By David Lynch
Ahead of their Champions League clash on Wednesday evening, it seems odd to say that Manchester City could wish to emulate their opponents Ajax in any way.
The Premier League champions go into the game just one point ahead of their Dutch counterparts in Group D, but are infinitely more likely to progress this year; or at least use their never-ending wealth to ensure success is an inevitable consequence in the coming campaigns.
City also have the money that accompanies playing in England to thank for the fact that losing players to ‘bigger clubs’ is rarely a concern, unless a certain Spanish duo come calling of course.
Yet, in these economically prudent times, football finds itself, in part thanks to the impending Financial Fair Play regulations, the English side might just cast an envious glance at the opposition’s vastly superior youth setup. The Amsterdam outfit’s academy is a world-renowned asset, one which will provide the necessary sustainability when Michel Platini’s financial regulations are finally imposed and which will be evidenced by Cristian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld and Daley Blind on the night.
The fruitfulness of this setup first became clear as far back as 1995, as Ajax lifted the Champions League for the fourth time in their history – something which it is worth remembering City are yet to do even once. That team contained the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and the De Boer brothers, Ronald and Frank. All Dutch, all brilliant and all from the Ajax academy.
They graduated from a youth programme which had previously helped shape Johan Cruyff into one of the greatest, most innovative footballers the world has ever seen. And it is no coincidence that such an organic approach has only since been emulated by one other team; the formerly Cruyff-managed Barcelona.
The team which has dominated European football over the last four years has all the hallmarks of Ajax in 1995. The crisp passing, the commitment to 4-3-3, players comfortable on the ball in every position on the pitch and more than a sprinkling of players direct from the academy. In fact the only discernible difference is in the passports they hold.
Having lacked the resources to copy Ajax 17 years ago – when, in fairness, they were busy narrowly staving off relegation to the first division – City now find themselves ready to lead a wave of football clubs eager to take on the Barcelona model.
It is with that in mind that the building work is set to commence on the Manchester City Football Academy in the coming weeks. The club hope the project, which is expected to cost around £100 million to realise, will be completed in time for the start of the 2014-15 Premier League season or, alternatively for the cynics, for the start of full FFP sanctions.
The other upside for City is that none of the costs of building the facility will count against them when FFP comes in due to their obvious benefits for the game as a whole, while any profit made from it can be used to cancel out expenditure in other areas.
The new Etihad Campus will house over 400 young footballers, who will be given access to its 200 classrooms, 16.5 pitches and 7,000-seater stadium. The club aim to bring each of these players through to the first team having indoctrinated them with a particular playing style from a young age – just like Barcelona and Ajax before them.
For all their recent successes and long, admirable history, City currently boast just two academy graduates amongst Roberto Mancini’s squad. Of those, only Micah Richards features regularly - though is often a victim of the rotation system - while Michael Johnson appears to be a lost cause given his well-documented off-the-field troubles.
And that is something they wish to correct, with one eye on a future in which the big-money transfers of recent history will not be tolerated by Uefa. If City cannot simply outspend the likes of Ajax when FFP comes in, they must beat them at their own game.
But that is easier said than done when your opponents’ proficiency in the matter goes back as far as the Dutch masters. Well, sort of.
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