‘Beautiful things can happen’: The rise of Ajax’s Davy Klaassen

This year marks a decade since a little boy from Hilversum with a shock of blond hair entered Ajax’s legendary youth system De Toekomst for the first time in his life. It marks the year of that boy’s growth into a proper man, still only 21-years-old.

Davy Klaassen, after being deprived of an entire season in his career due to a very serious groin injury, made his long-awaited breakthrough into the Ajax starting XI last season. At Benefoot, we love ourselves a little bit of Klaass and chronicled his emergence last year. However, Klaassen has already evolved a great deal as a player since then.

The departure of Daley Blind from the Amsterdam ArenA to Manchester United was seen as a huge loss for Ajax and coach Frank de Boer, but just as that move was a damaging one for the first-team, the renewal of the contracts of Ricardo van Rhijn, Joel Veltman and Klaassen early in the summer was a massive boost. When the midfielder put pen to paper, he said: “We want to build something with Ajax and I think we are doing well. I believe that beautiful things can happen in the future.”

Beautiful things are happening already; in Klaassen’s development. Last term, playing alongside Thulani Serero and Blind in a midfield trio, Klaassen had more freedom to go up and poach goals – much like the recently-departed Siem de Jong – and he ended the season as Ajax’s top scorer in the league.

This season, Klaassen has embraced a more dynamic, centre midfielder role. Originally a No.10, second striker or even a false 9 at times – drawing comparison to his coach Dennis Bergkamp. Klaassen has always had a great understanding of pressing opponents and transitions in the game, and has immense stamina – perfectly exemplified by pressuring a Barcelona player all the way at his goalline, winning a corner in the dying minutes of the game. Making full use of that attribute, Klaassen has developed himself into a much more mature midfielder who is more box-to-box than just attacking.

As opposed to recent years when the Ajax midfield three has comprised a defensive midfielders and two attacking midfielders, this Ajax midfield looks more balanced – in no small part due to Klaassen’s development into an all-round player. Jairo Riedwald or Serero can sit deep and distribute possession while Lucas Andersen floats up forward in attack, linking up with Lasse Schone and Anwar El Ghazi while Klaassen adds the balance to the midfield; offering energy as well as smart passing.

At this moment, comparisons may perhaps be drawn to Oscar of Chelsea. The Brazilian, who is one of Jose Mourinho’s favorite proteges at the moment, has the same hard-running nature as Klaassen and is perhaps one of the most intelligent players in having an awareness of when to press high, when to stabilise the midfield and likes a tackle.

Moreover, Klaassen – who was initially supposed to take up the Eriksen void in midfield last season – has started adding creativity to his game too. For the most part of last season, the 21-year-old was a goalscoring midfielder in the model of Lampard – there were even suggestions about him being used in the striker’s role for Ajax like Siem de Jong because of his awareness around the box and instinctive finishing. However, Klaassen this season has only scored twice. On the other hand, he has eight assists in all competitions – the leader in the Eredivisie with seven – and creates an average of 2.5 chances every 90 minutes, a huge jump from 1.1 last season. It is really hard to miss his involvement in everything Ajax produce on the attack this season – even part of two wonderful team goals against Cambuur last weekend.

Comfortable with both feet on the ball and blessed with great speed of thought and action, Klaassen has had a fan in Johan Cruijff for a long time now. The greatest Dutch footballer of all time personally suggested a specialist doctor in Barcelona for Klaassen – then with just a handful of Ajax senior appearances to his name – to consult on his almost-career-threatening groin injury. The Ajax legend even visited Klaassen in person to check up and see how he was doing in what was a surreal moment for Klaassen.

Recently, also having taken notice of the Hilversum-born youngster’s unbelievable growth curve as a midfielder, Cruijff declared in his weekly column for De Telegraaf that Klaassen can be compared with Xavi and Toni Kroos in terms of how comfortable they are on the ball and suggested that Klaassen – once a support striker and used as centre forward for the Dutch U21s – be used as a ‘controlling’ midfielder deepest among the trio for Ajax. Cruijff noted that, with Klaassen’s ability to retain the ball and great passing, the speed of Ajax’s game would be largely increased. However, De Boer’s opinion is that he has more qualities and depth to add and they would be curtailed in a deeper position. He has a great – previously mentioned – awareness of goal and offers a threat in attack. He is best suited to the role he already plays in and could truly flourish in a time where a ‘complete’ player is absolutely precious, especially for a team such as Ajax.

Back in June, Klaassen said, “I want to be even better this season. Not only by scoring goals and providing assists, but also in importance to the team.”

It is still only halfway through November but the youngster has definitely reached those targets. He’s scoring, he is assisting and definitely, both with regard to performance and leadership, being important for the team – one could even go as far as saying he is Ajax’s most important player at the moment, with nearest-contender Lasse Schone’s recent inconsistency.

A player, whose emergence was put back by a serious injury, Klaassen is well on his way to proving that the one season he missed with the groin injury was only a delay in his breakthrough and not a setback. If he continues on this growth curve he has set for himself, beautiful things can indeed happen.

(Stats courtesy of WhoScored and Squawka)

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