One of the greatest things about Ajax is their focus on youth prospects. The average age of the current Ajax squad is a cool 23.1 years. Of course, with youth comes talent, but also potential naivety and a lack of experience. Such a policy is therefore dangerous, but it allows the prospects in question to grow and attempt to fulfil their potential. As anyone who regularly partakes in 11-a-side football would know, there is nothing to simulate the pressure and expectation of playing in a competitive match. Daily rondo’s in training don’t aid this. That is exactly why Ajax’s approach is so admirable. They are willing to offer youth a chance to blossom, regardless of the risks.
Evidently, such a strategy can only be pursued with the availability of actual talent. Ajax, as a club with an excellent academy, are fortunate to have this in abundance. I have already written about Abdelhak Nouri and his capabilities, but there are many more prospects. One of these is Donny van de Beek, the man from Nijkerkerveen who is beginning to threaten a first team spot in midfield as a regista.
What on earth is a regista, I hear you ask? Registas can be thought of as individuals that link attack and defence, operating as a vital cog in the phase of transition between the two. An Italian term, it translates literally as “director”, and so the role of a regista is also to coordinate attacking play in front of him. Such a role at Ajax looked like it would fall into the hands of Riechedly Bazoer in the coming years, in a midfield trio with the more advanced Klaassen and Ziyech. However, a move to Wolfsburg for the youngster has since materialised, and so the responsibility has shifted to Van de Beek’s hands.
Lying deep and coordinating play clearly requires a good eye for a pass, and an accurate foot, which Van de Beek has. His passing completion percentage in the Eredivisie is 88.3%, very solid for a 19-year old still breaking his teeth into first team life. Of course, it’s important to remember passing completion percentage is a deceiving statistic. Playing lateral balls to nearby teammates without dissecting any of the opposition will get you a high pass completion percentage without actually achieving much in attacking terms. There’s a reason Tom Cleverley was shifted on to Everton. So, we must conclude that the range of passing is equally as important as completion percentage. 90 minutes watching a prime Andrea Pirlo will prove this – passes come in all different shapes and sizes. Fortunately for Ajax, Van de Beek has such passing prowess in his locker too. His assist for El Ghazi’s goal against Standard Liège in the Europa League is proof enough.
— AFC Ajax (English) (@AFCAjax_EN) December 9, 2016
Not bad at all. However, defensive work is also pivotal in the role of the regista, as they act as the protective layer in between the defence and more advanced midfielders. Van de Beek’s defensive work in his 2 Europa League appearances this season are evidence of his ability to get stuck in when needed. A total of 7 tackles and 5 interceptions across the two games would have had Edgar Davids smiling (I presume he was watching!).
An effective regista must also make themselves available to receive the ball as often as possible, or else the transition from defense-attack will fall upon the head of someone without the particular skill set to make it happen smoothly. So, touches of the ball are a great indicator of transition fluidity and the effectiveness of the regista in question. Van de Beek’s game in Belgium not also saw a wonderful assist for El Ghazi, but 122 touches of the ball. For the maths wizards, that’s more than a touch a minute. With a sizeable chunk of time allocated to the other team’s possession, this statistic is very impressive. Maestro indeed.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) December 8, 2016
Regista talk aside, Donny even has the bonus of versatility. On occasions this season, he hasn’t occupied the regista role at all, and instead played further forward, where he’s pretty effective too. All strong attacking midfielders have great mobility and a great individual pass network with other teammates. It demonstrates involvement in the game, as well as awareness and vision. Against Groningen at home earlier this season, Ziyech and Van de Beek were about as mobile as mobile can be. And look at those pass linkages! A 19-year old this involved in the game against a fairly decent side can only be promising.
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) December 4, 2016
Van de Beek’s versatility is clearly useful, especially when injuries occur. My vision for Van de Beek though is as a regista, operating behind other midfielders. This is because Ajax are blessed with gifted attacking midfielders in the form of Nouri, Klaassen and Ziyech. Another attacking midfielder would be overkill, and with Bazoer’s departure in mind a deep-lying playmaker is much more of a need. Schöne can do a job there, but he is ageing, and Ajax are a club that think with the future in mind. Van de Beek has proved his ability in that position, and so I hope that we see even more of him in the latter half of this season. The future is bright!