The quandary that is Joel Veltman

There was a time that the possibility of Joel Veltman becoming a mainstay in the Ajax first team never seemed plausible. He then became one of the most highly-rated young centre-backs in Europe, forming a partnership with Niklas Moisander before the experienced Finn’s departure allowed him to be the leader of a much younger defense. However, Veltman spent the majority of 2016 playing as a right-back for club and country as at 24-years-old, his career now reaches a crossroads with the Dutchman an able fullback but one wonders whether he thrives in Ajax’ current system or could he continue his exceptional performances at other teams?

Veltman is off the Ajax production line of fine ball playing defenders which includes Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld at Tottenham Hotspur, Thomas Vermaelen at Roma on loan from Barcelona, Jairo Riedewald on the fringes at Ajax and 17-year-old wunderkind Matthijs De Ligt. Veltman has been at Ajax since the age of nine and was influential for the Ajax u19 youth squad before being involved in the team that reached the final of the Nextgen Series with Davy Klaassen and Mitchell Dijks. Under Frank De Boer, he formed partnerships with Moisander and Denswil and became a pillar of his Ajax side.

Ajax under Peter Bosz play the ball out of the back exceptionally and Veltman is so integral to this with his diligence in possession. Nick Viergever, Davinson Sanchez and Lasse Schone are not the team’s best ball-players but rehearsed movements and passing sequences out of the back, with a rapidly developing ball playing goalkeeper in Andre Onana have allowed Ajax to play out of pressure efficiently. Veltman will normally stay deeper to make a three chain with Viergever and Sanchez while Sinkgraven pushes forward or Sinkgraven and Veltman will push forward when Schone comes deeper as outlets to break pressure. Veltman sees a lot of the ball as a right-back and is an integral conduit for the passing and movement that makes Ajax such an exciting team to watch.

Earlier in the season, Sanchez never shared a true understanding with Kenny Tete which would see the two caught out in many instances, especially with counter attacks, while Veltman and Sanchez also initially struggled as Sanchez’ brilliant last man tackles were mainly due to misunderstandings between the two. One thing that was obvious was that Veltman provided good cover for Sanchez who enjoys pushing forward as an instinctive defender which showed the roots for a great partnership. Veltman’s ability defensively has provided a great balance to the team as he is comfortable showing most wingers to the byline and his exceptional reading of the game allows him to make good interceptions and recycle the ball.

He has struggled somewhat with the better and quicker wingers. Theo Bongonda of Celta Vigo, for example, was a constant thorn in his side in the 3-2 home victory in the Europa League this season while Veltman also struggled for the international team in a friendly against Belgium, but that was due to Danny Blind’s poorly executed back five system. He will need to improve at marking the more skilled players as his instincts of when to make a challenge and when to stand up against those more gifted wingers needs to improve. However, it is intriguing that his move to right back was not performance related as Tete and Riedewald’s injuries this time last year forced the positional change.

Riedewald and Veltman were an extraordinarily gifted ball-playing defensive partnership and it is a wonder where they would be if the former and Tete had not suffered injuries. Their nous was even more impressive given the Nemanja Gudelj / Riechedly Bazoer / Davy Klaassen midfield they were working with, which had more in dynamism than creativity. They excelled in the Eredivisie games but that midfield was disjointed in the Europa League as it is very unlikely that the two would play together at centre-back again. Veltman as a defender is still growing, but his ability to adapt to his new role at such a rapid pace is outstanding.

One may assume that playing with a fullback that has the ball at his feet as often as Veltman would limit a team, but a fullback that plays with such dexterity in possession allows Ajax to break pressure. It also gives the defense a sense of balance with Sinkgraven being a more attack-minded fullback. His ability to be the catalyst for rapid counters or to peel open defenses and midfields with his immaculate passing can not be understated and is so integral to Ajax’ playing style. Ajax’ defense pushes much further up the pitch than under De Boer and Veltman’s interceptions by the halfway line and in the opposition half are instrumental to building attacks much quicker. Veltman also is not the overlapping fullback that is associated with the modern game – and neither is Tete – as Bosz’ system of having wingers stretch play allows him to continue to be more withdrawn.

“I am satisfied with Joel,” said Bosz in November. “He is an excellent player who can defend well. I also think Kenny Tete an excellent player, but I have to make choices. Kenny is close to a base location. And I’m sure he’s there when I need him.”

Veltman has become Ajax’ first choice right-back and his defensive statistics prove how much he has excelled in the defensive side of the game with 4 tackles, 3 interceptions while making 4 clearances and winning 4 aerial duels per game according to WhoScored. According to Squawka, he has won 45 tackles at a success rate of 52% which certainly needs improvement, making 52 interceptions, 56 clearances and 4 blocks while creating 11 chances. He makes 59 passes per game at a success rate of 84% with 7 long balls while his lack of crosses and key passes prove that he is a player whose influence is shown defensively and in transition rather than in the final third.

Right back is the most competitive position in the Dutch National Team, with Feyenoord’s Rick Karsdorp getting his debut and impressing last year while Joshua Brenet continues to improve. Hans Hateboer is also an option going forward, and with Kenny Tete and Kevin Diks waiting on more regular first team football, Veltman will have more competition than at club level.

Veltman would need to hone his qualities to truly excel in the position internationally as he has in the last year with hopefully better coaching from Blind. It seems right back will be his position for the foreseeable future with Riedewald and De Ligt behind Viergever and Sanchez in the pecking order as his flexibility could impress other clubs. Veltman certainly fills in perfectly at right back in this team and under this coach and one must wonder if he can develop in the position to become a specialist.