The Eredivisie & AFC Ajax: A Football Manager Love Story.

As some of you have probably noticed, I’ve not been all that active lately. It started with a break for Christmas to properly concentrate on the things that truly matter in life – family and friends – and that, unfortunately for those of you that for some reason seem to like my content, meant that I had to take a step back from Football Manager in general and this blog in particular.

We’re now in February and I’ve still not really come back.

I’d planned to, I really had, but life has a way of messing with you when you really wish it wouldn’t. To quote the mighty Al Swearengen from HBO’s masterpiece ‘Deadwood’:

In life you have you do a lot of things you don’t fucking want to do. Many times that’s what the fuck life is – one vile fucking task after another.

And that rather succinctly sums up where I have been for the last month or so, am currently, and will likely be for the foreseeable future. But that also doesn’t mean I’m going anywhere. Football Manager is a game that has the ability, for me, to act as stress relief and therapy in the strangest ways. It’s a powerful tool to relax with and get lost in the fictitious world you create for yourself and, once you get far enough in your save, with the fictitious heroes you create that exist solely for you.

It’s a novel you can play. It’s Dungeons & Dragons in footballing form.

It approaches perfection.

So, to get to the actual point rather than to continue to wax expositional – why am I sat here, on a gloomy February afternoon in the east of England, instead of providing updates on my adventures with FC Augsburg or the youth development series. It’s a simple, if disappointing, answer – I just don’t have it in me, or have the time, to continue them. And as the length of time between updates – or even just playing those saves – continues, I have less and less motivation to go back to them – and I suspect my readers have less desire to go back and have to refamiliarise themselves with them.

It’s a shame, but that’s just how it goes.

Which then leads us to the question of, lacking the time and energy to play a long term game let alone write up the various events, what is it exactly that I can do? It hit me the other day – I can talk about something I love, why I love it, and why I think you should love it too.

For me, despite the name of the piece (bear with me, we’ll get there) it starts with Arsenal.

I grew up in North London. Both my parents are Londoners. For my many and varied sins, I’ve been an Arsenal fan since childhood. We’ve had highs, we’ve had lows, we’ve had what comes below lows. Due to my age, I did technically know a time before Arsène Wenger was hired as our gaffer but I was too young to really remember it. I count myself incredibly lucky that my first true footballing memory was That hat trick away at Leicester from Dennis Bergkamp in 1997.

Whether I knew it at the time or not, that’s where it all started for me. Bergkamp was my idol. My hero. He was everything, as far as I was concerned, that a footballer should be. Sublime on the ball, crafty off the ball. His touch, his poise… Everything about him as a player was world class. Beyond world class. That hat trick is still hailed, in some quarters, as the greatest hat trick in Premier League history and his goal against Newcastle – my god above, that goal – was voted the greatest single goal in Premier League history. And both of these came from a player, a nominal striker, whose goal scoring record was, while not the worst, never exactly the best.

I wanted to know more about him before he came to Arsenal. I learned about his disappointments at Inter – which I still irrationally despise them for, as if they were personally to blame as an organisation – but crucially I learned about his roots in the Ajax youth academy and his grounding and education in Dutch totaalvoetbal. Through the non-flying Dutchman I was exposed to some of the greats of world football history – Johan Cruijff, Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stéfano. The original Galácticos that won essentially everything there was to win, fifty or more years before Barcelona made it fashionable.

But even that, that rather cheap crack at Guardiola’s Barcelona, is influenced by my love for Bergkamp – without Bergkamp I would never have learned about Ajax. Without Ajax, I would never have learned about Cruijff. Without Cruijff, no totaalvoetbal. Without Cruijff and his take on totaalvoetbal, Pep Guardiola’s own ideas about how football should be played may never have ended up where it has today. And without that… well. Just look at the football his teams have played, and are currently playing.

Then, in 2012, I discovered the Football Manager series. I loved it immediately. I mean, I was absolutely awful at it and I had about as much understanding of all the things going on on my computer screen as a fish does of Euclidean geometry, but I loved that I could take what little I knew about football and try to recreate it in my own virtual world. It quickly transpired that I couldn’t do that because I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about football, and I knew nothing about the FM game in general.

