Amid the chaos at Ajax, Ouaali remains stoic in training: ‘Bitter about the Robbey case, though’
Follows Ajax on behalf of NOS Sport
Follows Ajax on behalf of NOS Sport
Not often does Saïd Ouaali, head of youth training at Ajax, give an interview. Because, is his view: the players should be on stage, not the people around them. In the run-up to the Future Cup, which will take place this Easter weekend, the boss of the renowned training program is making an exception.
Preparations for the prestigious youth tournament are in full swing at De Toekomst on Friday when Ouaali sits down in his office. Behind him are pictures of youth players who caused a furor at the Future Cup and subsequently broke through into Ajax’s first team. Matthijs de Ligt, Ryan Gravenberch, Noussair Mazraoui, Donny van de Beek, Abdelhak Nouri and Sergiño Dest are the best-known names.
“The wall is getting fuller and fuller, so I can only be satisfied with that. Our main goal is and remains to deliver as many players as possible to the first team. About two to three per season.”
Ajax is experiencing a turbulent and disappointing year, with uncertainty in many areas. Coach John Heitinga expressed his concerns just last week about the lack of decisions at the technical level.
With the appointment of Jan van Halst as soccer commissioner and the imminent arrival of technical director Sven Mislintat, more and more important posts within the organization are being filled.
“I can only agree that there is a need for calm. But it has been unsettled before at Ajax, so I am used to something. It doesn’t affect my work so much. We focus on getting talents ready.”
Life dedicated to training
Ouaali himself made it to Haarlem’s first team as a professional soccer player and was involved in training youth at a young age. Ouaali, who completed the CIOS and ALO sports training programs, took his first steps as a youth coach at Xanthos, a small soccer club in the Watergraafsmeer district of Amsterdam (now bankrupt).
“There I could immediately put the theory I learned at school into practice. Only then is it useful,” says Ouaali, who in addition to his work for Ajax also teaches every Wednesday at a school for difficult-to-educate children.
He joined Ajax as a youth coach in 2012, then became coordinator of the upper echelons and has been head of training since 2016. Ouaali was initially the temporary successor to the embattled Wim Jonk who left. “Dennis Bergkamp came to me after a few months and said he was very satisfied. He asked me if I was interested in a permanent position. I saw that as a great honor.”
Averse to scheming
The now 53-year-old Ouaali, averse to scheming and power games that sooner or later rear their heads at Ajax, is a beacon of calm within the organization. He stoically continues his mission to keep Ajax’s youth training leading the way. And with success: in 2022, the Amsterdammers led the list of most trained players in the highest club competitions in Europe (85 players) for the second time in a row.
“That is of course nice, but it is not our main goal,” Ouaali points out evenly. Upon his appointment, general manager Edwin van der Sar gave him the most important task to ensure that players would make the step to the first team easier. There was still room for improvement.
“I think we have succeeded quite well in that. If you look at the past few years, several talents have broken through each time, some of whom are now playing for top clubs. Jong Ajax is very important in that respect. In the first division the young players are really hardened, so the step to the premier league is less big. All the players who hang around behind me here have first gained experience at Jong before making the step to the first.”
The intention at De Toekomst is still to play from Johan Cruijff’s philosophy, Ouaali indicated. Cruijff saw thirteen years ago that things were going the wrong way with his club and unleashed a so-called “Velvet Revolution. Ajax had to get back to the core and that started with the club’s lifeline: youth training. An important part of the plan was to focus on the individual and less on the team process.
“Of course it’s nice that Jong Ajax became first division champions a few years ago, but no more than that. We are only really satisfied here when a player breaks through to the first, has his value for Ajax 1 and can then make a nice step.”
Things go wrong sometimes, too. For example, Brian Brobbey went through Ajax’s youth training and also made his debut for the first team. But at the moment Ajax really wanted to reap the benefits, Brobbey chose a different path. The striker walked out the door free to RB Leipzig.
Last summer Ajax decided to buy back Brobbey, who did not have a happy time in Germany, for over sixteen million euros. A nightmare for every trainer.
“Of course I’m balking at that. But that choice ultimately lies with the player. We do everything we can to please and keep a player as much as possible. But you also have to remember that some players dream of a certain club or career. If such an opportunity arises, then there is little you can do about it.”
Ouaali and his team are constantly working to avoid cases like Brobbey in the future. “We look critically at ourselves how we can get ahead of an early departure. For example, by offering them a contract early on. But sometimes there is just no stopping us. There are also examples of players leaving at an even younger age. But there are also many players who return to Ajax after a few years. That also says something.”
No prospects for Ünüvar
Back to the photo wall behind Ouaali. There also hangs the photo of Naci Ünüvar, for years one of the apple of the youth academy’s eye. The current season was supposed to be his final breakthrough, but since he saw no prospects, it was decided to rent him out to Turkish Trabzonspor.
“Whether last summer perhaps the youth was looked at a little too little? I don’t think so. I think players have broken through again this year, like Kenneth Taylor and Devyne Rensch. Jorrel Hato is coming up. I’m not worried about that.”
Meanwhile, criticism of Ajax’s purchasing policy resounded, particularly over the past year. Players like Lucas Ocampos, Florian Grillitsch and Lorenzo Lucca did not prove to be direct reinforcements and would stand in the way of talents like Ünüvar, as well as Anass Salah-Eddine, who has been rented out to FC Twente this season and is doing well there.
“Ajax wants to compete for prizes at the very highest level. The balance between performing and training always creates a field of tension. It was the same in the time of Marc Overmars. Discussions about this are only good. I have sometimes said that I prefer to see eleven youth players in the starting line-up, but that is not realistic. However, it is my job to stand up for the youth academy, still the capital of our club.”