In ‘The Next Big Thing’, Alex Dieker takes a look at players who could become the next stars of Ajax. Whether they already ply their trade in the wonderful Ajax Youth Academy or would be brought to the club via transfer, these players definitely have the potential to make the first team of the most beautiful club of them all. With money becoming an ever-increasing factor in the world of football, Dutch clubs have taken a step back in terms of European success. For Ajax, it is imperative that they stick to the philosophy that made the club so successful in the first place: imped youngsters through the youth ranks into the first team while bringing in young and cheap players to aid the team even more.
After showcasing some of the Ajax academy’s best defensive talents, I now want to switch gears and highlight a couple Eredivisie players. I’ve listed only 2 players, but have described in great detail their strengths and weaknesses, and why I think they could make the jump to Ajax. If you’re reading this, Marc Overmars, please consider bringing these players to our beautiful club.
If you’re familiar with Dutch football, you’ve heard of Simon Tibbling. The 22-year-old Swedish midfielder has been a mainstay in Groningen’s midfield ever since his move from Allsvenskan side Djurgardens IF in the winter of 2015. A natural central midfielder, Tibbling has recently been deployed as a right midfield playmaker in the Eredivisie for Groningen as opposed to his usual center-mid/defensive-mid role. Herein lies one of Simon Tibbling’s greatest attributes: versatility. Over the years in Sweden and Holland, Tibbling has played in virtually every midfield role you can think of: defensive-midfielder, central midfielder, left and right-sided playmaker, and even a small spell as an attacking-midfielder. In an Ajax side priding itself on fluidity and tactical knowledge, Tibbling will be able to cover everywhere and anywhere during a match.
So, he can play anywhere. It doesn’t matter much if he can’t play well, does it? Well, I can tell you that Simon Tibbling, in fact, can play well; he has been doing just that for years, right under our noses. The Sweden Under-21 squad veteran echoes the smart passing, quick-touch style of a Cesc Fàbregas combined with the eye for a long pass and passion for long shots of a certain Lasse Schøne. Tibbling’s attention to technical detail on the ball makes him a suitable dribbler against almost any Eredivisie opponent and possesses the confidence to run at the heart of opponents’ defenses, opening up channels for teammates. His move out wide has seen an increase in key passes per match and crosses per match, but his involvement has decreased significantly from a central focal point to somewhat of a wide floater.
This role change doesn’t mean Tibbling wouldn’t be able to re-adapt to a central role if he were to exchange the northern university city of Groningen for the social hub of Amsterdam. As you can see in Picture 1, Tibbling starts out wide but moves closer to the ball when Groningen regains possession from Ajax. This allows Groningen to control the midfield, but is vulnerable if the opposition wins the ball and pushes it to an undefended flank. In the same play, Picture 2, Tibbling remains inside. He has the confidence to not only continue supporting the play, but to become the focal point by running into open space left vacant by the Ajax defenders. Picture 3, against NEC Nijmegen, depicts Tibbling following his own interception of a throw in, dribbling past one defender, and having the vision to lay the ball into an open teammate, who can then set up a trailing attacker (blue line) for a 1 on 1 with the keeper. Tibbling is intelligent with his dribbling and passing; that intelligence would translate well to the high-tempo pressing style of Ajax, no matter the head coach of the team next year.
Simon Tibbling does have a conservative side to his game as well. In Picture 4, there is a pretty clear passing lane to put his teammate through on goal, but he decides to turn inside and lay off to another teammate. While the better decision may have been to pass it first-time, this shows that Simon is not too rambunctious with his decisions and takes time to think about his moves. In a fast-paced game, this certainly has its pros and cons, but I’d rather have a player who makes the smart play than someone who takes every little opening that’s given to him (cough cough…Hakim Ziyech…cough…stop taking long-shots…).
Defensively, Tibbling isn’t really up to scratch. While he is often in position to suppress the opponent’s final-third movements, he often fails to close down an attacker or lets him dribble past too easily. Amin Younes exploited this weakness when the two sides faced each other earlier this year as Simon Tibbling would double-team Younes with the Groningen right-back, but the Swede would simply give up on the tackle too easily, leaving all of the hard work to his teammate. It’s good that the mental awareness and positioning is there defensively, but an increase in confidence when closing down and tackling opponents is much-needed for the 22-year-old.
The Ajax midfield is, to put it simply, packed with talent. Even with Davy Klaassen leaving for Everton there is still Schøne, Ziyech, Donny van de Beek, Frenkie de Jong, and Appie Nouri to play in the midfield. While the first three names were the only players to get any really meaningful playing time with the first team last season, it really is about time the fantastic youth products, even the likes of Carel Eiting and Dani de Wit, get a chance to shine as bona-fide first-teamers. I don’t want to see Simon Tibbling join Ajax this summer, but if he continues to improve at Groningen then I don’t see why he couldn’t be a great asset to the team in a few season’s time. It’s all about long-term planning, and I truly believe that Marc Overmars should be requesting scouting reports as often as possible of Groningen’s Swedish sensation.
