A Klaass Act: Davy Klaassen emerges as a key to Ajax’s future
Every season, Ajax lose at least one of their star players and look set to enter a long period of decline brought on by the selling nature of the club. However, there is always one player who emerges from the Amsterdam giants’ world famous youth academy who injects some much needed spark and creativity to keep them in contention as the Eredivisie title race heats up. This year, when Christian Eriksen departed, Ajax took a turn for the worse as they became infuriatingly flat and looked destined to see their dominance come to an end as PSV, Vitesse, AZ, Twente and Feyenoord all looked capable of mounting a serious challenge. However, in the Eredivisie champions’ hour of need, it was Davy Klaassen who emerged from the youth system to provide youth and electricity to the midfield and help them get through their period of transition.
Klaassen is a player with a very quick brain and feet that can keep up. With exquisite close control, great speed and intelligence, he is yet another extremely promising young talent to emerge from De Toekomst and shine brightly within the first-team.
The confidence and belief just as much as the skill, athleticism and excellent technique of this 20-year-old has seen him not only establish himself in Frank de Boer’s team, but also promulgate himself as a player who could play a key role in Ajax’s post-Eriksen era.
Klaassen joined the Amsterdam giants as an 11-year-old from Hilversum sports club HSV Wasmeer and developed further in the club’s world famous youth system. So bright did the starlet look, he was awarded Ajax’s Talent of the Future award in June 2011, following in the footsteps of previous winners Christian Eriksen, Daley Blind, Siem de Jong, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and John Heitinga. Months later, he was introduced to the outside world when Ajax took part in the inaugural NextGen Series in 2011-12. The youngster scored five goals in the competition as he captained Ajax on their march to the final, dismantling Barcelona and Liverpool on the way. That side, which also consisted of fellow current first-team players Viktor Fischer, Stefano Denswil, Joel Veltman and Lesley de Sa, finished runners-up to Andrea Stramaccioni’s Inter, losing on penalties (the following day, Stramaccioni would be made coach of the Inter senior squad).
His performances in the European competition saw him rewarded with an opportunity to make his mark on the Ajax first-team. De Boer handed him his first taste of top flight football in November 2011 when he sent him on against NEC in Nijmegen. The Godenzonen stood 2-0 up in the Goffertstadion when Klaassen emerged in the 81st minute as a replacement for Nicolas Lodeiro. Within a minute, he had put the ball in the net, sparking immediate chants from the visiting fans of “Davy Klaassen, ole, ole, ole,” to the tune of The Beatles’ hit Yellow Submarine. The youngster participated in three more league games that season, including a substitute appearance in De Kuip as his side lost 4-2 to fierce rivals Feyenoord. Furthermore, he was brought on in the Champions League fixtures against Lyon and Real Madrid as Ajax narrowly missed out on a place in the knockout stage of the competition. He was sent back down to the youth team, though, to continue his development and gain further experience in the NextGen Series, only now he returned with a taste of first-team and Champions League as well as the confidence of himself and that of a very bright and intuitive coach.
The start of the 2012-13 season looked set to be a huge breakthrough for the bright prospect. He was brought on as the Eredivisie champions lost to PSV in the Johan Cruijff Schaal (Dutch Supercup) as well as the first and third games of the Eredivisie campaign in the 2-2 draw with AZ, followed by the 5-0 thrashing of NAC Breda. In between times, he was playing 90 minutes in each of Jong Ajax’s first three games of the season, games which took place only the day after his inclusion against AZ and NAC.
However, disaster struck from then on when he suffered a rather horrendous groin strain. A slow recovery made even slower by a series of setbacks saw the injury wipe out his entire campaign. At 19-years-old, it was a crucial stage in his development, but as Theo van Duivenbode remarked when he handed him the Talent of the Future award before, Klaassen is a player who “trains to get better” and he would come back determined to blossom further in the Ajax first-team.
Theh injury, though, took its toll on him. For a while, he even began to doubt he had a future in football. “For a long time I wasn’t sure if it was all over,” he told NOS. But he soon had an extra motive to recover and emerge from his long-period on the sidelines stronger and keen to further his development. He was sent to Barcelona to see a specialist about his injury, recommended personally by Ajax and general football icon Johan Cruyff. Incredibly, Cruyff visited him twice in the hospital in Catalonia. Recently, Klaassen spoke of the surprise and glee he was filled with when the legendary number 14 strolled in.
“It was a huge boost that Mr. Cruyff was going to do his best for me,” he told Voetbal International. “The first two times he came in person to the hospital to see if everything was going well.
“I had never met him before. Then suddenly the biggest Dutch footballer of all time is there in front of your nose, coming to the hospital specifically to see you. That impressed me.”
