News ID: 238769
Published: 0327 GMT February 12, 2019

As Ajax looks to export young talent, Real orders it in

As Ajax looks to export young talent, Real orders it in
Vinicius Jr. (R)
LLUIS GENE/GETTY IMAGES

The Champions League last-16 first-leg match between Real Madrid and Ajax Amsterdam on Wednesday is an intriguing clash of two European heavyweights which have made young players central to their strategies, but for very different reasons.

Ajax, four-time European Cup winner which is in the knockout stages for the first time in 13 years, has enhanced its reputation as a talent factory due to the rise of homegrown Dutch players Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, Reuters reported.

Midfielder De Jong, 21, has agreed to join Barcelona next season for €75 million ($84.6 million) while defender and captain de Ligt, 19, is one of the most coveted players in Europe and odds-on to depart at the end of this campaign for a huge transfer fee.

Real, meanwhile, has shifted its attitude toward young players, ditching its infamous pursuit of 'Galacticos' like Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and James Rodriguez to target top young prospects instead.

Brazilian forward Vinicius Jr., 18, is the latest example of the new policy, spearheading a resurgent run of five straight La Liga victories and breathing life back into the European champion after a stop-start campaign.

Vinicius signed from Flamengo in 2017 for €40 million, an eye-watering fee for a player who had barely turned professional, but in a market where Paris St. Germain's Neymar cost €222m and Kylian Mbappe €180m, the transfer looks like shrewd business.

The policy shows little sign of halting, with Brazilian forward Rodrygo, also 18, set to join in June after agreeing a €50m move from Santos, while Brahim Diaz, a 19-year-old Spanish winger, signed from Manchester City last month for €15 million, despite never making a Premier League start.

"The landscape of international football has transformed in a breathtaking way and we need to confront and adapt to this new reality," Real President Florentino Perez said, explaining why his club had spent over €200 million since 2014 on players aged 22 or under.

This strategy came under fire last year, though, during a miserable start to the post-Ronaldo era, with fans wondering why Perez had not reinvested the money from the sale of Real’s all-time top scorer to Juventus in a world-class striker.

 

Success story

 

Real's recent revival, led by Vinicius, has curbed scrutiny of Perez for now, even though the Brazilian's rapid rise is a rare success story in the club's concerted attempt to bring in the world's most talented youngsters.

Dani Ceballos, a breakout player at Real Betis who chose Madrid over Barcelona, is yet to establish himself as a regular starter, and neither has right back Alvaro Odriozola, a €30m recruit from Real Sociedad last year.

Theo Hernandez, who made a made a controversial switch from neighbor Atletico Madrid, has been sent out on loan to Real Sociedad after a disappointing first year, while defender Jesus Vallejo has been plagued by injuries.

Even Marco Asensio, who developed into a leading Spain international after joining Real from Mallorca in 2014, has seen his stock fall.

"Market forces have changed from the 'Galactico' era and Florentino is now focused on searching the world for young Kakas," said former Real player Jorge Valdano.

"The idea is good, the timing is not. These brilliant talents need protection, which Real Madrid cannot offer."

While Vinicius and homegrown 22-year-old defender Sergio Reguilon are likely to start against Ajax, the rest of Santiago Solari's side are in their late 20s or early 30s.

Unless more young players follow in the footsteps of Vinicius, Real may struggle to convince future prospects that the Santiago Bernabeu is the best place to launch a successful career.

 

   
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