Farewell, sweet prince – Analysing Daley Blind’s move to Manchester United
29/08/2014. 2200 hrs.
Two days away from the transfer deadline day. Most Ajax fans took to bed relatively confident about Daley Blind staying in Amsterdam. The most reliable journalists, Overmars, Rob Jansen, everyone kept quashing all those nasty rumours from the English media about him leaving to Manchester United. Surely, that stance could not drastically change overnight.
30/08/2014. 0056 hrs.
A De Telegraaf story breaks on the social media platform that has spoilt us all with instant information; Twitter, obviously. It’s not a report of talks between the two clubs or that United officials have landed in Amsterdam. Nothing of the sort. They get to the point. It’s hard to miss it, the “BREAKING” demanding attention.
“Daley Blind to Man Utd, for an agreed transfer fee of €18 million, excluding bonuses.”
Days after Marc Overmars explicitly stated that he wouldn’t sell Blind for less than €20 million. Weeks after Daley smiled when chants of ‘Daley, another year!’ sounded through the DBS stadion, when Ajax played AZ. Months after he said he was open to the idea of staying at Ajax for the entirety of his career, follow in his legendary father’s footsteps.
While in Amsterdam, hearts break and tears fall, much northward, Manchester heaves a sigh of relief. A defensive midfielder signed, finally, who has been hyped (slightly falsely) by a number of apparently reputed journalists to be a “fantastic, top-class leftback and centreback too” – and comes as a boost in morale to recent events up there.
Where Blind’s departure leaves Ajax
It started right from the minute Daley Blind provided that sumptuous cross for Robin van Persie to head in past Iker Casillas. He would be Louis van Gaal’s biggest target this summer, he will be Patrice Evra’s successor, he will be Luke Shaw’s backup, he will definitely not stay in Amsterdam.
Fast forward a bit and Ajax boss Frank de Boer says Blind, along with academy graduates like Veltman, van Rhijn and the like will be the ‘water-carriers’ of his squad this season, which is one of the youngest in the Eredivisie and entirely assembled by de Boer. He says he is confident Blind is an Ajax-man and will remain at the club. Fast forward again and now de Boer concedes that he wants to keep Daley but will have to consider a sale if a lot of money is on the table and the player wants to go.
Now to the present, and just before the transfer deadline day, Blind is leaving Ajax and Frank de Boer has a very tricky situation on his hands: he only has one defensive midfielder left.
Nick Viergever was initially signed in the summer to be a Niklas Moisander replacement – a centreback -, but since the Finn has not received any offers to leave Ajax, Viergever has been made a defensive midfielder, a No. 6, ie Daley Blind’s role. It could have been a move by de Boer pre-empting Blind’s departure but for the time when both were at the club, Blind and Viergever have played together in a more solid, stable Ajax midfield, that can offer more creativity via Blind’s passing.
With Blind’s departure, the midfield will probably go back to two attacking midfielders in Serero and Klaassen with Viergever sitting behind them. While Viergever has made a good start to life in midfield, he is definitely not at Blind’s level just yet and would probably need a few more games under his belt to fully get the knack of what the position demands, such as composure and the quick reaction to cover instinctively when either of Veltman or Moisander go venturing up field.
The worst case scenario – at the the moment – comes in the case of an injury to Nick Viergever. When he had to be taken off in the Johan Cruijff schaal vs PEC Zwolle, de Boer brought on the dimunitive attacking midfielder Thulani Serero to play the defensive midfielder role. The South African can press high and has bundles of energy in him but is not quite strong enough or composed enough to fulfill the needs of the No. 6 role. Especially when playing a lone defensive midfielder shielding an attacking two, Serero does not seem to be the long-term answer for a backup in that position and it was eventually his error that led to the PEC goal.
For the last two seasons, de Boer had Christian Poulsen to initially play there as first choice and then eventually be phased out to be Blind’s backup. This proved crucial at junctures such as v Barcelona in the Champions League, where Boilesen, the perennial injury risk, had to be taken off and very smoothly, Blind slotted back into midfield while Poulsen took over the reins in midfield. The only other player in the Ajax squad with experience of playing defensive midfielder is Lasse Schone, but the Dane is way too productive and consistent in front of goal to be moved so much back to this anchor position.
