It’s easy to lose yourself in the ridiculousness of modern football and the spending it encourages, but such inflation is merely a consequence of the industry. When you consider how popular the sport is worldwide and what is at stake within the game, it’s no surprise that billions are invested in players, television rights and sponsorships every year.
We live in a society that demands everything instantly, where new shiny toys are expected with each passing window and the margin for error is minimal – leaving young players on the periphery, unable to learn their craft at the top level. Special talents like Marcus Rashford, Kylian Mbappe and Marco Asensio will always rise to the top because they’re just that good, but what about those floating in between? Many are moved on without being given a chance, often left spiralling down the divisions bereft of confidence and without a clear plan for the future.
Two clubs, however, where encouraging youth remains ingrained in their culture, are Lyon and Ajax. Two clubs enriched with history who enjoyed success, followed by mediocrity, who are now climbing their way back to the European elite.
Mixing with the elite is not a position in which Lyon are entirely unfamiliar – they won the title seven times between 2002 and 2008, a French record – but president Jean-Michel Aulas reconstructed the club’s business model since those glory years, with the academy being central to his modern vision.
That plan had been clear for a while. The senior team would incorporate graduates from the vaunted academy at Tola Vologe while cash was directed towards the construction of Parc Olympique Lyon – their new stadium. Years of high-profile sales followed, with a project to move big earners including Dejan Lovren, Lisandro Lopes and Michel Bastos off the wage bill, before placing their faith in youth.
Faith that turned out to be entirely justified. In the last decade alone, Hatem Ben Arfa, Loic Remy, Karim Benzema, Maxime Gonalons, Samuel Umtiti, Corentin Tolisso and Alexandre Lacazette have all starred for – and subsequently departed – the club, bringing in over €200million collectively in transfer fees. Nabil Fekir and Anthony Lopes remain key to the side under Bruno Genesio having progressed through the academy together as boyhood Lyon fans, alongside Lucas Tousart and Mouctar Diakhaby who broke through last season.
Already this season, 19-year-old Houssem Aouar has established himself in the first team following his promotion to the senior squad in July, while Tanguy Ndombele and Kenny Tete – aged 20 and 21 respectively – have also impressed in their short spells at the club. There has also been time for 18-year-old Myziane Maolida to make an impact, using his time off the bench effectively with three goals to his name.
Ajax share a similar culture to Lyon, except theirs is firmly entrenched into the DNA of the club. The famous academy founded in 1900, known as ‘Die Toekomst’ or ‘The Future’, is centred around Total Football – an approach invented by the great Dutch manager Rinus Michels. It is this ideology that makes Ajax stand out across Europe; the adoption of a single philosophy that everyone working at the club gets taught at an early age.
The basic goal of the club is that they bring through at least three players into the first team every two years, anything less is seen as a massive failure. Their preferred zone of recruitment is in the 50km area surrounding Amsterdam, but they do stretch further if the right player with the correct style of play comes along. For instance, if a player such as Christian Eriksen comes along, they would not hesitate to sign him.
If you thought Lyon’s academy alumni was impressive, this is a set-up that has produced the likes of Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Wesley Sneijder, Ruud Gullit, Edwin van der Sar and the de Boer brothers. Incredible players who all influenced the game at the highest domestic and international level throughout their careers. That’s without mentioning Marc Overmars, Rafael van der Vaart, Toby Alderweireld and Nigel de Jong.
Much like Aouar, 20-year-old Frenkie de Jong is becoming a prominent figure for Ajax under Marcel Kaizer, with Justin Kluivert and David Neres – aged 18 and 20 respectively – kicking on after hit and miss campaigns last time out. 18-year-old Matthijs de Ligt plays with a seniority found in a defender ten years his senior, with Kasper Dolberg finally finding his goalscoring touch again after a dry spell.
Of course, such drastic approaches are not feasible for all clubs, and it’s unlikely that Lyon or Ajax will be considered amongst the Real Madrids or Bayern Munichs of this world anytime soon. But they are competing. There is no point using young players for the sake of it, but if they are deemed good enough – they are old enough. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of confidence, a goal, being in the right place at the right time to ignite a career and these two clubs are masters at providing that moment.
Experience undoubtedly has its merits in football, but if you believe in the youth at your disposal and offer a tangible pathway to the first team, they could double or even triple your initial investment in years to come.