This article was originally included in Blueprint for Football Extra. Get your copy now (for free)
If you ever find yourself watching a game involving Ajax and the camera pans to where their coaches are sitting, it is like catching the who’s – who of the club’s former greats. Ronald and Frank de Boer are there, as is Denis Bergkamp and Edwin Van der Saar. It is the same when it comes to their youth sides where the presence of former players is there throughout.
Barcelona are the same, particularly with the youth sides where the top jobs invariably go to former players. In Italy it is common practise too, as exemplified by AC Milan’s recent appointment of club legend Paolo Maldini as their technical director joining the likes of Franco Baresi, Filippo Inzaghi, Mauro Tassotti and Filippo Galli who have all remained within the club..
For sure, it is a much more dignified way of former greats earning a living than having them host corporate functions on matchdays which is what very often happens in England.
Yet such appointments a rarely charitable ones and it is a practise that has its reasons, the main one being ideological. When you’re a club like Ajax, that has a very particular style of playing then it pays you to employ people who have playing in that manner and who have done so to great effect. These players know what it means to play for Ajax and know how to play like Ajax, so they’re the ideal people to ensure that the tradition gets passed on.
That these coaches can command instant respect is an added bonus. No one would dare question a decision made by Bergkamp for the simple reason that this is Denis Bergkamp, one of the most accomplished players of his generation. You would imagine that what he says should be accepted without too many complaints (although every coach, regardless of how illustrious his career, should take time to explain the motivations behind everything that he does).
Yet, just as it has its benefits, it also has his pitfalls. It is important to preserve a club’s playing ethos but football changes and if you do not change with it then you get left behind. Employing people who have experienced the system does not mean that they are the best individuals to ensure that the blueprint gets updated to incorporate any recent changes or incorporate some variation in popular tactics.
In fact, it could be that these appointments actually hinder those who have the right ideas. Knowing that the best jobs will always be taken by someone else – someone who probably has done little to really deserve such a role.
Perhaps that is why it works so well at Ajax. Historically, Ajax have seen their biggest assets move elsewhere meaning that most of their players eventually experience different leagues and countries. Often, this opens up their way of thinking and they’ll incorporate these new ideas, constantly changing and adapting the blueprint.
The overall philosophy remains the same but it is continuously freshened up to ensure that it remains a point of strength, rather than being allowed to devolve into a major weakness.