Ajax captain Matthjas de Ligt was made to excel in the Champions League, but how has he managed to make that break through at such a young age.
It helps that the 19-year-old is at a club whose aim is to develop their promising youngsters into players who can perform in Europe’s premier club competition.
The key stage for the staff at De Toekomst, as it is at every club, is the step from youth and reserve team football into the first-team. That means going from playing 38 games per season to 60 games in a high intensity environment.
Just how Ajax progress players like De Ligt was highlighted by Ajax Sports Scientist Lisanne van der Kaaden at the 2019 Football Innovation Summit.
She told delegates at the London: “The mission of the youth academy is to develop players at Champions League level.
“We have very clear principles that are seen in the first team and all these principles, tactical and technical skills, are woven into the youth department and you can see that coming back at every age group.
“We see youth players become younger and younger when they start at the elite level.
“For example Matthijs de Ligt, who was 16-years-old when he was going into the first team, so you have to accelerate the development.
“Within our science department we try to figure out what stages we can accelerate this performance so we can make them ready to perform at the highest level.”
At the heart of this process of ‘accelerating development’ is the work Ajax’s sports science team have been conducting on maturation points, peak height velocity and bio-banding players accordingly.
The average boy reaches his PHV at 13.5 years old, with early and late maturers either side of that, which is illustrated in the main photo with De Ligt the player on the right.
The years before the growth spurt are viewed as the best for working on technical skills and cognitive skills as this is when brain plasticity is at its highest.
Ajax have noted that early maturers may only have a three-year window for this, as opposed to seven years for late maturers.
During the growth spurt, and upto 18 months after the PHV, players are at risk of injury so training loads are carefully monitored and managed.
It is in the period after this that Ajax look to develop the physical attributes their research has identified as being key to developing the physical attributes required to excel at Champions League level.
Van der Kaaden said: “We have focus points for teams. In the first team we expect players to have great endurance so they can hold on for the 90 minutes, play two matches a week and are really fast.
“They focus on developing the really high intensity accelerations because at the highest level that is the difference.
“We see in the practical side that the restriction of the endurance is not in the heart or the lungs but is really in the legs.
“So the focus of our Under-19s group is to create a big oxidative capacity of the legs. You want to create lots of mitochondria around the leg muscles so that the oxidative capacity of the legs is bigger so they can maintain performance through all the 90 minutes.
“So that is the real focus point of the Under-19s is on the volume and the endurance
“In the second team we have more focus on developing the speed, starting on the lower accelerations and the high acceleration focus.
“We want guys who have good combination of aerobically developed and is also really explosive.
“Frenkie de Jong is a perfect example of this. He is one of the fastest guys and his endurance is really amazing.
“This cannot be trained at the same time because if you do not have a big aerobic capacity and you start training high intensity events, then the mitochondria you started creating are being destroyed, so that is not efficient and that is the main reason why we focus on the aerobic capacity then start building up the high intensity.
“Having this foundation allows the adaptation of the speed and acceleration to go much faster. This is all written down in research but we see it on a practical side that it really works.
“So a year and a half after PHV, we say to the trainers this is the right moment to develop the endurance capacity.
“And here the bio-banded groups are perfect for that, in the year and half after PHV they can look at strength and endurance capacity.
“In the end the adaptation is more efficient because you will look at the right age to start training it, you won’t have a greater injury risk, and the younger ones will focus on just playing and developing motor skills.
“A good example is Matthijs de Ligt. He was a really early maturer.
“He was big, but was becoming also big muscled, not heavy. We saw his muscles develop earlier so we speeded things up and put him in higher teams and that is why he has developed so quickly and well at such a young age.
“That is the outlier. You always have outliers, because he is a year and a half after PHV and that is why monitoring the growth is really important.”
Also at this stage players training becomes more position specific.
Van der Kaaded continued: “So as an example for the first team, we have as a benchmark, as a central defender, our defenders are going really high, they put high pressure on the ball but when there is a counter attack they have to get back as quickly as possible.
“So we ask for a central defender to be quick on the short distances but also on the higher distances.
“De Ligt was an early maturer, so he was able to develop his endurance capacity earlier but also he went to develop his speed earlier.”