The Dutch Model of Developing Young Footballers: Let Them Sink or Swim

Sunday, 25 August, 2019 - 06:15
London - Gavin Willacy

Despite Ajax going desperately close to reaching the Champions League final, the Eredivisie seems to be out of fashion with Premier League recruiters. Only two players moved from the Dutch league to the Premier League this summer. Coincidentally, they went to last season’s top two, with Manchester City paying PSV £5.3m for Angeliño and Liverpool signing 17-year-old Sepp van den Berg from Zwolle for £4.4m. In contrast, six players arrived from Belgium at a cost of £98m.

Below the top six clubs in the Eredivisie, budgets are small, ranging from €7m to €17m, similar to clubs towards the top of League 1 and bottom of the Championship. The Eredivisie has been a source of talent in the past. Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Luis Suárez were all top scorers in the league before lighting up the Premier League. And both Romário and Ronaldo won the golden boot in the Netherlands as they made the move to European football.

The most prolific Eredivisie strikers have made far less impact in England in recent times. Mateja Kezman was top scorer three times but flopped at Chelsea; Dirk Kuyt was a hero at Liverpool more for his workrate and versatility than his goals; Wilfried Bony struggled after his big move to Manchester City and is currently training with Newport County; and Vincent Janssen never lived up to his £17m price tag after signing for Tottenham.

Earlier this month, I spent a week in the Netherlands with the Burton Albion and Ipswich Town youth teams, who were visiting on Erasmus+ programmes organised by League Football Education. The trip gave us a chance to learn more about the systems Dutch clubs use to bring through youth players. Most of the country’s top clubs have a second – “jong” (young) – team playing in a lower league against men rather than their peers, from the second tier to the fourth.

Some struggle, some thrive; but no youth teams can be promoted into the league where their first team plays. Hence, when Jong Ajax won the second tier in the 2017-18 season (becoming the first reserve team to do so) they were not promoted to the Eredivisie but stayed in the Eerste Divisie and tried to defend their crown the following campaign.

The youth squads are very similar to Premier League 2 sides. Players are supposed to be Under-23 and homegrown but, in reality, most are teenagers and there is the odd foreign player too. There are four youth teams in the second tier this season: Jong Ajax, Jong AZ, Jong PSV and Jong Utrecht. Marc Overmars and Winston Bogarde are in charge of the Jong Ajax players, all of whom are 20 or younger (asides from a 22-year-old goalkeeper). Jong AZ, coached by former Manchester City cult hero Michael Vonk, range from 17 to 22. The same goes for Jong Utrecht, who have three overseas players: a German, a Romanian and a Belorussian.

In a league where most clubs bring in crowds between 3,000 and 8,000, Jong PSV drew an average gate of just 771 last season. Ajax averaged 695, Jong AZ had 629 and Utrecht a mere 526. Dress it up all you like, but no one wants to watch the kids – especially against men. It’s a lose-lose for the senior team in the contest.

The jong system operates throughout Dutch professional football, which changes hugely after the top two divisions. Jong Sparta Rotterdam and Jong FC Voldendam stand out in the semi-professional third tier – Tweede Divisie – in which every other club is just that: a club. All inclusive, wide-ranging, a community hub. Excelsior have 39 teams; VV Katwijk have 59; Quick Boys have 101. Some clubs have more than 2,000 registered players.

Unlike in the UK, most Dutch clubs only contract their most talented youngsters. NAC Breda, who were relegated from the Eredivisie last season, have just seven paid players in their Under-20s. Given they have around 40 players split between their Under-17s and Under-19s, competition for contracts is fierce.

Having enjoyed the hospitality in the Netherlands, we moved across the German border, where Ipswich Under-18s were well beaten by the Bayer 04 Under-19s (the last Bayer team before their Bundesliga squad). A few years ago, Bayer decided to fold their reserve team, which was playing in the fourth division, believing that the standard was too low and the gap to their Champions League-chasing first team was too big. Not everyone in the academy agreed, but now they send their best young players on loan instead. Again, only the very best Under-19s are awarded professional contracts. Just two of last year’s squad were offered deals.

The danger of releasing almost all of your players at 19 means some will come back to haunt you. Bayer let midfielder Kevin Kampl leave on a free before he had even made a first-team appearance. Four years later, they paid £10m to bring him back and have since sold him to RB Leipzig for twice that. They didn’t seem too concerned. Quality not quantity appears to be their unwritten motto.

The Guardian Sport

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