Young players matter at Ajax. The 33-time Dutch soccer champions owe a global reputation, not to mention four European titles, to cycle after cycle of prospects raised to an exalted standard.
Fans around the world are aware of that, never mind the few thousand braving the bitter December cold to watch a new crop of youngsters play at the Ajax Academy ground. Recent years have brought their challenges but these are optimistic times at the club. On the day of SportsPro’s visit, across an Amsterdam highway at the Johan Cruyff Arena renamed in honour of the club’s most famous son, a first team led by 19-year-old Matthijs de Ligt will secure qualification for the knockout rounds of the Uefa Champions League against Bayern Munich.
“When you enter Ajax as a club, there is a whole range of arrangements that are being made. We house the schooling of a lot of kids,” says Max Reckers, the performance technology consultant at Ajax. “If you go outside, on the left, you will see the school. That is a major element of the education here. We won’t allow players who are not performing in their daily school work. We don’t accept that they drop out of school early just to be a football player, so we help them build a school career; we help them to build a career where they develop themselves as a working professional.
“The same with the parents: there are certain programmes where we educate them financially but also on aspects like performance, managing your kids, helping them to create an atmosphere for high performance developments – the kind of environment where they can feel safe but still know what is expected from them on the highest level.”
Ajax use their training ground as a testing ground for technological innovations to help keep them ahead of the curve
At Ajax, the crucible of Total Football, the goal is to produce complete players. Famously, youngsters will try out every position to deepen their understanding of the game as they work their way through the ranks, and will be encouraged to adopt an inquisitive stance. It has had the effect of developing players with an intellectual appetite, and recent veterans have returned in a variety of roles.
Former goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, part of the staggeringly youthful Champions League-winning side of 1995, is now chief executive. Marc Overmars flew down the left wing of that team; now director of football, he strides briskly through the clubhouse where Reckers is speaking to SportsPro.
Reckers is now among those responsible for taking that rounded thinking into a new era. He provides specialist guidance to the club’s performance analysis and video analysis teams, “making sure that we choose the right technology and that it’s implemented and innovated in the right way”.
His career in soccer began at AZ Alkmaar in 2007 with Louis van Gaal, the celebrated manager who led Ajax to that Champions League win in 1995. The two of them were in place as AZ won only their second Eredivisie title in 2009 but in other respects, these were inauspicious beginnings: Reckers’ analysis toolkit consisted of a tape-to-tape video deck. It is fair to say the picture has changed in the intervening years.
“I think, especially, soccer was pretty traditional in its nature and there was not too much innovation, not too much new stuff,” Reckers recalls. “It was all a bit scary and if you invented something, you kept it for yourself because it was your daily business; your daily earnings. What changed is that everybody sees now that the role of technology can be to help improve players. That changed.”
Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong are two of Ajax's newest stars to emerge from the academy
Reckers observed that progress as he followed van Gaal from Alkmaar to Bayern Munich, and later the Dutch national team and Premier League giants Manchester United. He also worked with Frank de Boer during an earlier spell at Ajax from 2011 until 2013, before rejoining the club early last year.
“I think as there is more and more money available in football, the level of expertise in the different roles is expanding,” he says. “So if you look at the staff that I worked in back in 2007 for AZ, it was six or seven people. That was the entire staff. At Man United, we had about 42 staff members. So as the staff increases, the specialisms are increasing as well and I think that is driving most of the innovation. It’s the level of expertise of the employees who drive innovation on the technical side.”
That development has passed through improved video tools and on to systems that used GPS or RFID to track player movement and build data sets.
“Now you start to notice that everybody is working on more tactical models,” Reckers explains. “First the physical side was developed, and now it’s more tactical.”
In order for technological aids to be worthwhile, Reckers says, they have to be intuitive: a coach has to be given “the tools that speak his language” and can help him or her get complicated messages across to players. “We have a long way to go from a science perspective and from a coaching perspective to merge those two worlds – the world of technology and the world of the coach – together,” he adds. “We’re getting closer.”
It can help when systems get an airing in a different context, such as broadcast media, allowing “coaches to identify themselves with those tools” and find their own uses for them. One of the more powerful recent trends in performance technology is the alliance of video, visualised data and graphical overlays, making it easier to demonstrate team shape and tactical outcomes. In this space, Reckers cites the emergence of Red Bee Media’s Piero – a product initially developed for television but which has gained in popularity among coaches in many sports.
There is a limited amount of money which we can invest ourselves and we need to invest it in the right tools
The economic realities of the European game mean that despite their heritage, clubs of Ajax’s size must be open to every possibility of gaining an edge. In player development, that means unearthing stars who can keep the first team competitive before moving on for transfer fees that can be reinvested elsewhere. In technological development, a similar philosophy is applied.
“Our aim is to be at least one year ahead of where everybody else is,” says Reckers. “And that means, time-wise, we invest a lot of effort in creating the new products for the next year.”
