More FM! The Ajax Challenge

CruyffSmokingIf I didn’t abhor cliché as the first resort of not very good writing (which isn’t to suggest I don’t fall into that trap myself), I might say that FM Challenges are a bit like London buses. My FM meets Moneyball challenge, begun anew this time with the rather ropey looking Livorno, is now being hosted on uMAXit after the success of the first series on The Set Pieces.

Moneyball got me thinking about tactics though, and how I actually prefer the development of a club, the sourcing and recruitment of players according to a philosophy, and the construction of an infrastructure and, crucially, an ethos. I think I play the game more as a Director of Football, in this respect, that an out-and-out Manager. While there are plenty of tactical pieces I read and enjoy, I always find that in-game management of matches is less enthralling than building a club. Of course, as great managers throughout the years have proved, one is impossible without the other.

For this new series of posts, then, I have embarked upon the Ajax Challenge. The intriguing thing about the Ajax Challenge, which straightforwardly means I have to become the best team in Europe and provide the core of the Dutch national side, using only players brought through the youth system at the club, is that it requires so much in terms of training, mentoring, and creating a good environment for youth development. That, of course, would in itself be a challenge, and a good one, but for this, I have also sought to replicate a form of Total Football as best as I can as well. This means that, not only do I have to school existing players in a new system, but that I can tailor youth development to work with this and hopefully build a style that lasts and is replicated throughout the club.

Given that I will not be buying a single player, I can concentrate more on training schedules, mentoring, and coaching skills, aspects of the game that can sometimes be left on the side a little when the focus is on buying and building, not bringing on and building.

CruyffAjax, of course, are famed for having created just this sort of school of football in the late 60s, as Johan Cruyff, the most influential player of all time, and arguably the greatest, combined with a team of pure genius under the stewardship of first Rinus Michels and then Stefan Kovacs. I did consider, briefly, doing this challenge with RSC Anderlecht instead, as they have a similar tradition of youth development in their history and a seriously exciting squad, but ultimately, it had to be Ajax.

This was in part decided by perhaps my favourite football ever, David Winner’s : part meditation on art, philosophy, and architecture, part footballing biography of one of the most innovative, exciting sides of all time, no sports book (in my opinion) reaches such a wonderful synthesis of sports and culture and manages to illuminate both. It is also a helpful tome in terms of reaching a style approximately Total Football, with explanations of pressing, the utility of space, defending by attacking, and maintaining a high line. The characters of the great Ajax team sing off the pages and it’s hard not to be swept up when reading it and desirous to replicate some of that success on Football Manager. I’d quote from it, but to be honest, if you’ve not read it you’re doing yourself a great disservice and I suggest you rectify that.


As with my new Moneyball series, this first post will simply look at pre-season, before I get into the nitty-gritty of the season itself in the next post.

I selected a game with only Holland loaded and a large database. I chose coaching badges suitable for Ajax, a Continental Pro Licence and a National level former professional, but tweak the values so I have a 20 rating for Working with Youngsters.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 11.52.23My first hire is Iddo Roscher from NEC as Head of Youth Development. Remarkably, Ajax don’t have one and while he is not amazing, he has the best statistics for anyone available (no Phil Cannon, sadly, as I do not have England loaded as a playable nation) and he only costs £90k in compensation and £2.5k per week in wages. As I will not be buying players, I briefly consider what to do with my scouting team. But, having read Michael Calvin’s wonderful and sympathetic book , I decide not to bin any of them off and continue to pay them to scurry around, researching players I will never buy.

I am less ruthful elsewhere. I offer Orlando Trustfull a mutual termination in order to recruit another fitness coach, as this will be a cornerstone for what I am seeking to achieve and Trustfull adds little in the way of expertise. He leaves pocketing £130k but, of course, as I have a transfer budget of £8.57m that I will not be using, I can instead deploy those funds towards hiring and firing coaches and offering players I want to keep bigger contracts.