Fast forward a few years and we get to Football Manager 2015. I still wasn’t great at the game, and I was still endlessly frustrated by it – but crucially I loved playing it and would sink hundreds of hours into the thing over the course of the year before the next one came out. But in this particular release, something wonderful happened: I discovered Second Yellow Card on YouTube.

His videos showed me a piece of the puzzle I’d been missing – it wasn’t just about winning football matches. It wasn’t just about going out and signing the best players you can, throwing them in the latest match engine breaker I’d downloaded and seeing what happened. It was about the story. It was as much about how you get to the Champions League final – and the heroes that got you there – as it was about winning the thing. For an example of what I’m talking about, watch his Outcast to Icons save on FM15. It’s an epic series spanning decades, with emergent heroes and villains. It’s everything I wanted from a Football Manager game, let alone a series about the game. I genuinely cannot speak highly enough about it.

And this is where we finally – finally – get to the point of this post.

I watched that series – I still watch it from time to time while I’m playing, as an aside – and essentially pointed to my monitor and screamed “That! I want to do that!”. And there was only one team I wanted to do it with – AFC Ajax. I’ve talked about my love of Dennis Bergkamp and how that originally led me to be interested in the Amsterdam club, but it wasn’t just him. A casual look at the products of their academy paints a picture of world class players playing at world class clubs.

Here’s a brief sampling, see if you’ve heard of any of them:

  • Johan Cruijff
  • Marco van Basten
  • Dennis Bergkamp
  • Frank and Ronald de Boer
  • Edgar Davids
  • Patrick Kluivert
  • Edwin van der Sar
  • Clarence Seedorf
  • Toby Alderweireld
  • Daley Blind
  • Nigel and Siem de Jong
  • Wesley Sneijder
  • Rafael van der Vaart
  • Thomas Vermaelen
  • Jan Vertonghen
  • Christian Eriksen
  • Davy Klaassen

I saw this and immediately was intrigued about the club. How can they constantly produce world class talent? It’s almost unbelievable. There’s a particular mindset, a footballing philosophy at the club that dictates how it operates. They’re a story waiting to happen. And now, down the years, I like to think in some way that I’ve been able to better understand that story in real life thanks to my virtual involvement.

In the last few weeks people have been rapturous over young midfielder Frenkie de Jong. I was pleased to see him getting this recognition, but unsurprised – he had always developed into a world class player for me. I knew Donny van der Beek was going to be a great player. I knew Davy Klaassen would eventually get a big move – even though he is being criminally misused at Everton as it stands. I knew Kasper Dolberg was going to be the next big thing of Danish football let alone world football.

Playing Football Manager as Ajax gives you an insight into who the next generation of European superstars are going to be, if all goes well, in real life as well as in the virtual world. And on top of this, it gives you an excellent chance to shape that yourself in your saves.

This is why I play as Ajax – I love the club, I love their philosophies and I love their history. Also, Bergkamp. But why should you, should anyone, play in the Eredivisie let alone as Ajax?

Well, to use Ajax as an example as they’re the club I know the best in that division, there’s one very key reason why it is that, for me, Ajax are simply, hands down, the best club for youth development in the game: The Jupiler League.

Caught you by surprise that one, didn’t it? Let me explain though.

At this point, anyone reading this knows the basic tenets of youth development – Identify, scout, sign, train, tutor, loan, assess, slot into first team or sell. Throw in quality facilities for seasoning.

Ajax, like most other teams in the game, have three squads – the Under 19s, the ‘B’ team/Under 23/Jong squad and the senior squad. The thing which sets Ajax – and a couple of other Eredivisie outfits – apart is that their Jong side plays in the Jupiler League – Holland’s Championship equivalent. So, when you get to the loan stage of a player’s development to help them get past that final hurdle of regular first team football… you have options. The best of the best go out to Eredivisie teams or the equivalent in other leagues, the tier below simply stay in Jong Ajax where they still play a good level of football until they’re ready to go out on loan.

This allows you to be much more picky in who you send your potential world beaters to. No, I won’t settle for a second division side for Talent A because he’s technically already playing for one. At this point, the loan stage of development becomes less of a necessity and more of a potential star maker. It’s an option for the right player, the 18-20 year old who’s too good for Jong Ajax, but not quite got the quality to nail down a place in the senior squad yet.

