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Friday, 24 February 2012

The Ajax Model

Mixing it up a bit today; I'll be talking about something that has really interested me for a while; youth football, and in particular, the famous Ajax academy, 'De Toekomst', or, 'The Future'. It consists of 25 coaches, including Bryan Roy, with 200 students from the ages of 7 - 19 years old. Whilst not directly addressing The Arsenal, it is fascinating to see what makes Ajax's academy so prestigious and successful.

There are comparisons that can be drawn from Arsenal and Ajax. Both focus on the development of youth - and while Ajax over the past years have been more inclined to sell their protégées - both try to integrate their academy products into their respective first teams. Danny Blind, former Ajax player and ex assistant manager, told UEFA: 

"We are not capable of spending large amounts of money on players, which means that you have to develop them yourself".
 "Secondly, we try to develop players through a specific culture, a specific philosophy, and to show them in general terms how Ajax want to play football".

Sound familiar?

In De Toekomst, emphasis is placed on the technical side of the game; passing, movement, finesse. From a very young age, players are taught how to be confident with the ball at their feet. Specialist coaches are employed for almost every aspect of the game, whether it be dribbling, or whether it be gymnastics, it's all aimed to instil discipline in the youngsters. The specialised coaching staff allows every student to blossom and define his identity as a player. As it is in business; specialisation leads to greater efficiency, and the same principal applies here. Every facet of the players' game will be honed to allow the best possible development. The academy's business and facilities manager Ed Lefeber emphasises this:

"We try to zoom in more and more, to get everything an individual has in him, out of him."
Academy coach Bryan Roy demonstrates their philosophy:

"The thing we pay attention to is that the player plays in the right positionIt is most important that we recognise how to get the optimum result out of any player in any position. If you don't do that then you develop them for nothing, and the player will be lacking their own identity".

It is evident that the aim is to encourage players to define their identity from an early stage. You can clearly see how effective this system has been. The academy's products include the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Johan Cruyff and Wesley Sneijder. The list goes on. All these players posses said traits in abundance; exceptional awareness and vision, an exquisite touch; they almost caress the ball. Moreover, they have a defined role/identity, whether it be playmaker, or the 'Bergkamp role', which the man created himself, where you play just off the main striker. One must not omit current Ajax manager Frank De Boer from the above list of star products of De Toekomst - the man who played for Barcelona 143 times between 1998 and 2003, and holds the record as the most capped Dutch international with 112 appearances.

Dennis catching up with old friend Martin Keown in Ajax
Now is anyone noticing a trend? All these graduates acquit themselves eloquently on the pitch and also when off it. They are intelligent, balanced men. De Boer - now the manager of Ajax - clearly has potential in this career and at just 42 years of age could have a very bright future in management. And of course Dennis Bergkamp - I don't need to tell you about his playing career, but he is now De Boer's assistant at Ajax. Then there's Clarence Seedorf - one of the most respected figures in world football. I could go on. 

It is clear that De Toekomst not only trains youngsters as footballers, but also instils a deep lying foundation of attitude and respect, allowing it to produce the finest men in the game. This is something the English should emulate, and the reputation of the game would without doubt be enhanced. There could be a new breed of footballer in future generations; ones with the eloquence and articulateness as exhibited by the products of De Toekomst. 

More specifically, one thing that has really caught my attention is the alternative training methods used in the academy. For example, players will have to train in every position - not just their favoured ones. This teaches the youngsters to appreciate what it's like for their teammates in their respective positions and builds their understanding of the game. If you're a left mid? Train at left back. See what you want the man ahead of you to be doing, and then subconsciously, you'll do it yourself when you move back there. Play up top? Train on the wing and see where you want the man in the middle to be, resulting in the same outcome. It really is genius, and can be so influential on young players. 

Personally, I have much experience in youth football. Having played for the academies of Fulham and Brentford, and now just Sunday League, I can tell you I'd be twice the player I am if I'd trained under this alternative method. Just knowing and appreciating the responsibilities of your team mates can help build a profound understanding in the team. Not only that, it can mean less bickering and moaning towards your team mates (especially in Sunday League where the standard is much lower) as you understand how difficult it can be playing in those positions. Hopefully, in the near future, this alternative training method will play a prominent part in the development of grass roots football in England. It could certainly do with the help. 

Although as Bryan Roy says, "as long as you enjoy doing it and you are motivated and have passion, then you will make it, without a doubt. There is a reason why boys with less talent and more willpower make it more than boys with more talent, but a little more lazy."

I hope you found this article interesting, even though it's about an AFC other than our own! Arsenal certainly have a connection with Ajax, with players such as Overmars, Kanu and Vermaelen all arriving from the Amsterdam club. The fact that Bergkamp started his playing career with Ajax and has now started his (assistant) managerial career there suggests it is a great place to develop. Now he has a prominent role at Ajax I shall be paying special attention to their results, and so should you!

Thanks for reading and remember to Follow me on Twitter

'Till next time.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Where's the passion, lads?

Following on from my last post, where I primarily defended Mr Wenger, I'd like to share my thoughts on something that really irked me; the lack of passion displayed by our players. Personally, I do not feel that a manager should need to motivate his players at this level, and not to mention on these wages. So that refutes the argument that it's up to the manager to motivate his team. They should be fighting for not only Arsene and the fans, but also for the badge. Yet in recent weeks I have been staggered by the lack of fight from these players.

Against Milan, not once did I see a player go nuts after conceding. I couldn't help but notice Alex Song, after Milan's third if I remember correctly, casually turn around without any show of emotion, as if he was thinking, 'Oh well'. It was almost a resigned acceptance, and he was not the only one. Now I don't want to read too much into this and be overly critical, "naming names" as they say, but I felt it was necessary to comment on. For the supporters who travel week in week out to see their team, the minimum you would expect would be some passion, some emotion. Even if the performance is crap, just show you care.