He added: “And it was fun: Cruyff proved to be a very normal and kind man. Given his reputation, I could trust the specialist he recommended.”
The recognition and visits of Pythagoras in Boots provided a massive boost in confidence and self-belief in Klaassen and he bounced back at the beginning of this season, ready to resume his development while challenging for a place in De Boer’s starting XI.
Klaassen started the season off with some bright performances in the Jong Ajax team, who were in their inaugural season in the Jupiler League (the second tier of Dutch football). But when Ajax lost their star player Christian Eriksen to Tottenham Hotspur, everything started to go pear shaped in the first-team. Severely lacking creativity, speed and imagination, the side were worryingly impotent and falling behind in the league and Champions League. De Boer called up youngsters Lucas Andersen and Klaassen to help alleviate the attacking issues of the reigning Eredivisie champions for the last three years.
Brought on for the last 25 minutes in the 6-0 drubbing of Go Ahead Eagles in late September, Klaassen then played the entire game as Ajax beat Utrecht in Amsterdam, in which he scored. However, he was then relegated to the bench once again as a flat, uninspiring Ajax drew 0-0 with struggling RKC and then lost 1-0 to Vitesse, both of which took place in the Amsterdam ArenA.
He was recalled to the starting XI though when De Boer decided to mix the team up for the home match against Celtic in a desperate attempt to keep their Champions League hopes alive. The 20-year-old featured in a midfield trio alongside Thulani Serero and Daley Blind in support of a front three which consisted of Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Lasse Schone on the wings with captain Siem de Jong playing as the number nine.
It worked. Ajax ran out deserved winners over Neil Lennon’s side and Klaassen played a huge part in keeping them in contention for the runner-up spot in the group.
Bright performances followed as he played all 90 minutes in the 3-0 wins over NEC and Heracles, scoring in the latter. Then, Ajax achieved the seemingly impossible as they defeated Barcelona 2-1 in the Champions League, despite going down to ten men three minutes into the second-half. Klaassen played a huge part in that historic victory, his energy as well as his speed and passing vision and accuracy throughout the game helped link everything together. Furthermore, he defended valiantly alongside his comrades to help cover for the numerical disadvantage as the Blaugrana dominated the second period and pressed for the equaliser after Xavi converted a penalty. Ajax were camped on their 18-yard line for the vast majority of the second period and even the attacking midfielder remained alert and disciplined enough to help keep Gerardo Martino’s side at bay, importantly he was quick to rush out and close the ball down further up the park to keep Barca further away.
“I was in the tunnel before the game and I watched the Barcelona players and thought ‘bring it on,’” Klaassen said to Voetbal International reflecting on that match. An example of his confidence and his fearlessness.
During that game, an Ajax fan fell from the stand and dropped ten metres, smashing his head off of the concrete ground. He was taken to hospital and said to be in critical condition. As soon as Klaassen heard about it, he donated the jersey he wore that day to the fan.
A few days later, Klaassen was involved once again in the Ajax starting XI. Even without the injured De Jong and Sigthorsson, Ajax demolished ADO Den Haag 4-0, with Klaassen opening the scoring with a neat header.
The midfielder was pivotal in that encounter with his control and his short, sweet passes which helped build momentum in Ajax’s attacks as he influenced the game from the middle of the park up to and inside the ADO box.
While the young player is of a similar mould to current Ajax captain De Jong as he operates in similar areas and does remarkably well to link everything up with the front three. However, he is a more electrifying player with his pace and imagination. There is certainly space for the two of them in Ajax’s midfield. Against Utrecht, they appeared alongside each other in the midfield and then in the win over NEC De Jong acted as the pinnacle of attack with Klaassen supporting in midfield. Furthermore, Klaassen can also be used as a centre-forward, having done so for the Oranje U19s recently, something De Boer has recognised as an option should the need arise. The coach is certainly blessed to have two intelligent and versatile players at his disposal.
The early stages of this campaign have been very bright for Klaassen, who has been unfortunate to have an entire year of his development wiped out, but he has certainly recovered well. He has returned with the confidence and determination to make up for lost time and show that he can become a pivotal player for his club.
“This should be the year when I show what I have to offer Ajax,” he said. “I have come a long way and that will make it even more satisfying.”
As Ajax look to make it four straight Eredivisie titles, Klaassen will play a big part in the campaign, but even more so in the future beyond that. He is an elegant player with great mental strength and the confidence of himself as well as that of De Boer and Cruyff. As long as he continues to develop and progress in the way he is just now, his injury plagued year will become merely a blip in his career as he laughs at the idea he once doubted he ever had a future in the game in the first place.