De Telegraaf has again reported that Marc Overmars’ job as technical director is not yet over this summer and he will be dipping his hand into the numerous profits and income the club has made from being the only Dutch club in the Champions League as well as certain clauses in the contracts of Luis Suarez and Thomas Vermaelen. But who would he buy though? The Ajax staff will be regretting the fact that they could have gotten Kamohelo Mokotjo – who would have been absolutely perfect for Ajax – for a mere €1 million, but they let him move to title rivals FC Twente. There has been growing talk about a move for Heerenveen’s Daley Sinkgraven, but he is another attacking midfielder – of which Ajax have no dearth in at all. Riechedly Bazoer is a top-class prospect but at only 17, he is still learning his trade with Jong Ajax and though he is terrific for his age, whether he actually gets a call from Frank de Boer will be interesting to see.
Perhaps just as importantly, Frank de Boer has lost himself a real leader on field. Be it in leading the team to press, organising on field or just motivating the lads, Blind has evolved into a midfield general of sorts over the last few years. With Moisander very surprisingly looking less of the leader he was last season, losing their newly-appointed vice captain is quite a blow to the Amsterdam club, especially considering the fact that next-in-line is probably Nicolai Boilesen, who is not the most vocal of players, provided he is even on the field.
How Blind fits in at United
Moving on to the perspective of Daley Blind himself and Manchester United, personally, I had always thought Blind’s game profile would suit La Liga better than the Premier League. He does not possess a lot of speed both in terms of agility and playing his game as he is not the strongest of players – two attributes he was criticised heavily for earlier in his career, but he has since improved his reading of the game to make up for it, at least as far as the Eredivisie goes. The 24-year-old is someone who thrives in situations where he can have lots and lots of possession.
This is not to say he is terrible when his team doesn’t have possession – he may lack pace but he has enough acceleration about him to close down space in front of him for attackers to come into and cover for his marauding fullbacks – a specially strenuous task considering how high the Ajax fullbacks stray when attacking. He is however, vulnerable to being caught out and when he does, it is difficult for him to chase an attacker down or even go shoulder-to-shoulder and win the ball because of the aforementioned lack of pace and the fact that he still has to learn to use his body strength better.
For most United fans, even if you haven’t seen him in this situation at Ajax, his performance in the World Cup match vs Chile, where had to mark Sanchez probably gives a decent idea. Van Gaal’s 5 man backline at the World Cup could just as easily morph into a 4-man backline with one of the centre-backs pushing up to follow his marker and functioning at left centre-back, this becomes a position closer to his defensive midfielder role at Ajax than left wing back is. Blind struggled to contain Sanchez in this game and ended up giving around seven fouls, getting himself in the book and almost giving away a dubious penalty; fouling which he had to resort to because he could not match Sanchez’s strength and speed.
Of course, this is not to say every attacker Blind will come across in the league is going to be like Sanchez, but the fact that he is still not the ‘complete’ midfielder who will be the solution to United’s woes in midfield, as some seem to think at the moment. He has been a late bloomer so far in his career, even with regards to breaking into the Ajax first team and thus, though there is room for improvement, there is also time on his hands for improvement, though whether he will is something only the future can answer.
Very valid comparisons have been drawn between him and Sergio Busquets with regards to their style of play in defensive midfield. In an solely Ajax context, I agree completely. He sits back and does the dirty work while the more attacking players can move forward and is a very good circulator and recycler of the ball. Blind also definitely has vision, the array of passing and technical ability, as he has shown numerous times for Ajax and in this sense, could possibly be seen as a long-term replacement for Michael Carrick in the United midfield.
However, though people may disagree with me, in the context of the English game, I find a comparison to Claude Makelele intriguing here. Blind – like Makelele – is not an exceptional Sergio Busquets or Nemanja Matic-tall for a defensive midfielder and neither does he have the strength and explosive ability to disintegrate attacks like Nigel de Jong does. Makelele was not a player endowed with great speed or great physicality. He was, however, good with intercepting the ball in crucial positions and acted as a link-man between defence and attack. Typically, he would steal the ball with an interception and send it to a more advanced player who has a good chance of creating a scoring opportunity. He also let John Terry do most of the ball-playing out of defence – something Blind is again accustomed to doing at Ajax, letting Veltman and Moisander bomb forward. For a small man, Claude was also surprisingly strong, which is something Blind can work on, given he is only 24.
