Anwar El Ghazi – the latest Ajax youngster to take Amsterdam by storm
Lacking pace, direction and creativity, since the sale of Christian Eriksen, Ajax have started the current season in worrying form and looked in danger of losing their strong hold on the Eredivisie title. The presence of PSV and Feyenoord have put Frank de Boer’s men under immense pressure and the constant selling of their best players has made it even more difficult for the coach to guide his team to glory. Each year, though, De Boer has been able to make some important tactical changes to cover for the capital club’s weaknesses and go on to successfully defend their title. His job has been made somewhat easier by the availability of the highly acclaimed De Toekomst system, which has seen the likes of Joel Veltman, Davy Klaassen and Ricardo van Rhijn move into the first-team to help propel them to unprecedented domestic heights. And with the Godenzonen stuttering immensely at the start of the current campaign, it is the emergence of another blistering attacking talent promoted from within – Anwar El Ghazi – who is helping Ajax regain their form and stay parallel with challengers PSV and this week’s opponents PEC Zwolle after seven league games.
The 19-year-old possesses impressive skill, technical ability, height, speed and a powerful shot, which makes him a huge threat in many areas. His imposing frame gives him an advantage in taking on full-backs and attacking opponents’ goals as he is not easily shoved off the ball, while his delicate touch and quick feet allow him to beat defenders with ease. Furthermore, while he is stronger on his right foot, he is comfortable on his left too and fits into the team’s style in swapping positions with fellow winger Lasse Schone and becomes as much of a threat on the left side.
The teenager has burst on to the scene this year and already made the right wing position his own in a very short space of time. Heading into this season, it seemed Ricardo Kishna was going to be the Ajax talent to watch, having emerged in the first-team towards the end of last season and made a huge impression in the Amsterdam ArenA. Kishna’s one goal and two assists in the eight appearances he made in his side’s fourth consecutive title win saw him labelled the next promising youngster to break out of the club’s famous youth system, following his move from ADO Den Haag at the age of 15. Kishna kept his place in the team at the start of the current season, starting in the wins over Vitesse and AZ, with El Ghazi waiting on the bench, content in his role as the understudy. But El Ghazi’s explosive performance and goal in his second-half performance against the Alkmaar side in the second game of the season was enough to convince De Boer that he was the more dangerous threat from the flanks.
He had posed a serious threat to the AZ backline throughout the second period of the game, sticking to the touchline as Ajax patiently built possession and stretching the defence. When Ajax burst forward with pace and looked to threaten down the middle, El Ghazi drifted in and tried to find the space to offer a more direct goalscoring threat.
Since then, El Ghazi has started every league game in a campaign in which Ajax are yet to really click as a force, however, the Dutchman of Moroccan descent provides a much needed spark to a team which has failed to strike fear into the hearts of opposition back lines.
Any youngster who breaks into the Ajax first-team immediately has great expectation thrust upon him along with a sudden increase in attention and the Barendrecht-born attacker’s profile was boosted even further in the third match of the campaign against PSV. He made an intelligent run into the centre of the field from the right wing, screaming on Klaassen to play a diagonal ball towards the box. When the midfielder lifted the perfect delivery into his path, the teenager stepped up a gear and drifted in behind Jetro Willems and nodded it beyond Jeroen Zoet for the opening goal. The match may have gone on to finish 3-1 in the Eindhoven side’s favour, but El Ghazi had done enough to raise his stock significantly.
The Netherlands Under 18 international is a very eager and determined winger. As soon as the ball drops to his feet, he looks to take on the next defender and get in behind the backline to cross it in or else drive towards goal and unleash a shot. He has a good balance to his game in that he is not determined to constantly do one instead of the other, he is a good crosser of the ball and puts a lot of power into his attempts on goal.
His speed, skill and strength make him a difficult one to stop, which often results in him being brought down illegally – no other Ajax player has been fouled more than El Ghazi,. Also, his quick turn and excellent acceleration make him an asset in all of Ajax’s attacks and often leaves defenders humiliated and irrelevant in some phases of games, as we saw in Ajax’s narrow win over Heracles in week five.
The Almelo club burst forward looking to draw level after Arkadiusz Milik’s early opener. However, the visitors surrendered the ball outside of Ajax’s box and the ball was played to El Ghazi, who burst forward with incredible speed, drifting past two defenders and skipping the lunge of a third, leaving the three in a heap in the middle of the park. The attacker carried on seamlessly, passed to Milik and carried on his run. The movement of El Ghazi took one defender with him and opened up space for Milik to cut in and fire in the all important second goal, rendering Wout Weghorst’s late strike for Heracles meaningless as Ajax picked up the three points. It was an excellent piece of skill and just a taste of what the explosive youngster is capable of.
So bright have the mature teenager’s performances been that technical director Marc Overmars has confirmed the club want to extend his contract until 2018 and it seems very likely the player himself will agree and go on to become a vital part of the Dutch giants over the next few years and it is a good reward and a sound investment in a player who seems capable of reaching a very high level.
However, El Ghazi’s fledgling career hasn’t gone entirely smoothly and he was not even supposed to be an Ajax starlet, he was originally a member of the youth system of fierce rivals Feyenoord. Throughout his two years in the acclaimed Varkenoord system, he was stuck behind Tonny Vilhena in the pecking order and was soon released from the club. He stayed in Rotterdam though, having been snapped up by Sparta, but his time with De Kasteelheren was not entirely easy either. The promising youngster struggled in his first season, but an improvement in his work rate saw him become a regular starter for the youth team. The club, though, were reluctant to offer him a contract as he remained inconsistent and somewhat overweight. Their heads were turned after a while when he quickly developed into the best player in the youth system and Sparta offered him a deal. Sadly for the club, they were too late. El Ghazi rejected their calls and was lured to the capital city by Ajax.
It was in De Toekomst that El Ghazi showed his real potential. Used primarily as a right forward and latterly as a central striker, he scored 14 goals in 20 games and set his sights on following Kishna in breaking into the first-team. So far, the signs are very positive and it seems the winger has all of the attributes to develop into a real star for Ajax. One of the main problems the Amsterdammers see with young players who burst into the team is an inability to perform consistently well over a long period of time. The highly rated Viktor Fischer is a recent example of one player who caught a great deal of attention and seemed destined to grow into one of the best young players in the Netherlands, however he ended his first season and started his second one very poorly before suffering a severe injury. Once he returns to fitness, he will find it difficult to regain his spot and it is up to El Ghazi to ensure he maintains this level of performance and keeps on improving to stay in the starting XI.
His displays in the early part of the season have seen him already called into the provisional Netherlands Under 21 squad for the 2015 European Championships and if he continues to improve and build on the bright start he has had in this campaign, he will be in the Czech Republic for the finals tournament should they make it past Portugal in the playoffs. This is, though, just the start for a very bright young talent with the potential to play a significant part in Ajax’s season as they look to clinch a fifth consecutive league title and their future beyond that.
After a somewhat tumultuous journey to get to the top level of Dutch football, El Ghazi has finally made it, but there’s much more to come from yet another bright player to take Amsterdam by storm.