Since Jairo Riedewald bagged a match-winning brace on his debut against Roda JC and played at the base of an Ajax midfield against Barcelona at the Camp Nou, it was obvious that he was the cream of the De Toekomst corn. His ability to play as ball-playing centre-back for Ajax, defensively sound left back for the Dutch National Team and now as the anchor man of a high-pressing ultra attacking Ajax side is just a signifier of the immense ability he has been blessed with.
Likened to Frank Rijkaard by his 1996 UEFA Champions League winning teammate, Frank De Boer was high praise but Riedewald’s performances over the last two season prove that comparison apt. The emphasis on defenders playing out of the back and defensive midfielders possessing an array of defensive and attacking qualities means we are in a generation of defenders playing in midfield and midfielders playing in defence. However, not many 19 year-olds are as accomplished technically and physically as Riedewald.
“He is the only one in the current selection which I consider a real number six as he can be a very good midfielder,” said Peter Bosz in his pre-match press conference.
Peter Bosz’ tenure has only shown fleeting but ultimately forgettable signs of truly growing into something while losses against FC Rostov and Willem II have meant that changes have had to be made quickly. Hakim Ziyech went from a luxury to a necessity in a matter of weeks while Nemanja Gudelj, Riechedly Bazoer and Davy Klaassen have all looked stifled in a midfield where the ball has to recycled quickly and effectively while bursts of creativity are far and few between. When Riedewald clipped that exceptional long-ball to Klaassen who got in behind the Roda defence and nodded the ball into the path of Dolberg to score, it proved the exceptional vision and execution the centre-back had that the midfield was lacking.
Ajax’ current midfield three are strong at keeping the ball but there is rarely any drive to break the lines, Gudelj is forced to show the technical prowess he only has a paucity of to create passing sequences but is always found wanting. Bazoer seems restrained and inhibited, taking time to play the right pass before he ultimately plays it to his fullback who is pushing higher. Klaassen, is one of, if not the most effective player in the Eredivisie as he already has eight goals but he sometimes lacks the guile to really pull of a piece of skill to open a defence or create some space.
Riedewald is neat and tidy but also enjoys to play the ball forward especially with his long-passes as he will add some thrust to the midfield. In pre-season he also showed an ability to push up and win the ball in the opposition half before releasing it quickly into dangerous attacks. His positioning, especially when Ajax are out of possession will be what Bosz and him will need to work on as it needs to be synchronised with the rest of his midfield and the defence behind him. He sometimes pushes too high that with a few passes, Ajax are caught on the counterattack.
In defence with the purchase of Davinson Sanchez, the only reason that one would need to move Riedewald back is to stop Heiko Westermann from playing there. Sanchez can bring the hustle to Veltman’s technique and poise while Sanchez would also need to improve his communication with his fullback as during counters there always seem to be acres of space between Sanchez and his fullback as with Tete against Roda, that space allowed the through ball that led to Roda’s first equilising goal. Riedewald’s experience in defence could also help him to drop back to act as an auxiliary defender to ease the ball out of the back as the fullbacks push forward.
“Riechedly, I see as someone for the forward positions, he is more than a supporter but Riedewald is the other,” Bosz added in the same press conference.
The question would be who the other two would be in midfield with Riedewald. One would expect Bazoer and Klaassen but first it must be decided where Ziyech plays as there is the prospect of Klaassen dropping back as an 8 with Bazoer dropping out. Bosz in his most recent press conference alluded to Riedewald as the 6 and Bazoer as 8 in order for the latter to use his energy and size to motor the ball forward and truly express himself in an Ajax shirt. With 10 midfielders and Ajax being banished to the dark, cold and unforgiving basement of the Europa League while FC Rostov have fun in the sun in Champions League, Bosz can’t afford to get the makeup of his midfield wrong.
Klaassen played in a double-pivot with Thulani Serero in the second-half of the 2014/15 season as his one-touch passing style, energy and intensity make him suitable for the role while he does add goals too. Bazoer brings energy and is capable of picking out some exquisite passes while his shooting has come along nicely since he made his debut for the Goedenzonen. Both will be capable of supporting Riedewald when he brings the ball out of defence so it will add to Bosz’ already manic selection headache.
With teams like Standard Liege, Panathanaikos and Celta de Vigo who are managed by the impressive Eduardo Berizzo who is a component of Marcelo Bielsa’s extensive family tree, two cousins removed from Mauricio Pochettino, the conductor in front of the defence will be all the more important. Teams will sit in rigid shapes as they did last year and as Rostov proved, heavy pressing can only give you so much as the first ball out of the back is so important. Riedewald is and should be the heart and soul of this side but a lot should change for that to work.
An inconsistent start to the season has forced Bosz to make decisions with haste in order to spare his and Mark Overmars’ blushes. Riedewald can certainly shoulder the expectation of being the key component of Ajax’ engine room but he is far from being the only major decision that Bosz needs to make. At the base of their midfield, Ajax will have an intuitive, heavy-legged and unrelenting force breaking down opposition attacks and constructing Ajax attacks which is a very good start.