Those who have read some of my articles before may recall my love for Alireza Jahanbakhsh. In fact, I’ve written about him so much that I can actually spell his name without looking it up! I believe that my description of him over 5 months ago still does him justice: “His manner on the pitch can be likened to that of a bull: he is constantly charging down the right flank, stopping at no challenge until he either makes a play or draws a foul.” Since I wrote that article in January, Alireza has amassed 7 goals and 5 assists in 21 appearances over all competitions (transfermarkt.com), but unfortunately missed out on AZ’s playoff final to achieve a Europa League birth, a final that Utrecht would win on penalties.
The Iranian winger was sorely missed during the final matches; he’s been integral to AZ’s fast, forward attack throughout the season. Jahanbakhsh’s 7.41 average rating on WhoScored.com ranks him inside the top 20 players in the Eredivisie 2016/17 season. Nearly putting up a double-double in goals and assists (11 and 8) in the league, as well as averaging nearly 2 key passes per match and more successful dribbles (1.9) than times dispossessed (1.3) per match. To put that into perspective, and I’m of course not comparing the two at all, Lionel Messi was dispossessed more times per match than successfully dribbling past an opponent per match in La Liga. Maybe he’s not on the level of Messi, or even close to it, but would it be too much to call him the Iranian Messi? I think not.
The thing I like about Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the thing that makes him stand out amongst other wingers, is not his dribbling, crossing, or passing ability. He’s good at all of this, but basically every other winger is as well. What stands out for me is his tenaciousness. Whenever Jahanbakhsh or one of his teammates loses the ball, he’s the first one to fight to win it back. Alireza amasses plenty of yellow cards not because he’s too aggressive or careless, but because of his defensive contribution and passion to get the ball. He completed the third-most tackles for a winger in the Eredivisie, only behind Eljero Elia and Yaw Yeboah.
Even then, I feel like statistics don’t really do him complete justice. There’s no way to track the fire in someone’s heart to get the football back. That fire is exactly what Ajax should be looking for to add to its high-pressing, chaotically attacking system. Sure, Jahanbakhsh won’t be an absolute superstar on the right wing, but he will fight for 90 minutes to ensure victory. Some of the most intelligent analyzers I know claimed that Hakim Ziyech’s greatest contribution to Ajax’s Europa League run was not his passing or attacking, but his tackling.
But, with that being said, Alireza Jahanbakhsh did score 11 goals and created 8 assists last season; a very good return for a player at a non-top 3 club. At times, AZ manager John van den Brom positioned him in the center of the park, indicating his confidence in the Iranian winger’s creative ability. Alireza knows how to pick out a pass, whether that be from a cross (Picture 1), after cutting inside from the wing, or a through-ball from the center of the park. He also understands space in the middle of the pitch, as represented by Picture 2, as he makes a run down an open channel to let his teammate have an easy through ball pass.
Another thing Jahanbakhsh knows how to do is, quite simply, put the ball in the back of the net. If he needs to dribble past an opponent and fire in from an acute angle, he’ll do it. If he needs to take a long shot first-time, he’ll do it. In Picture 3, he’s given too much space by the defender and scores a longshot with his weaker left foot. There’s basically nowhere in the attacking third that Alireza cannot score from, and this forces opponents to close him down quickly which creates space all over the pitch for other AZ players to exploit.
There’s no way AZ want to sell Alireza Jahanbakhsh, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. Much like the signing of Ziyech last summer, I think Ajax need to go for Jahanbakhsh now if they want to get him. With one more year, or even 6 months, of development at AZ Alkmaar, he could be good enough to get on the radars of clubs with much more money than Ajax. Also, if we’re honest with ourselves, a good Iranian player would be a sought-after target for many big clubs because of the financial benefit of bringing in Middle-Eastern supporters. Bertrand Traoré’s loan spell is over and Justin Kluivert hasn’t fully grown into a star player yet. If there’s any time to bring in the Iranian Messi, this summer is the time.
The Eredivisie has historically been one of the world’s biggest pools of football talent, as well as a top league at developing both domestic and foreign talent. Today, I’ve given just two examples out of the many foreign-born players who have taken their game to another level after joining a Dutch club. Both Tibbling and Jahanbakhsh have great futures ahead of them; will that future be at Ajax? Probably not, but they sure do fit the type of player style that would be successful at Ajax Amsterdam.
Featured Image provided by TheSetPieces.com.