Three of European football's most historic clubs -- LaLiga rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona, and Eredivisie giants Ajax -- are contributing to the game's future more than any others on the continent, according to a study by the CIES Football Observatory.
For example, Ajax are so committed to maintaining their ethos of producing top-class young players that the name of the Amsterdam side's "De ToeKomst" sporting complex literally translates as "The Future." So it's perhaps no surprise to learn that Ajax have come top of the latest study complied by the Switzerland-based CIES, which examines which clubs are responsible for producing the most active players in the top tiers of European football.
Across 31 top divisions among UEFA member countries, Ajax have trained 81 players currently active. That equates to more than seven full starting XIs' worth of players, and is six more than the next team on the list, Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine.
CIES also looked at the elite level. Barcelona may have lost to Real Madrid 2-1 at home in the latest edition of El Clasico (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.), but they are joint-top when only Europe's top five leagues are taken into account having each produced 42 players who are currently active at clubs across the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, the German Bundesliga and Ligue 1.
For the study, the CIES followed UEFA's official definition of a "trainer club," meaning a youth player must have spent at least three years at the club between the ages of 15 and 21 to qualify. CIES used a custom coefficient to create their data and produce a "Training Index" rating for all clubs across all 31 top divisions of European football which is based on a club's sporting level, i.e. their results in domestic and international competition.
The level of productivity of all training clubs also takes into account the average number of matches played by "trained youth players" over the last year, as well as the individual players' average age (the younger, the better).
Here are the main talking points from the CIES study, to see which of Europe's big clubs fared best.
Barcelona and Real Madrid's elite production line
Most productive training clubs for current big-5⃣ league players: @realmadrid & @FCBarcelona at the 🔝 @OL completes the podium ahead of @PSG_inside 👏 Full tables in last @CIES_Football Weekly Post ➡️ https://t.co/2on58dD5Ql pic.twitter.com/XN64A0hBbU— CIES Football Obs (@CIES_Football) October 26, 2021
The twin giants of LaLiga sit atop the table when it comes to youth players produced and currently playing in Europe's top five leagues. Both clubs have produced 42 players who are currently either still representing them or another club in UEFA's strongest elite league competitions.
Barca veterans Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets are among the graduates of the club's famous academy, La Masia, as well as more recent graduates such as Ansu Fati, Gavi, Oscar Mingueza and Riqui Puig. Pedri, another of Barca's other young stars, does not qualify as he was signed from Las Palmas last year. They also have several notable youth products playing elsewhere in Europe including Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain), Thiago Alcantara (Liverpool), Cesc Fabregas (AS Monaco) and Adama Traore (Wolverhampton Wanderers).
Meanwhile, Real's homegrown stars include current squad members Lucas Vazquez, Dani Carvajal and Nacho as well as Achraf Hakimi at Paris Saint-Germain, Juan Mata (Manchester United), Marcos Alonso (Chelsea), Sergio Reguilon (Tottenham Hotspur) and Alvaro Morata (Juventus).
However, while the average age of the Barca contingent (26.3 years) is slightly than Real's (27.1), Los Blancos narrowly top the chart thanks to their players playing slightly more matches on average.
Ajax exports cover Europe
1⃣9⃣ leagues 5⃣4⃣ clubs 8⃣1⃣ players 😎 @AFCAjax trained players across Europe 🌍 Top position 🥇 in the annual @CIES_Football training clubs rankings for players in 31 UEFA top divisions 👏 Full table ➡️ https://t.co/2on58dlurL pic.twitter.com/8lhqCmn7jw— CIES Football Obs (@CIES_Football) October 25, 2021
Of the 31 top divisions in European football included in the study, no club have produced more players playing more minutes than Ajax. Indeed, their 81 active players have an average age of 26.3 years and have averaged 27.3 club appearances in the past year.
Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt are obvious examples of players who were schooled in the ways of De ToeKomst before moving on to even bigger and more illustrious things at Barcelona and Juventus respectively.
Ryan Gravenberch is another highly rated player making a name for himself as part of Erik ten Hag's team, and looks set to follow the likes of Sergino Dest (Barcelona), Justin Kluivert (Nice, on loan from AS Roma) and Donny van de Beek (Manchester United) out of the Eredivisie in the future.
Arsenal, PSG rank highly
Congratulations to @AFCAjax on topping the @CIES_Football annual rankings of most productive training clubs for players in 3⃣1⃣ European top divisions 👏 8⃣1⃣ #Ajax-trained players currently active in these leagues 🥳 Top 💯 in today Weekly Post ➡️ https://t.co/2on58dlurL pic.twitter.com/5X54SGAn8t— CIES Football Obs (@CIES_Football) October 25, 2021
While neither top the list, both Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain rank very highly in both Europe's top five leagues and in all 31 top divisions in the study. Arsenal are above PSG in the Europe-wide total, having produced 51 players currently plying their trades across Europe in comparison to PSG's 47.
The Gunners can claim to have played pivotal early roles in the careers of Alex Iwobi (Everton), Hector Bellerin (on loan at Real Betis), Wojciech Szczesny (Juventus), Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa), Francis Coquelin (Villarreal), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Liverpool) and Theo Walcott (Southampton).
However, once narrowed to the top five leagues, PSG (30 players) spring up above Arsenal (25) in the pecking order with the Parisians fifth on the overall list. This is largely thanks to a glut of their former academy players now being either among their current squad (such as World Cup winner Presnel Kimpembe) or on the books at other Ligue 1 sides. PSG do have several high-profile graduates playing elsewhere too, with Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus) Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig) and Mike Maignan (AC Milan) all notable examples.
Manchester United and Chelsea add to Premier League presence
While Arsenal are the most productive English trainer club in Europe's top five leagues, Manchester United and Chelsea aren't far behind -- occupying 9th and 10th spot respectively on the list, having each produced 23 players.
That said, the Blues can boast a much younger average age among their crop (24 years), with United's average age (28.5 years) among the very highest on the list (the highest is SC Bastia of France, with 31.4 years).
United have promoted the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Mason Greenwood from the youth ranks to the first-team squad while players such as Angel Gomes (Lille), Jonny Evans (Leicester City), Danny Welbeck (Brighton),Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Tom Cleverley (Watford) and Michael Keane (Everton) have built careers since leaving Old Trafford.
Chelsea, meanwhile, have seen youth product Mason Mount become one of the team's most important players and Trevoh Chalobah has emerged as a first-team regular this season, and the Blues' former academy players now playing elsewhere include Tammy Abraham (Roma), Fikayo Tomori (AC Milan), Nathan Ake (Manchester City).
ESPN's Alex Kirkland, Julien Laurens, Sam Marsden, James Olley and Andrew Richardson contributed to this report