The Davy Klaassen conundrum

Davy Klaassen is Ajax’ captain, goalscoring number ten and he is the personification of the aura of Ajax as he was born in the neighboring Hilversum municipality and joined the Ajax academy at the age of 11. His team were the runners-up against Andrea Stramaccioni’s Inter Milan in the NextGen Series as Klaassen made his debut in the UEFA Champions League against Lyon in 2011 and scored 39 seconds after coming on in his Eredivisie debut against NEC Nijmegen. It’s been five goal-laden years of Klaassen but are we any closer to knowing what kind of midfielder he is and where he truly excels?

Klaassen and Joel Veltman have both overcome long-term injuries at young ages to make it into the first team and were pillars of Frank De Boer’s reign but have both been moved around the team in the last year or so. An integral period of Klaassen’s development has come in between 2013 (after he missed 2012/13 with injury) and now with regular playing time as Dennis Bergkamp has helped harness and improve his skillset. Klaassen’s goalscoring tally has continued at a high rate from 10 in 23 appearances in 2013/14, 6 in 30 appearances (with 6 more assists) in 2014/15 to 13 in 30 in 2015/16 to 8 in 14 this season. He has also assisted at a high rate with 3 in 2013/14, 9 in 2014/15 to 8 in 2015/16 to 4 this season. He has also played in many positions and roles during his time with the first team.

In the second half of 2014/15, Frank De Boer deployed him at the base of Ajax’ midfield with the energetic, hardworking and technically astute presence of Thulani Serero next to him as he played in the position during a 0-0 draw against Feyenoord where Jordy Clasie for Feyenoord played excellently. In Ajax’ terrible European campaign last season, Frank De Boer deployed him as a false-nine but he has spent a majority of his career till this point playing as the most attacking Ajax midfielder. At 23-years-old (turning 24 in February) his most eye-catching attribute is his ability to participate in the final third.

In his first full season in 2013, it was assumed that he lacked the true creativity of Ajax’ past number 10s but was an excellent goalscorer but with the help of Bergkamp and his one on one training sessions that helped players like Christian Eriksen, Lucas Andersen and Arek Milik, Klaassen began to improve and add more facets to his game. This season, in Peter Bosz’ highly fluid setup, Klaassen is a mixture of a 10 and an 8 as Hakim Ziyech drops slightly deeper than him to help Lasse Schone work the ball out of the back and give Schone a passing option while Klaassen and Ziyech interchange frequently in the higher positions. Ziyech and Schone have seen more of the ball than Klaassen as sometimes he has moved about unsure of his role and responsibilities in the team.

As a 10, he added goals and assists but was criticized for not being the instinctively creative force that  Eriksen was which seemed an unfair comparison. However, Klaassen as a 10 seemed to thrive when the rhythm and pace of the game suited him and allowed him the space and the opportunity to create and score but he seemed to struggle against the more well-organized defenses. Not only him but Riechedly Bazoer and Nemanja Gudelj were considered a creatively inept midfield three which has some semblance of truth in it, especially with the current midfield three of Schone, Ziyech and Klaassen. Klaassen’s future would probably lie as a box-to-box midfielder or a goalscoring attacking midfielder. His movement in between the midfield and final third is why the late great Johan Cruyff believed he should have gone to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

“I miss a player like Davy Klaassen. If you want to play 5-3-2 and move up to 3-5-2, it means you need smart players with a brain for timing and positioning. Klaassen has that in spades,” said Cruyff in his column two weeks before the tournament.

His last performance against Heerenveen was exceptional and could prove to be an important juncture in his career. His one-touch passing style could prove pivotal in moving the ball quickly out of the deeper areas while at times last season when he was playing much higher up the pitch, he often chose to pass when he could’ve taken the opportunity to turn and take a chance on in a crucial position in the final third. He also showed impeccable calm to score the all-important winning goal against Heerenveen but he was certainly more involved in play in a game where their opponents rarely gave Ajax time on the ball.

It was a game where Klaassen led the team with shots as he took 5 (with 4 on target) while making 2 dribbles and 2 tackles with 8 ball recoveries in total. Klaassen has courted a reputation of being a player who wanders around the pitch for most of the game while Ziyech and Schone toil and probe to then score an influential goal but against Heerenveen, he played with desire and direction in a true captain’s performance. This is the reason as although he may not have had a true role in the side, he has never been in danger of being dropped.

Klaassen has as many Eredivisie goals as Dolberg, leading Ajax with eight while he is only bettered in assists by Ziyech who has 5 while Klaassen has 4. Klaassen has 13 goals in all competitions while it is worth mentioning that he has scored a lot of penalties. He has created 25 chances this season according to Squawka while he makes 39 passes at a success rate of 78%. He makes 1 tackle and 1 interception per game while he takes 2 shots per game and makes 2 key passes per game according to WhoScored. His statistics prove that he only comes alive in the final third and that is something he needs build on, especially at such a crucial stage of his career.

He scored two important goals away to PAOK Thelassoniki in the UEFA Champions League qualifying stage, taking on a chip from Lasse Schone to score the opener against ADO Den Haag and the winner against Heerenveen. Klaassen has all the attributes to become a top midfielder at Ajax and in Europe but he needs to hone in on a specific role and focus on growing in that position. His journey must include striving to get more involved in Ajax’ play after his brilliant performance against Heerenveen by adding to that against Groningen, FC Twente, Cambuur and in the key match against PSV Eindhoven before the winter break. His ability to pass and move in between the channels in the final third can not be understated but getting more involved all over the pitch should be Klaassen’s primary focus.