we work with them day in and day out… Ajax is very happy when they bring 3 or 4 players every year to the first team squad. And if you do that, produce your own players, and they’re good enough, they’re going to have a very good future ahead of them.
What we’re doing at Ajax is a lot of technical stuff – passing and receiving, dribbling, passing balls, receiving balls, heading balls, things like that. The most important thing I think is to master the ball. If you master the ball you don’t have to look at the ball anymore. You see the whole picture of what you have to do – where is my teammate? Where is he running to?
When you’re young winning is not the most important thing, it’s developing as a player that’s the most important thing. And if you win games, that’s okay – but if you don’t win, and still make progress in your ability as a player, you become better. This is what we try to do at Ajax as well, because when we get them at 7 years of age we work with them day in and day out. We also have training sessions in the streets because they want to bring that back again in the Ajax Academy, which is good because ex-professionals that are working here started theircareer on the streets as well say, “Well that’s done us a lot of good, why not for the youngsters that are coming to the club?”
[The coaches] try to teach [youth players] how to play on different surfaces like astroturf, the street, grass, so they can’t say that they are not used to playing on a certain type of surface. We’ve got everything here.
GAI: What has the training experience been like at Ajax for our generation adidas international A.F.C. Ajax Select players?
Mühren: At this moment I’m coaching American guys – 14, 15, 16 years of age, which is enjoyable. They are here for a week and obviously they know a lot about the club, want to have training sessions from youth coaches from Ajax, and to have the feeling of what we are doing here. I must say that there’s a lot of talent not only at Ajax, but also in America as well because it really is a joy working with them. What we’re showing them is what we do at the club. They train and exercise as we do at the club.
I think it’s a good experience to come to Ajax and see what we’re doing. A lot of teams read about Ajax, but to come to the club and see what each age group is doing, it helps them. They played against an Ajax team, which of course helps them. Tomorrow they’ll play against another team in Dordrecht, which is good. What you’ll see is that you’ll play against different systems. We play the 4-3-3 system, but maybe Dordrecht plays the 4-4-2 system, so they can learn from that as well. And what they find is that the speed of the game is more, let’s say, aggressive than in the U.S., and they will have to get used to that.
We talk with the players and we all tell them that the technical exercises are important for them, and if they don’t do the exercises in their training sessions at the clubs, what they can do in their spare time is go out with other players and play 2v2, 3v3, 4-a-side or 5-a-side. If you do that day in and day out, you become a better player.
“If my friends didn’t fancy to train with me, I’d say, ‘That’s okay, I’ll train on my own then.’”
GAI: What advice do you give to players that want to improve their game?
Mühren: I told them [the American players] already, when you go back to America, you can do the things I did when I was young. That’s training everyday with the ball. School is the most important thing, but if you’ve got some free time, I think it’s the most important thing if you want to become a professional footballer, is to work on it day in and day out. If my friends didn’t fancy to train with me, I’d say, “That’s okay, I’ll train on my own then.” Using the wall, kicking the ball against the wall, left and right foot, headers, hitting the ball against the wall – just on my own for half an hour to forty-five minutes.
“I learned my football on the streets with my friends. That’s why I think the most important thing for younger players is technique. If you don’t have any technique, you’ve got a problem. If the ball bounces off your feet all the time, how can you play football?”
GAI: How has football changed during your career, and what advice do you have for players looking to become professionals?
Mühren: If you talk about tactics, they all play different systems. In my day it was 4-3-3, that was the system, but nowadays sometimes they play with one striker, sometimes they play with five at the back.
The biggest difference, I think, is that it’s more enjoyable for players because we are training now. What we do with children is we give them a ball. The most important thing if you want them to learn football is to give them a ball. Don’t let them run laps for fifteen or twenty minutes, you don’t learn football from that. You learn football with the ball, with the technique, passing and receiving. The biggest challenges come from the technical part of it.
And the money, yeah. There’s so much money in the game these days. Some players in Ajax are 15 or 16 years old and they’re leaving the country because the players want to play in England, because the money is there. It’s a pity really.
I left the country when I was 27. I played on the national team. I won cups in Holland. I had the experience. I think that’s the right step. If you go to another country when you’re 16 or 17, and you’ve never been abroad, and you haven’t even been playing in your [club’s] first team, it’s a big gamble to go over there… [Young players] find it very, very difficult in these kinds of countries to become a regular on the first team. So they go on loan, they come back to Holland. Some players are playing for PSV, some are coming back to Ajax. Okay, they’ve got some experience and they’ve got the money, but some players are ending up in amateur teams because they left too early. Make sure you play on the first team, get some experience, get some international experience and then go to another country. Because in 2 or 3 years time, the money will be there. The money is always there. For your own development, it’s more important to play on the first team and, again, get more experience.
We’d like to thank Arnold Mühren for sharing his thoughts with us, and for all of the hard work and effort put in by A.F.C. Ajax Academy coaches to make our programs a success. If you’re interested in learning first hand about the Ajax Training Philosophy in Amsterdam, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!