The Cruyff Plan was an overhaul of Ajax’s academy and its coaching methods, instigated by Johan Cruyff and implemented between 2011 and 2015. It ended in acrimony but only after the game’s greatest thinker had shared his final vision for football with the world.
Cruyff died last year but that vision endures. Wim Jonk and Ruben Jongkind are taking the ideas they developed at Ajax on the road. Adam Bate caught up with Jongkind to find out how Ajax’s velvet revolution was born, where it went wrong and what happens next…
In early 2011, with Ajax engaged in their latest bout of soul-searching, the club turned to the iconic figure of Johan Cruyff once more. He would return in an advisory role to implement his vision at all levels. An abrasive figure, not everyone welcomed the change. The chairman soon resigned. But the turmoil was not the only issue. Cruyff was not one for making notes.
“I remember the first time that I met him,” Ruben Jongkind tells Sky Sports. “I asked him where his exercises were. I will never forget his face. He just looked at me. ‘Exercises? What do you want to know? I observe, I act, and I reflect.’ So you ask him and he tells you. We always had to write it down because Johan never had any notes. It was all in his head.”
Jongkind was the man responsible for putting the great man’s vision onto paper and into practice. He was an individual coach at Ajax at the time, working alongside the former international midfielder Wim Jonk. “Wim and I were like magnets and became close,” says Jongkind. The pair had long sought to change the coaching emphasis at Ajax.
“We began to develop these ideas about taking an individual approach to coaching young players,” he explains. “We spoke about these coaches who only wanted to win the match at the cost of everything else when it came to youth development. We started to write things down and come up with a plan to help the individual players in a better way.
“We presented it to our bosses at Ajax but they were not so interested. In fact, it was the opposite. Their attitude was that we should not do this. This is Ajax. This is dangerous.” Change meant risk. It meant shaking things up. But the danger appealed to Cruyff. Ajax’s mavericks soon had the backing of the game’s grandest maverick thinker of them all.
The son of a Spanish mother and a Dutch father, in some ways Jongkind was the natural conduit for a man so associated with those two football cultures. “It is a coincidence,” he insists. “But Cruyff always said that coincidence is logical.” Even now, Jongkind’s first instinct is to reach for the words of Cruyff. He once studied the 1980s book Quotes of Johan.
“We started to ask the key questions. What is our philosophy? What is our mission? What is our playing style? Then we wanted to ensure that our players could play attractive football. But what is attractive football? We must define it with key principles. Johan defined them and we wrote them down. We created this idea of principles and match tactics.
“How do you play with 10 men? How do you play against 10 men? How do you play against a 4-4-2? How do you play when a team parks the bus? Then we started to think about how you can translate this to the age categories. Ten to 12? Thirteen to 16? Seventeen to 19? We made it very clear. We wanted to produce three players every year for the first team.”
These notes would form the basis of what became known as Ajax’s velvet revolution. Ideas turned into strategy. The revolutionaries were empowered. In 2011, the so-called Cruyff Plan, implemented by men of his choosing – Dennis Bergkamp among those joining Jonk and Jongkind – was up and running. It would eventually lead to acrimony and even court cases.
“I think the resistance was political,” says Jongkind. “Change is dangerous. Now everybody has a job. If we start to change things and there are bad results, somebody is responsible and you may lose your job. That’s the first problem. The other problem comes if people do not understand the concepts. They say that this is a team sport and not about individuals.”
Team versus individual. Louis van Gaal versus Johan Cruyff. It is the great schism in thinking at Ajax. Two sides of the same coin, they shared more ideas than either ever cared to admit. But it has still led to a power struggle that has dominated the Dutch club for much of the decade. Cruyff’s brief ascendance allowed the chance for greater expression. Total coaching.
THE CRUYFF PLAN
“First of all, we started to work with one playing style throughout the entire academy,” says Jongkind. “Before this, it was as though every coach was his own island. They had some idea, of course, of Ajax. It was all different shades of the same colour. It was still the Ajax DNA but there were coaches who were not playing the football that we wanted to play.”