This slightly unconventional approach allows you to have so much more control over who plays where for whom, and gives you a much better handle on how your future senior players (hopefully) are developing. Case in point – in an offline save I started recently, it’s January 3rd 2018. Kaj Sierhuis has a goalscoring record of 22 in all competitions for Jong Ajax so far this season and he’s clearly outgrowing them. But Kasper Dolberg, Mateo Cassierra and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar are holding down my lone striker role between them, and each one of them offers me something different in that role. I need to move him up, but I don’t have space for him. Oh, Vitesse are currently mid table in the Eredivisie and want to give him a first team role until the end of the season? Off you pop, lad. See you in the summer and we’ll see how you’ve done.

This staggering of the developmental tiers gives you a development ladder that looks something like this:

  1. Youth intake. Assess players, sign the best prospects, terminate trials of the worst ones. Decide on the average ones based on pros and cons.
  2. Assess your U19 side. If a player is 18-19, are they ready to move up to Jong Ajax? Is that two and a half star current ability 17 year old ready to move up?
  3. Assess Jong Ajax. Keep a couple of your best players – the Jensens, the Nunnelys, the Eitings – as a ‘withdrawn rotation’ option, loan out the 20-22 year olds that need it. Maybe send a couple of the 19 year olds out if they’re ready for first team football in a better division too. Everyone else plays regular football, greatly aiding their development, with the best of the bunch playing for the senior squad on a rotational basis when the moment’s right.
  4. Assess in the summer and start the process again.

This is why I love playing in the Eredivisie as Ajax. That level of developmental flexibility is something you just can’t find elsewhere with other clubs in other leagues. You simply have to send your best prospects out on loan so that your first team isn’t weakened by their inclusion, and sometimes you have to accept a loan deal that isn’t as beneficial as you might want it to be. With this structure, you don’t have to play the game that way. You have options.

There are downsides, of course. The Eredivisie isn’t one of the biggest leagues in the world, and it’s very easy for your players’ heads to get turned when the big boys of European football come calling for your biggest stars.  The new dynamics system and the fact that having your influential players talk to unhappy players actually works this year can help, but ultimately you have to know that players you shaped and helped grow are going to leave you. But when they do, they’re going to leave for big money and if you’ve played your cards right you have a homegrown, ready made talent to fill the hole he’s left an you can start the process again.

The league also isn’t one of the strongest in Europe. Your coefficient places are going to be tough to hold on to – even if you’re doing well, you can watch everyone else potentially not perform to their ability, as well as having their squads raided each and every transfer window by the bigger, supposedly better leagues on the continent. If their squads are significantly weaker, while it does make the league campaign a lot easier for you it means that the league’s performance in continental competition is essentially a roll of the dice.

The trick, I’ve found, is to play to the strengths of both the club you’re managing and the league you’re in – buy young, sell high. Accept that the predators of La Liga and the Premier League are circling your total football campfires and always, always have a player that can slot in and do a job when you inevitably lose that star player. Throw in a percentage of next sale clause just to be safe and you win coming and going.

I love Ajax for their history and philosophy and I love the Eredivisie for its challenges as a middling league in the tiers of European football. The combination of the two is my favourite way to play Football Manager. What tips this over the line for me, are the stories you can create from playing in a style that mirrors the way Ajax do things in real life.

 

The Saga of Ragnar Hjaltisson.

It’s the year 2024 in FM16. Youth intake days are rolling around and my scouts are doing their pre assignment workouts to make sure they’re ready for the travails to come. I’ve cleared my shortlists, the kettle’s on and I’m getting ready to get really stuck into finding the next generation of world beaters I’m going to bring to Amsterdam to try to conquer the Champions League in the future. You know what it’s like. You’ve all been there before and will be there again. It’s the one definite of every FM player’s virtual career.

So there I am, going down the lists of newgens from every country under the sun in the hope of finding a gem from Mozambique (I still live in hope for that magical day) when I stumble across a young midfielder recently brought into the ranks of of Icelandic outfit Vikingur Reykjavik. My scouts file in, one after one, telling me that this kid has massive potential, but I just don’t really see it. Sure, he has great physicals, but his mentals and technicals are lacking even for his age.