That target defines the club’s relationship with the marketplace. Partnerships with technology providers are built not on the proviso that Ajax will offer significant reach – though that may be a factor – but on an ambition to refine nascent products and propel them into new places in the market.
“The perspective from Ajax is that we want to be unique from the coaching side, not from the technology side,” Reckers explains. “There is a limited amount of money which we can invest ourselves and we need to invest it in the right tools.
“We aim to find partners who can support us and build business models around the innovations that we do. So we don’t want to keep it ourselves – we want to help those companies create really good products which we use but also bring them to the market so everybody can earn his money and make sure that this is a valid business model.”
The Ajax academy’s match against Bayern Munich – an eventual 2-1 defeat in the Uefa Youth League – is being used as a product showcase for Alkmaar-based Mobile Viewpoint’s IQ Sports Producer. The AI-based system offers automated coverage of games, in this case using a Hikvision-supplied fixed camera in the top of the stand which has been trained to follow the ball around the pitch and create the impression of a manned broadcast. The resulting footage is streamed live on a Facebook feed.
Over time, it will be possible to develop IQ Sports Producer to automatically follow specific aspects of a game – such as the performance of individual players or parts of a team – giving it deeper applications in training. For now, its cost of a few thousand euros is designed to make it appealing to youth teams and smaller clubs in soccer and ice hockey who might want to stream games without a full broadcast crew in place.
“I think that is an example of a perfect match, where you can find each other, build new products in another area – so this camera that we used today is normally used in the security market, and the sports market is an entirely new application,” says Reckers. “That’s a good business model for them, so that works.”
Ajax have also been working with TNO – the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research – and leading universities to identify and test products that might have commercial potential.
“Adidas is another great example of an innovation partner that we have,” Reckers adds. The German sportswear brand, which is Ajax’s kit supplier, has put its name to the miCoach Performance Centre next to the academy’s outdoor arena. This huge white dome houses a full-size natural training pitch in a controlled-weather environment, and is also home to “a really high-end 3D science centre” used by the Ajax first team and academy players.
At Ajax, Reckers reveals, around 90 per cent of the spend on technological aids goes to the first team squad. In that environment, the pressure to deliver tools that work efficiently and effectively is high.
“I think that time is now the biggest limitation for coaches if you look at their programme,” Reckers says, discussing the possible benefits of machine learning systems and AI. “Especially if the higher teams play two or three matches per week, then the time they can afford to improve a player is very, very limited if you take into account the food, and the travel time, and everything else that needs to be done to prepare for a match.
“Our vision is that we create tools that help that process as far as we can.”
The club's younger players are typically much more receptive to these tools
While they are allocated a much smaller proportion of the budget, younger players are typically much more receptive to these tools. This creates the freedom to experiment, and to be creative in how digital assets are used in the coaching process.
“I think we, as we sit here, are coming from an age where we still know linear TV as our main principal during the phase where we grew up,” Reckers suggests. “And I think the fundamental difference is that players now grow up playing Fifa, and that for them is the learning environment they are used to.
“So from flat and linear 2D to fully interactive 3D. And I think that is what we try to match. We have to put effort into linking up with the networks where these guys feel themselves to be comfortable and safe.”
Virtual reality is used at Ajax to help players work on their decision-making. Where team sessions with video are useful in addressing tactics and team shape, individual performance is discussed one-on-one. Video of games can be modelled in 3D to allow players to review the action from their own perspective. Coaches can then ‘gamify’ the footage to give their charges choices to make at key points, leaving them to identify the appropriate response in real time.
Technology is also giving coaches the means to take an overview of a player’s physical development. At the miCoach Performance Centre, the club are able to monitor biomechanical and biometric data, and merge that with video and 3D models. Staff have also developed “unique tests” using force plates to assess a player’s physical potential.
“It’s the same thing for a specific growth model, where we develop the trajectory of the growth of a player, which helps us to train him more specifically to his growth spurt phase,” adds Reckers. “Because what we see is that we cannot compete with the big clubs in terms of buying the high-end players. We try to build them ourselves from a really young age.
“So we see the growth spurt as a really crucial element which we need to address better, and the miCoach Performance Centre is really helping out in developing new technologies, new models in that area.”
For all that, however, a club with a fabled track record in youth development is not about to automate generations of best practice out of existence.
“I think that the most important decision we made as a club is that technology is there to assist us, not to decide for us,” Reckers says. “So the technologies that we build are built as tools which inform coaches, which help coaches make decisions, but don’t do things for them.
“I think Lionel Messi is always the best example. Physically, he is not the guy who you would scout in that position. But he is the best player. So, to go back to my previous statement, that language of the coach and that language of the definition, what is needed – that needs to play the central role. Not the scientist saying, ‘We need a 1.98m central defender.’ It’s other qualities that drive him to be a fantastic central defender.
“I think there, on a daily basis, we still improve, but we are still not as good as the eye of the coach. And I think in the next ten years we won’t be.”
I think the fundamental difference is that players now grow up playing Fifa. So from flat and linear 2D to fully interactive 3D