On that note, Richairo Zivkovic starts attracting numerous bids from big European clubs, and so I throw £15k per week at him with a £20m release clause (he initially demands £3.9m, but with Bayern, Juventus, and Inter hovering, I whack that up as high as he will accept). He is cross that I won’t let him go but after a week or so of thinking about it he signs. I then pick up John Karelse as a goalkeeping coach for £500 per week and the excellent Michael Lindeman, who prefers to be an Assistant Manager, but accepts £2.7k per week to be a conditioning coach instead. I add Gilbert Roex from Genk as an U19 goalkeeping coach for £35k in compensation and £1.6k per week in wages to bolster that department. I also hire Eva Carneiro as a physio (yes, her), because I think it’s the right thing to do, as much as she’s a capable performer and available on a free.

I clear out a few players who will not fit my system or who are generally surplus: Boilesen, Schöne, Serero, and ancient ‘keeper Boer are sold for a combined £3 million and also a net £37.25k per week saving in wages, all of which can be ploughed back into the team in terms of bigger contracts, or used by the board to support my development aims. It’s another lesson from Cruyff: if you want players to feel valued, pay them properly!

In my first press conference, I am asked whether I will make youth development a basis for what I am doing. How do they know, I wonder, and then realise that with my tweaked manager statistics, it was inevitable that the game would throw that at me. Yes, of course, I answer, before going on to offer the usual platitudes to the boardroom and denying any transfer rumours. The board will, indeed, be crucial to this project, as I will need their backing to recruit more youth coaches, widen the catchment network for regen players, and be OK both with a possible period of growing pains and a lack of big-name signings (some boards seem to care about this). Excitingly, the Champions League Best Place Qualifying Phase throws up a two-legged tie against Panathinaikos, the team Ajax beat in 1971 to win their first of three successive European Cups. The hand of history, etc etc.

The warm-up games, of which there are only three, are a chance to put my tactical approximation of Total Football to the test. As I have learned from Winner, space and its control is the prime aspect of Total Football. Controlled possession with short passing and a normal tempo creates it, and a high line and high pressing denies it to the opposition. You cannot play Total Football without using a 4-3-3, but in the game, I feel this most closely approximates to a 4-3-2-1 with inside forwards on attack in front of a flat midfield. I use a Ball Winning Midfielder as my anchor in the Johan Neeskens role, and a Box-to-Box midfielder and a Central Midfielder on attack mode to approximate Gerrie Muhren and Arie Haan. I use a Sweeper Keeper, and while Jasper Cillessen is reasonable, I intend to introduce Stan van Bladeren as soon as possible. In defence, my fullbacks are Complete Wingbacks with a licence to get forward, and I have a Ball Playing Centreback on ‘stopper’ duty to add a man to deep central midfield if needed, and a Central Defender on cover to be Barry Hulshoff. Both are set to play the ball from the back, and the team is encouraged to be expressive, very fluid, swap positions, and work the ball into the box. Lastly, in the crucial centre-forward role, I have a Deep-Lying Forward in support mode to act as a creative point for the team. I intend to use Davy Klaassen in this role, until Zivkovic is ready.

The squad is packed with talent and potential talent, but I have no doubt that they will take time to develop into the tactics I am using, and this is borne out by our friend results. We beat Varese 3-0 away, but then lose 1-0 away to SM Caen and draw 0-0 away with U.C. AlbinoLeffe. In both the latter games, we dominate possession and shots for, but cannot find a way through. This bodes well, though, if we can start to turn our created chances into goals. I set the team training to emphasise team cohesion as well as fitness, and set initial player training to their individual roles, so Ball-Winning Midfielder for Bazoer, and so on. I will, in time, bring in mentoring and tweak training, but I need to know the squad better first.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 12.31.32And so, with the team becoming competent in my TF formation (despite Jaap Stam’s moaning that we are only training in one formation and style – does he understand nothing?), we begin away at Panathinaikos. Will I replicate Total Football? Will I manage to win anything? And could I pass into Ajax folklore, leaving behind a team of homegrown greatness? Only time will tell…

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