The problem, as Cruyff and his cohorts saw it, was that these coaches were too preoccupied with getting their team to win matches. “We did not want the results to be important,” says Jongkind. “There is only one team that needs to win and that is the first team. A youth game is the same as training. It is a means to an end not an end in itself. It is a tool.”
They would insist on highly-rated defenders playing in midfield to improve their touch in tight situations even if it meant conceding goals and losing games. “Now you see a lot of clubs and federations talking about this but often it is just words,” he adds. “You have to match the actions to the words. It is very difficult to really do that. But that is what we did.
“One of the logical consequences of it is that you as a coach are not just responsible for a team. Instead, you are responsible for a set of players. So if you used to be an under-10 coach, now you are responsible for three under-10 players, two under-11 players, five under-12 players et cetera. Your main responsibility is to improve these players.
“Of course, you are still coaching a team on a Saturday but that is not your principal responsibility. We did this in order to take away this incentive for them to win. The players, of course, want to win. That is natural and in the DNA of every player. But a coach in the academy who wants to win at the expense of everything? That is bad.
“So we said that every eight weeks you have to change the team that you work with. The under-11 coach had to move to the under-9s after eight weeks, and maybe the under-9 coach would move to the under-12s. This way you exposed more and more coaches to the same players. This fostered the discussion process about players and their abilities.
“Before this, if a coach had been a striker, he could look at a player in a certain way. Another might look at them in a very different way. One coach might be very attuned to behavioural issues and another not so much. There are always situations where a coach does not like a player and does not pay them enough attention. Changing coaches regularly avoids this.
“For example, Brian Tevreden, who is now at Reading, he was really good at seeing the potential and understanding the backgrounds of those players from the worst backgrounds in Amsterdam. Other coaches could not handle this problem. So it may be that some players struggled under others but then under Brian, they played very well.”
By putting the needs of the individual at the heart of the process, Ajax were able to gain a greater understanding of what was required from their coaches in order to help player development. “It is a bit of an abstract concept,” admits Jongkind, “but in practice, it is actually very clear. As a youth coach, you are responsible for players and not teams.”
This shift of emphasis extended far beyond the football pitch. “Suddenly, you had to collect a lot more information about the players,” he adds. “You had to talk to parents. You had to go to the houses of parents. You had to go to the school and talk to their teachers about how they are doing at school. It was a lot more work than just the football on the field.”
Rather than 13 teams, there were now 250 players and every single one of them had their own individual development plan. Jongkind’s background in track and field meant he was well versed in the training regimes of athletes from individual sports. Once again, his progressive ideas found a receptive ear when it came to the man at the helm.
“Cruyff told me that when he was 15 his best youth coach, Jany van der Veen, told him he could not play five times a week at Ajax and instead had to play only two times,” he explains. “He took him to the local track and field team. All of his other coaches thought he was crazy. This was their best player. But he was also too weak and a very skinny boy.”
Frank de Boer spoke of bringing Ajax ideas to Crystal Palace in June
The all-round approach had worked for Cruyff and so Ajax pressed ahead. Coaches with fresh ideas were introduced from judo, gymnastics and even American football. Basketball skills taught better balance. Working other muscles reduced the risk of injury by four times. Up to the age of 12, as much as 45 per cent of training was not directly related to football.
For some, it had become a bizarre experiment. One too far removed from the core aims of the football club. For others, these were precisely the marginal gains that could give Ajax the competitive advantage that was required. Many were helped by it as Cruyff had been and this was him in his element – educator as well as coach. It extended to the classroom.
“We knew we had to create more training for our young players because street football is disappearing so we have to compensate for this,” says Jongkind. “So we made special arrangements with schools. In fact, we built a school on the campus. It was a place where they could learn about languages or history or physics through football.
“What we noticed is that subjects they had not been interested in became interesting to them through football. So a young boy with no appetite for learning English suddenly would be keen if he was reading a Tottenham versus Chelsea match report. That was fascinating. With this system we were able to create an extra time slot every day for training.”