Blind’s technical ability does not need much more expounding upon, given it has been more well-documented in mainstream media than his shortcomings. He does like having a lot of time on the ball – which he might not get the luxury of in the Premier League as much as he does in the Eredivisie. As such, the speed of his game in general would need to be turned up a notch or two. It could take a few games for him to get used to the speed of the football in the league as again, unlike the Eredivisie, not every team looks to follow this intrinsic dogma of playing out from defence.
The Premier League is definitely faster than it was 8-10 years back when the Frenchman ruled the roost and more strategically sound. The pace in the league, with the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard and Raheem Sterling is definitely much higher and even as a defensive midfielder, you need a certain fundamental speed to just be able to contain these players as they often tend to come in centrally and attack what would be considered Blind’s zone. Does Blind have these attributes to shine at Man Utd? Maybe, maybe not.
As such, his career in England should not be written off based on the above points, which are definitely worth consideration but inconclusive at the moment since he’s yet to play a minute in the Premier League. With regards to Blind, he has been written off before and he has come back to prove his detractors wrong in their prediction, but whether he can do it again at a higher level is to be seen. The verdict is still out on whether he is the type of defensive midfielder United require at the moment, with most believing a strong, destroyer-like midfielder is what they need, a player who will add steel to the midfield.
Man United have thus, acquired a player who is technically fantastic and has a bright future ahead of him. Work ethic and commitment should not be a problem for Daley Blind – he gives his all on field for his team and with bags of Eredivisie experience and Champions League experience (a competition he sadly will have to watch his Ajax teammates play in, from his couch this season). Where van Gaal wants him to play is still a bit of a puzzle, as a defensive midfielder or just a basic utility man to break glass in times of emergency. The latter is more likely and this entire saga with Blind and Man Utd is interesting with regard to the timeline. It is just as likely that Blind is a last-resort emergency buy for Man United because a) if Blind had been a long-term target of the club, United could have very easily wrapped up the deal much much earlier in the transfer window and b) the fee they eventually paid Ajax – 18 million euros – is extremely close to the 20 million euros price Overmars put on Blind’s head, whereas we have seen Overmars give in to lesser bids in the past.
The end of an era
I mentioned in one of my earlier articles about Blind, that if he were to leave Ajax, he could do so “with his luscious hair-filled head held up high. For breaking out of the looming figure of his father that seemed to cuff and suffocate him initially, for the ‘Daley Blind is een echte Ajacied’ mantra that reverberates at the ArenA, for earning himself an indelible tattoo on the heart of many an Ajax fan.” This still holds true, at least as far as I am concerned.
He did say when he got his 100th Ajax start that he would be honoured to spent his entire career at Ajax and maybe as supporters, the hopes just got a bit too high; that he could be the example for youngsters to follow and break the norm, for talented youngsters to remain at Ajax, in the Eredivisie for longer periods of their career. We let ourselves dream and with this move, we’ve been sent crashing back into the ground, that the trend that started decades and decades back will only continue with the advent of further commercialisation in football. That regardless of however much a player loves his club, it is seldom he will reject an approach from a club in a bigger league, with more exposure.
It is a Herculean task to remove emotion from the picture when it comes to Daley Blind for Ajax, given his family background, and who he has been over the course of the last 18 years at Ajax. But if it is possibly to take a business outlook on this, Ajax have made a very good deal out of it, even if it is a few million euros less than what Overmars initially wanted. €18 million is big, big money and Ajax really need to make sure they spend it purposefully, though it may be a bit too late in the window at the moment.
It would be false to say we wouldn’t miss the lusciously curly haired, chubby faced lad with always a sparkle in his eyes and an enthusiasm to play, running out onto the lush green pitch of the ArenA. He has been with Ajax for the better part of the last 18 years of his life, from being only known as the great Danny Blind’s son to being captain of the Ajax A1 team, to being nearly sold to Groningen after a loan there, being booed off the pitch by his own supporters and then a year later being hailed as a true Ajacied and winning the Dutch footballer of the year.
Daley Blind’s journey with Ajax has not been a smooth one, but as a boy who definitely did not live the dream and had to face the bad things in life before the good ones, his is a story many can relate to. To a great servant of Ajax and the Eredivisie, farewell, Daley and we wish you good luck in your career.