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 writing about Ajax’s top attacking academy prospects a while back, I figured I’d trace back my steps and highlight the club’s most promising defensive youngsters. For decades, Ajax has been known for its flashy, brilliant play style. Often times, the defenders of Ajax’s historic squads go unnoticed, but their versatility and footballing ability are what makes the team tick. Ajax defenders mustn’t only be strong and good in the tackle, but also smart enough to have a good deal of positional awareness and skillful enough to play the ball out from the back. These players may not be valued as highly as, say, a Justin Kluivert or a Frenkie de Jong, but the coaching and values in the club’s youth system give these defenders just as much potential to strive within the footballing system.
If you’ve followed along with my Football Manager 2017 story as the manager of Ajax, you’ll know that Zeefuik is a pretty huge prospect. The Amsterdam-born 19-year-old defender can play as a centre-half or right-back, but is usually deployed for Jong Ajax as the latter. In 27 Jupiler League appearances, Deyovaisio has scored one goal and provided 4 assists, as well as immense defensive contribution that doesn’t get recorded in the stats sheets. In April, the young defender was handed his first team debut by Peter Bosz in the second half of a 5-1 thrashing over Heerenveen in the Eredivisie. I was quite pleased to see this because Zeefuik has been solid for the B-team all season and his hard work has finally paid off.
First things first: Zeefuik is a great defender. His aggressive yet sensible approach to the tackle is something to be admired, and something to certainly be nervous about as an opposing dribbler. In over 2,000 minutes of second division play, Zeefuik has only been shown 6 yellow cards and 0 straight-reds. It is imperative for an Ajax defender to remain composed at the back because of how much attacking and pressing is done in the tactical setup and the Dutch Under-19’s international fits this requirement.
Deyovaisio is a defender first, but his attacking supplements this very well. He’s got some decent ball control and positional awareness in the opponent’s half, and he’s provided a good number of assists by beating a man or two and delivering a short pass or low cross to an overlapping teammate. Zeefuik also possesses the stamina to get up and down the right flank for whole matches; 19 times this season he’s completed over 85 minutes in a match.
At roughly 6’1” (1.85m), Deyovaiso Zeefuik isn’t too short but isn’t too tall: the goldilocks of Ajax defenders. While his relative lack of height in a defensive position aids his technical build-up play, he lacks the physicality to compete aerially with some senior attackers. His heading ability is fine and he plays more often as a fullback, but if he’s ever moved to centre-back in the Eredivisie he may not be the looming presence you’d expect from a strong defender. That being said, Zeefuik certainly has the strength to mix it up with the best.
After a successful first season with Jong Ajax, Deyovaiso Zeefuik looks like he has what it takes to make the first team jump in the near future. The right-back position is currently up in the air at the Johan Cruijff ArenA as young star Kenny Tete may be on the way out for more playing time and veteran Joël Veltman is reported to have suitors abroad. Next year could be the time for a player like Zeefuik to really make his mark in the first team and add to the extensive list of young players having cemented a spot in Bosz’s squad.
A tall centre-half, Danilho Doekhi is a new arrival to the Ajax system. Doekhi arrived on a free transfer from Excelsior Rotterdam and joined up with the Under-19’s last summer. Since then, he’s appeared a total of 24 times for the squad, as well as 2 substitute appearances for Jong Ajax. At 18, Danilho still has some time to grow as a footballer, but his ability is already pretty good for the youth level.
Standing at 6’3” (1.90m), Danilho Doekhi stands above most of the other youth players he faces. The lanky Dutch defender, born and raised in Rotterdam, is still a little bit awkward in his running form, but his rawness is mostly just down to his age. There’s certainly work to be done with his overall physique: something that the Ajax coaching staff are more than capable of accomplishing with his young age.
Doekhi is a good defender. His positioning is pretty good for his age, he tackles with strength and confidence, and his awareness allows him to make some crucial interceptions. Danilho looks confident when going forward to support attacking moves, which bodes well for his fitting into Ajax’s play-it-from-the-back style. Despite his height, it seems Doekhi needs to work on his heading ability and confidence. He seems to shy away from aerial challenges on set pieces, which is concerning considering the potential he has to be a solid aerial defender and attacker.
It is rumored that multiple Premier League clubs have taken a good hard look at Danilho Doekhi, but it is likely that the defender would rather try and break into the Ajax first team than make the switch to the reserves of West Ham, Stoke, or Middlesbrough. Doekhi’s Ajax ties run deep, as he’s the nephew of former defender Winston Bogarde. Will Danilho add his name to the list of great Ajax defenders? We should get a better picture of his future next season after he likely makes the step up to Jong Ajax fulltime.
Last, but not least, is Mitchell Bakker, the youngest player on this list. Bakker is only 16 years old but is already a mainstay in the Under-19’s squad. The left-back appeared in all of Ajax’s UEFA Youth League matches, consistently starting in a team of players mostly two or three years older than himself. With bags of potential and an Ajax first team in desperate need of some left-back cover, Mitchell Bakker has the world at his, well, feet.
Born just north of Amsterdam in Purmerend in the 21st century, Bakker is certainly one of the most experienced players in the academy of his age. He’s made 23 appearances for the Netherlands youth teams, including the U-15’s (7), U-16’s (6), and U-17’s (10). Bakker is a natural left-back, but he certainly can and has played as a centre-half at the U-19 level. With a contract until 2019, I believe Bakker certainly has the ability and potential to keep stepping up further until he reaches the first team.
No matter your potential ability, however, if you’re 16 you’re sure to have some game flaws. Bakker is a quick, determined fullback that likes to attack (as you’d assume he would), but defensive duty can sometimes evade him. A couple times when challenging a winger 1 on 1, Bakker has come up quite short in the duel. If he’s ever to make it at higher levels, Mitchell needs to work on his tackling, plain and simple. That being said, being a quality attacker on the left flank while not completely embarrassing himself on the defensive end shows great promise for a player playing above his age level. One of my favorite phrases is “To be the best, you have to play with and against the best.” Mitchell Bakker fits this criterion, and he definitely can become one of the team’s best defenders in some time.
It’s no secret that big teams have a habit of poaching Ajax’s extremely young talent. Bakker is someone that the big teams would be silly not to look out for and, if the opportunity presents itself, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mitchell believed he has what it takes to make the jump to England or Germany. But at 16, if he sticks with the Ajax system, consistently improving himself with great coaches and a chance to keep moving up the ladder of squads, Mitchell Bakker will almost certainly make a name for himself in the football world. Once he gets some game time at Jong Ajax (hopefully at least a couple appearances next year), we’ll get a better look at some of his strengths and weaknesses.