WHERE IT WENT WRONG
The vast scope of the Cruyff Plan was obvious. But the sheer scale of it was also a problem. “Implementing it was the most difficult part and, in hindsight, we made mistakes,” Jongkind acknowledges. “We should have done things differently. We went too fast. We should have started with slower steps and communicated what we were trying to achieve better.
“We eventually began to improve these things in 2013 but we should have done it right at the start. Unfortunately, we did not have any experience in doing any of this before. I think the content was very good so that was not a problem. The big challenge was always going to be whether or not people could handle the changes and be prepared to go with it.
“If you do not have the complete support of those at the top, which was always a problem, it is difficult. If people are reluctant to change then they can go around you to your superiors and complain. If those superiors are not behind you 100 per cent then people soon see this and so they then start to complain some more.”
Right from the outset there had been friction. When one of the many boards at Ajax attempted to appoint Van Gaal as their new director it was seen as a clear attempt to stymie the reform agenda. Cruyff fought it in the courts and Van Gaal soon moved on but the tensions never went away. Head coach Frank de Boer was not a true disciple.
Johan would always protect us. But the moment he got sick, it was over for all of us.
“The football of Frank de Boer was not really the football of Johan Cruyff,” claims Jongkind. “Frank had his own ideas. They were ideas that, in my opinion, were more Louis van Gaal ideas.” The grand plans for international projects were ignored and Cruyff’s plans were not followed as meticulously by others or with the same passion as that of Jonk and Jongkind.
And then it was all over. Cruyff’s cancer returned and he had an even bigger fight on his hands. In December 2015, Jonk left Ajax due to “irreconcilable differences” and Cruyff followed him out the door. Fourteen others, Jongkind among them, walked away. “Johan would always protect us,” he says. “But the moment he got sick, it was over for all of us.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
So how does Jongkind reflect now on the work that was done and the legacy of the Cruyff Plan at Ajax? “It was frustrating because we saw the possibilities,” he says. “We also saw the quality of the under-19s when we left and there was big potential there.” Given full control, Cruyff’s record shows that his methods have a history of proving successful.
“It dates back to the 1980s when he restructured the academy at Ajax,” adds Jongkind. “Seven years after that they won the Champions League. Not a lot of people notice these patterns. He goes somewhere, he changes things in the academy, and then five to 10 years later there is success for the club. This is very interesting.
“The same thing happened at Barcelona and even this time around Ajax got to the final of the Europa League with some very young players. In my opinion, it is not a coincidence. Peter Bosz was using some of Cruyff’s principles in his play, the five-second rule, the third-man running, the desire to create depth not width. We were seeing these ideas.
“The result is that you can have 17-year-old players beating good European teams who have 25-year-old players. That is partly down to the work that was being done. But I am a little bit sceptical about the future. Apart from the players who still come to us for little bits of advice, we do not have any influence there at Ajax now. That’s over.”
It is over at Ajax, but it is not over for Jongkind or for Jonk. They are the exclusive licensees of the Cruyff Football brand and continue together as Team Jonk with the stated aim of inspiring attractive football, creating better players through an individual approach and, rather boldly, to help shape a world in which children can reach their maximum potential.
They do not have a club but they do have an idea. In football terms, it is perhaps the great idea. “When we left Ajax, Cruyff said to us there and then that we will not stop, we will continue because we believe our ideas are valuable,” says Jongkind. “So we are going to do it ourselves even though we do not have a club. Our job is to spread the ideas.
“My last phone call with Johan was two weeks before he died. He told me that we have to go to China because we can help to ensure they do not make the mistakes that we have made in Europe in regard to academies and young players. He really wanted to spread the vision so we have taken it on and we are working on that with our team.”
Jongkind has just returned from a trip to Beijing where he was conducting intensive training courses for Chinese coaches. There is cooperation with the Belgian FA as well as a possible partnership in the United States. Ideas are being exchanged with clubs in Spain. Famously, Cruyff did not write his down. But thankfully someone did. Johan Cruyff’s vision lives on.