Personally, I think William Gallas' sulk at Birmingham a few seasons ago, when it all went tits up, showed he cared. I respect that. However immature it seemed ostensibly, if you actually think about it, it highlights his hatred of losing. I don't feel I'm alone here by saying no more than half our current team hate to lose - akin to that of Vieira or Keane. Although his ability is embellished by 'Arry and the media to the max, this is what Scott Parker brings to Tottenham. His sheer will to win boosts everyone around him and inspires others to do the same. Wilshere is our only player I can think of who has similar traits, and at times this season, such as our second visit to Sunderland, a bit of backbone and fight could have made the difference for us. Having said that, I do feel the likes of Chesney, Sagna, Vermaelen and RVP (plus the on loan Frimpong) also fall into this category, and are all very competitive. However as the Milan and Sunderland results suggest, they sometimes go missing.

Due to illness, I haven't been able to do our recent away games (Sunderland x2 and Milan). Despite this, I hear from friends that not even half the team acknowledged the travelling fans at full time after the loss to Sunderland. This is as unacceptable as it was after the 8-2 at Old Trafford. I remember being told that Van Persie demanded Rosicky - who had walked straight down the tunnel at full time - to acknowledge the Arsenal fans, who despite watching a humiliation of their team, didn't stop singing for the whole of the second half. Our quite incredible support that day was the only positive to take from it, yet it obviously went unappreciated by certain players.

Finally, a brief mention of the Oxlade-Chamberlain incident against Sunderland. Directly after he scored his own goal, and at full time, not one of his team mates put their arm around the youngster, offering words of consolation. In fact, Kieran Richardson - the opposition left back - took up this role at full time. The lad was visibly distraught yet no-one took the responsibility of helping him.  What does this say about our team spirit? Our leadership? Where was his captain? It really does make you wonder.

It's great telling Sky Sports how good the team spirit is after a victory, but when we're going through a bad spell, I think this 'mental strength' and team togetherness sometimes goes missing, and the Chamberlain incident is a perfect example of this. A few of the players need to pull their fingers out, and have a long hard look at Rocastle's famous quote: 'Remember who you are, what you are, and who you represent.' 

Thanks for reading, and remember to follow me on Twitter @rlewisafc.

Till next time, Reuben.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Objectiveness is key

Over the course of this season, where many have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, I have tended to take a more objective approach, perhaps instilled by my father. When hearing fierce criticism about the manager, from Arsenal fans in particular, I react defensively. This is simply because I love the man. His successes far outweigh his failures and despite the obvious lack of trophies (I was 9 years old the last time we won something), he has done an incomparably good job.

By creating this 'self-sufficient model', The Arsenal are almost guaranteed a consistent, sustainable future in the Premiership. One that in the next decade or two, teams around us at the moment will envy. In ten, fifteen years, we will still be in the upper quartile of the league. Will Chelsea? Will Liverpool? Will Tottenham? Dare I say the Manchester clubs?

Our objective of financial fair play and self-sustainability means the boss is reluctant to spend £20 million on a wonderkid. "Sign Hazard!" "Sign Gotze!" Instead, we have to settle for some unknown two-bob teenagers like Oxlade-Chamberlain... what a load of bollocks he's been, eh?

In life, there is always a trade-off. This may sound a bit rich coming from a sixteen year old, and by the fact I learnt this term in my economics class, but the fact is, Arsene's deep lying love for this club has been his biggest downfall. He has opted to ensure future sustainability as a business and, perhaps more importantly, as a Football Club.

But at what expense? "TROPHIES!" I hear you cry, and yes, you are spot on. But in the grand scheme of things, what would you rather; an instant piece of silverware or a club that in 10 years will be stable, free of excessive debt? Perhaps the fans more in it for the trophies will choose the former, but the real Gooners - the ones who want what's best for the future of the club - will choose the latter. Well that's how I feel, although I'm sure some will disagree. But seriously, all teams go through transitional periods. Look at Liverpool for Bergkamp's sake! The best team of the '80s have not won a league title for twenty odd years, despite spending obscene sums of money, especially over the past year or two. Back to our club though.

To those who don't know, in the 1980s, Spurs finished above us about 5 years out of 7. Since arriving in 1996, Arsene Wenger's Arsenal have never finished below Spurs in the league. Although St Totteringham day may have to be put on hold this year - unless 'Operation Dodgy Lasagne II' is launched - you can hardly say the boss has let us down in terms of bragging rights. Moreover, just to add a little more perspective, in 1995, the year I was introduced into the world, we finished 12th (TWELTH!). No, not 5th, 12th! Things must have been pretty bollocks back then. Thankfully for me, I was more or less born into the glory years.

I am by no means an 'Arsene Knows Best' - a term many fans mindlessly direct towards those who don't vociferously criticise the boss. I acknowledge his shortcomings - and there have been many - but my appreciation of what he has done overall - and the fact we are still there or there about's - mean I am reserving my judgements, and keeping the faith, until the end of the season at least. Even if we succumb to 5th place this year, and have a season in the mickey mouse prestigious Europa League (provided we qualify!), I will not be calling for Arsene's head. I'll let him decide when it's time to call it a day, and providing his adoration of the club, I'm sure he will decide accordingly. I will still follow my team over land and sea, as will many of the Arsenal fans I've come across - even if it means a summer holiday in Rubin Kazan! One thing's for sure- we'll soon find out who the real supporters are.