Still, though, when that many people from the best scouting team I could assemble over the best part of a decade are telling me that this kid is going to be good, I decide I have to take a gamble and I bring him in for a princely sum of £10,000 on a £100 a week contract. I get him tutored, I get him training and I leave him in the U19s.

Two years pass. He’s doing well in training, the reports are favourable and his stats are increasing really rapidly, actually. I’m glad I listened to my scouts. He goes out on loan to St Etienne for a season to hone his skills and get experience at a high level in a different country. He comes back that summer having played a full top flight campaign at a high level and he’s good to go for my first team as a rotation option.

He plays mostly off the bench for me that season, playing solidly and popping up with the occasional goal from central midfield and showing a keen eye for a pass. The more I watch him, the more impressed with him I am. Then, disaster strikes. My star DM breaks his leg in the first game of the 28/29 season and is going to be out for the next ten months. His backup is also out injured until November.

The only player I have who can kind of play in his deep lying playmaker role is Ragnar Hjaltisson, but he’s far from a natural in that position and role. Safe to say, I’m worried.

He’s a revelation. I thought he was good in central midfield, linking play from the DLP with everyone else… but his true calling was as the conductor of the Ajax machine. His vision and passing ability rocket as he finishes the season as my star player and the fans’ player of the year. I sell the guy he inherited the role from – no-one can touch Ragnar in that role for the next two years.

Now just entering his prime at the age of 25, he is at the forefront of a revolution at the club. Our recent golden generation of players have been moving up the ranks for a couple of years and we now have a squad of predominantly homegrown players that have been at the club since their earliest days as professionals. And man can you tell. Over the next three seasons we lose a total of one game in league competition and make a clean sweep of domestic silverware.

The one thing missing is the Champions League. We’ve still never won it, finishing runners up on three occasions since the save began. We dominate the group stage in the 32/33 season and make it to the semi finals with ease. Then we run into Barcelona. We scrape a narrow 1-0 away win in Spain, and play out an edgy, nervy 0-0 draw in Amsterdam. But we’re in the final… against Real Madrid.

The game was end to end, a neutral’s dream match, but I’m beyond nervous. We’re playing well, but they have half the last world cup’s best eleven on the pitch and we… well, we don’t. It finishes 0-0 in normal time, despite both teams seemingly abandoning the art of defence for the entire game in favour of pure attacking football. It’s still 0-0 after extra time. It’s penalties.

It’s the typical story – they score, we score etc and on and on until their left back hits the post and misses. Up steps club captain Ragnar Hjaltisson with the decisive penalty. Who goddamn Panenkas it to score, and win the Champions League for Ajax. We’ve finally done it, and of all the players to win it for us, to be absolutely responsible and to life the trophy, it’s the newgen from Iceland I wasn’t originally too sure about.

Fin.

 

It’s stories like that that I play this game for. It’s the quest to find another Ragnar Hjaltisson that keeps me playing, and in a way it’s because of him that I bit the bullet and finally started this blog to tell the stories of the players I find.

I love Ajax in real life for the history, associations with my beloved Arsenal and the philosophies they believe are important. I love the Eredivisie in Football Manager for the ways it allows me to play the game and build my teams. I love Ajax in Football Manager for all of the above, and for the ability to create characters that to this day hold a special place in my heart despite being pixels on a monitor and nothing more.

In a lot of ways, the reason I’m here is that newgen from Iceland. Without him and his story – the first one like it I ever had – I might not still be playing. But because of him, because of this game, because of the virtual Ajax and the virtual Eredivisie I am, I have a place to write about these stories and I’ve found a group of people that seem to enjoy the stories I tell.

So, to all of you reading and all of you that have read in the past, I say thank you. To Football Manager I say thank you.

And to Ragnar Hjaltisson I say takk fyrir.

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5 thoughts on “The Eredivisie & AFC Ajax: A Football Manager Love Story.

  1. Love a good Ajax story! Took over them on FM14 after seeing they’d produced the most complete player I’d ever seen, a natural Sweeper, Centre Back and DM called Randy Bloemheuvel. He was the only player I’ve ever had who actually impacted in the Libero position on the way to winning 3 champions leagues. I saw him as the ‘quarterback’ of my side and in all my future FM games I’ve managed under his name! He was a genius!

    Like

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