Training & playing players in all positions – the Ajax philosophy
Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax, the most successful club in dutch football, A club famous for it youth set up that has produced so many world class players over the years. Probably the most famous principle of Ajax’s philosophy is that throughout the youth academy, youth players are trained in every position.
“All Ajax youth players will train in every position until they reach the age 15 16, by
then they will have a set position.” (Searson, 1995, n.p)
Training and playing players in different positions was always something that I believed in. When I started out coaching at 17 within junior football, I worked with two other coaches, one being the manager of the team. We were coaching an U10’s team and had 17 players. It was the belief of those coaches that they had to choose a set-position for each player, and play them in that position throughout that season. I could never understand this, at the time I felt that, youth football was about teaching players the game, and trying to figure out their best position over the course of several years.
The season after I then became the manager of the U11’s team. We had 14 players, which ranged from a mixed bunch that had either played before, come from a different sport (or sports) or had never played football. The players that had played before wanted to play ‘there position’, of course referencing were they had played for many years prior.
However in that year it was my aim to experiment and play players in different positons to figure out which role (or roles) suited them the most. I always tried to look at their individual traits and strengths to figure out where they should play, I never wanted any of the players to have a ‘set’ position, I wanted them to be able to play 2 or 3 different positions. If you had asked me at the time why I did this, I wouldn’t have been able to give you a particular reason, I just felt that it was the right thing to do in youth development.
Fast forward to late 2019, I began working for a private football academy. I coached a different group (aged 12 – 16) in a different city in Yorkshire every week night, with what the company would describe as ‘youth elite players’. As most session’s do, there would be a 20 minute game at the end. Yet as a coach we wouldn’t tell players which positions to play (which I had always done up to that point), the players would organise the formation and positions themselves. In the actual game, players would rotate positions naturally, not one player played in the same position the whole game.
This amazed me, I knew the players were of a higher ability that what I had worked with previously, but the way they were able to play in any position on the field with ease was something I had never seen before. I can remember myself as a player being asked to play as a left winger for one particular game and I couldn’t cope, yet these players continuously rotated into different positions with ease.
January 2020 was when I began to research the Ajax philosophy for the very first time. Of course, the first principle that stuck out to me was how they ‘train and play players in different positions‘ within their academy, yet the other principle that caught my eye was how the players in Ajax’s first team ‘continuously rotate positions’ when the team is in possession. Having seen players play and rotate positions first hand, I was fascinated and decided to look at some research into the benefits of this approach.
In the tactical periodization approach, Tamarit (2007) suggests that playing players in different positions allows players to gain a ‘collective understanding’. This allows players to ‘understand perfectly the collective/complete game from the perspective of all positions’ (Tamarit, 2007, P39).
If we consider this idea from a decision making viewpoint, this makes sense. Lets consider Klein’s (1993) model of recognition primed decision making. The model essentially suggests that in certain situations, we recognise specific cues, then specific patterns in which determines the subsequent actions that we produce.
A centre-forward will be used to certain position specific situations in their role, for example being 1 on 1 with the goalkeeper to try and score. A centre-forward will have been in this situation millions of times throughout his/her youth and professional career. Therefore the player will be an expert at recognising certain cues and patterns in this particular situation (for example goal-keeper coming off his line) and knowing the most appropriate action in that situation (chipping the ball over the goal-keeper to score). If we were to put a centre-back, who has never played this position before in this situation, it is likely they will not have the experience to recognise certain cues and patterns. Therefore, they will not select the most appropriate action. Instead they are likely to choose an unsuccessful action (for example trying to shoot at the goalie or passing to another player).
We can also consider this idea from the perception-action relationship. What a player in the centre-back position perceives will be completely different to what a player in the centre-forward position perceives, and this affects their subsequent actions. If we play our centre-back in the centre-forward position for the first time, then initially they will experience this difference in perception, thus affecting their subsequent decision making.
So what is the benefit of this approach then as opposed to training a player in set position. The difference is that the former creates a ‘more rounded player’. Specifically, the obvious differences are:
- Tactically, their understanding of the game will be greater. It is no surprise that both Donny van de Beek & Matthijis de Ligt are two of the more tactically gifted players in world football, have both come from the Ajax system. Players understand the ‘complete game that we want them to create’ (Tamarit, 2007, P39) from a tactical perspective. Each player knows exactly what his/her teammates are likely to do in each position.
- Technically, we are creating more technical based players. We are not limiting players to developing position specific techniques (for example, prioritising teaching tacking to defenders or dribbling to wingers). We can create players that can excel at all technical skills regardless of positions.
- Finally, we are creating players that are effective decision makers. Players are able to recognise cues and patterns in situations all across the pitch, being able to choose the most appropriate and effective action in any situation. In which, may lead to more effective performance.
It is therefore my personal belief that we should train players, regardless of their age & stage of development in different positions, which of course is reflected in my football philosophy and playing model. I believe that it is important that coaches within youth football adopt this approach, in order to help create more effective football players, for the future.