When a young player comes across the Ajax Academy, he is seldom short of a hero to consult and encourage. Donny Van de Beek got his first fantastic break when he joined the club and entered immediately into the Under-10s squad of Dennis Bergkamp. To locate the holes between the middle of the game and the defense, the former attacker of Ajax and Arsenal was a specialist in working in the spaces of the game.
The beginning of a promising career
A young Van de Beek drew his interest when he started his coaching career at the Ajax Academy. He saw a similar talent of controlling space and working in certain parts of the pitch where the markers vanished somewhere. Bergkamp was so inspired that he encouraged Ruben Jongkind. The latter collaborated with the younger age categories and eventually became Ajax’s head of talent development to start working one-on-one with him.
“It must have been in 2008 or 2009, and I think he was playing in the Under-10s at the time. He did a trial for Ajax; back then, we had the arrangement that children could come for trials once or twice a week for three or four weeks,” Jongkind said of his first dealings with Van de Beek.
“I was also involved with the younger age groups. He ended up being selected for Ajax, and he was in the team of Bergkamp. After a short while, we talked about him, and Dennis said, ‘this player is going to be big, so you have to work with him individually now.’
“His coordination of movement wasn’t great back then, he had the strength but not the finesse, we worked on that,” said Jongkind.
“Dennis saw that Donny could see spaces and intelligence as a young player to see where he should be naturally.” The road for Van de Beek started here. This week, the ride took him away from Amsterdam, and the two clubs agreed to a fee of £35 million to sign a five-year deal with Manchester United. After almost 15 years at the Academy, he will be a technically proficient footballer and will leave Ajax with no more than good wishes. Shortly after a brush with Bergkamp, Van de Beek was designing the Ajax Cruyff Plan together with Wim Jonk to keep the club consistent with legendary Johan Cruyff’s values, mainly when it came to youth development.
The manual was updated with the great former player and manager himself and with a former Jonk Ajax player, as did the fellow academy stars of the 2018/19 Champions League, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, as they came to the youth’s development at the club and van de Beek gained.
It was a theory of Cruyff that contributed to Van de Beek’s change of position. He talked about his role as a creative middle groundsman when joining United, but in his early years at the Academy, he was often championed as a defensive midfielder.
“We changed a lot that was beneficial to Donny,” explains Jongkind. “He was playing as a No. 6 in the beginning, more defensively, because he had a decent pass and if you take the paradigm of the team had to win, then every coach would put him at six because he was good there, he had good duel strength, and he could intercept balls.”
However, he also stressed his ability to use his talent to the full. At the age of four, Veensche Youth, as Jongkind describes him, starts Van de Beek from a small town named Nijkerkerveen to play competitive football with the “very small club on the fields and the meadows.” Not long after Van de Beek was born, he was enrolled by Father André at the club while Brother Rody played on their behalf. He would also return to work to experience what he had learned and always recalled with fondness in the club, going everywhere he could to meet friends.
When he was not in Ajax in the holiday season, he also employed a personal trainer to ensure he returned a better player to Amsterdam than when he was leaving. The former Ajax scout Harm Greving was a guy with whom Van de Beek had worked, and Greving is now seriously ill back home.