Becoming a great football club takes planning, organization, and talent. Long-term strategizing is a must to create a successful squad in the modern age of football. Transfer policy, squad management, and tactics all factor into how much a club achieves over the short and long term. Having a talented squad that wins every competition one season is no guarantee that a club will be able to retain that success moving forward.
Ajax is a club who is historically known for producing its own talent through the academy, bringing youngsters up through the ranks to eventually play for the first team. For decades, Ajax won countless league titles and a few European Cups using this method. This, along with the innovative Total Football tactic perfected by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruijff, turned the Amsterdam club into a football powerhouse. As of recent times, Ajax has moved further and further away from this philosophy. They haven’t been winning nearly as much as they used to, players are being bought for bigger fees, and youth policy has taken a backseat to more experienced players.
I am taking over Ajax, not in real life, unfortunately, but in Football Manager 2017. My mission is simple: recovery, revitalization, and redemption. I will document my journey with 3 updates per season (Summer Transfer Window, January Mid-Season Break, and the End of the Season).
Step 1: Recovery
PSV has just retained the league title, so bringing Ajax back to the top of the Eredivisie has to be my first goal. I want to bring joy back to the people of Amsterdam. We must establish ourselves as the most formidable Dutch powerhouse to succeed with our next two goals. How will I do this? Tactical innovation, shrewd business, and a strong youth policy. Nursing young stars into the first team with the aim of having them either spend a career at the club winning trophies or selling them on for a massive profit will be one of the keys to our success. Tactically, we will press high and close down the opposition, move up the pitch with speed, efficiency, and short passing, and work the ball around until an opportunity is fashioned. Selflessness, determination, and hard-work are some of the key attributes I will look for in an Ajax player.
In terms of roles, we will be playing a sweeper-keeper who will act as an 11th outfield player during our defensive build-up play. He will look to distribute the ball quickly and be able to get to through balls before the opposition striker. Our two center backs will be ball-playing defenders, for the most part. They will press high, and once they win the ball back they will look to create opportunities in the midfield. Our fullbacks will play as wingbacks: moving up the field to deliver killer passes but also tracking back to defend. Our three-man midfield will consist of a deep-lying playmaker to track back while adding a passing threat, a box-to-box-midfielder to help out the defense and then transfer the ball from defense to attack, and an advanced playmaker to link the whole attack together. If we need to play more conservatively, everyone will drop back (deep-lying playmaker into the defensive midfield). Our wide midfielders will be a combination of both wingers and inside-forwards, depending on who is playing. The inside-forwards will create by cutting inside and allowing the wingbacks to overlap, while the wingers will barge down the sideline and look for either a back-pass to the midfield or a cross. The lone striker will be an advanced forward, a pretty creative role, but when we drop back he will act as a deep-lying forward.
So, now that we have that out of the way, how will I conduct my transfers? I’m only going to buy players that are 21 years of age or younger. This will give the club the greatest chance to influence its playing style on them, and selling them on will profit us more. I won’t be buying any youngsters over the, let’s say, €10 million mark. My only exception to the rule is if we want to bring back any former Ajax players for tutoring and eventual coaching roles.
Step 2: Revitalization
Next, I need to revitalize Ajax as the premier club for producing youth talent. Yes, this means selling a few stars here and there, but not without a large fee received in return. For my entire tenure as Ajax manager, I need to maintain a negative net-spend on transfers each year (I must sell players for a larger total sum than I buy players for). I am not required to accept bids for players above a certain amount, but I should always be looking to move my best players on and replace them with younger, cheaper options.
Another mandatory mission is to give at least 3 players aged 19 or younger their full first-team debuts (in a competitive match) every season. This will ensure a steady stream of youth talent into the squad, while also allowing me to evaluate the performance of youngsters versus their more experienced counterparts. These players do not need to be actual products of our youth academy: any players brought in who are 19 or younger will count towards this number. Nevertheless, I will focus particularly on developing young Dutch players from my academy and those I buy from other clubs in Holland.
Step 3: Redemption
The final step doesn’t need too much of an explanation. My final goal is to redeem Ajax as the best football club on earth. Winning the Champions League is the main sub-goal of redemption, but it would be a nice addition to be the most reputable club in the world (however difficult that may be). Though there is no specific timeline for this goal, I would like to achieve it before 10 years in charge. It’s ambitious, but the platform I have created is sensible. Through efficient production of youth talent, economically sound business dealings, and a little bit of tactical luck, I have high expectations for this club. Our club.