‘We do things differently than Ajax’
European heyday in Alkmaar and the Zaan region. AZ’s first team defends a 2-1 lead against Lazio at home tomorrow for the Europa League, while the Under-19 qualified for the Youth League semifinals today by beating Real Madrid by large numbers: 4-0.
At the packed sports complex in Wijdewormer, over two thousand spectators, including Guus Hiddink, saw that AZ’s youngsters had a hard time in the first quarter of an hour against the technically proficient Real Madrid. Yet after just under 25 minutes AZ fortuitously took the lead.
Daniël Beukers tapped the ball into the goal while lying down. The lightning-fast Ernest Poku doubled the score a few minutes later. In the second half, Real Madrid had chances, but the counter-looking AZ ran out through goals by Mexx Meerdink and again Beukers.
In the semifinals, Sporting CP awaits. That match will be played on April 21 in Nyon, Switzerland.
Food for success
This is not the first time AZ’s youth team has eliminated a big opponent. Previously, for example, Under-18 won 5-0 over Eintracht Frankfurt and 3-0 over FC Barcelona.
According to coach Jan Sierksma and head of youth training Paul Brandenburg, the soccer program that youth players at AZ are presented with is the breeding ground for the successes.
“Real Madrid plays good positional play and has technically good players, but I missed the total soccer there,” Brandenburg said. “We were able to squeeze out another 50-meter sprint in the final minutes.” According to him, AZ was more complete because they also play well physically and tactically.
Sierksma praised his team’s “tactical discipline.” “At this stage of training, we emphasize strategic thinking. That’s what we did. We analyzed Real Madrid extensively. We also did this with the other opponents.”
Player for six million
Brandenburg noticed from the stands that the Madrid players were playing “naively.” He did enjoy the individual quality of some Real players. “But anyway, they get a player for six million euros,” referring to Brazilian right-winger Vinicius Tobias.
“For that much money we can keep the training going for a year and a half,” Brandenburg continued. AZ would rather invest in boys from the region and keep them for a long time, than acquire players.
If we were to do the same as Ajax, we would be eaten.
According to Sierksma, it therefore helps that AZ’s players have been playing at the club for a long time. This has created the “fantastic team spirit,” says the 38-year-old coach. For example, ten of the eleven base players come from North Holland. Only Mexx Meerdink came over from De Graafschap at the age of sixteen.
Because most players play at AZ for a long time, they are fully subject to “the program.” The above things are part of this, but Brandenburg mentions other things that show what the program entails.
For example, AZ continually tries to learn from other organizations. “And not only from Real Madrid, but also from Go Ahead Eagles, for example. We also look at other sports and successful companies.”
“We work with Brainfirst, for example. Before kids come in, we want to see what the brain looks like. This company also does the testing before air traffic controllers are hired,” Brandenburg continued.
Whereas this may sound a bit clinical, Brandenburg wants to approach it humanely. “If someone takes a good test, you also have to give the players time. Even if they have some lesser seasons. We know what’s inside a player. Because of that, the outflow with us is also low.”
AZ also wants to build a lasting relationship with the staff, according to Brandenburg. “Ultimately, the people make the program.”
The head of youth training, who has held that role since 2015, also draws a comparison to Ajax, which is less than 30 kilometers from AZ’s training complex. “If we were to do the same as Ajax, we would be eaten,” he said.
Brandenburg is aware that AZ is fishing in the same pond as Ajax. “The prospect of professional soccer” is AZ’s pitch if Ajax also has a talent in its sights. “In the under 15, an average of 52.2 percent of players make it to professional soccer,” he expresses scientifically.
However, playing Youth League matches against top European clubs cannot be approached scientifically alone. “Playing in front of a crowd, the intensity and media attention. This also helps players and it is not after synchronization.”
The 45-year-old Brandenburg also admits that despite the good results, he is not yet completely satisfied. “We are on the right track, but we are not yet where we want to be structurally. We want to deliver guys who can compete for prizes in the first.”