Following in the footsteps of Cruijff and De Boer – Cillessen deserves move to Barcelona
It has been a bizarre few hours for Jasper Cillessen. The morning after conceding four goals to FK Rostov as Ajax crashed out of the Champions League at the play-off stage, he has departed the Amsterdam side. The goalkeeper failed to inspire across the two legs of a 5-2 aggregate loss. Letting a seemingly simple 22 metre free kick skip past him early in the first game left him culpable in the home draw, while he offered no presence in the trouncing Peter Bosz’s men received in Russia.
Despite the poor showing, he has been rewarded, rather than punished, with a move to Barcelona being made official for an initial €13 million, with a further €2m added based on performances.
The news of Barca’s offer had come as a bit of a shock to anyone who had seen Cillessen in recent weeks.
The 27-year-old had also looked shaky against PAOK in the previous qualifying round, where he struggled to deal with a simple shot, leading to the corner from which the Greek side scored – and he could have done much better in dealing with that too. He had hardly inspired last week against Roda in the Eredivisie either.
His form in the early days of the campaign has followed the same tone; unstable, weak and lacking any kind of presence in his own area. Why, then, would a team like Barcelona be looking to lure him to Catalunya?
Cillessen may be susceptible to blunders, as was notable when he was left red faced against Barcelona themselves and also last season against Heerenveen, but his strength as a goalkeeper is undeniable.
An excellent and reliable shot stopper, barring a few individual blips he has been remarkably consistent for Ajax over the last three years, developing into their star player and the resident No.1 for the national team.
Cillessen is often dismissed as one who fails to impose himself in the box, but he has grown into a more commanding keeper in recent years. His game is rather complete, too. He cannot be accused of being poor at crosses or unable to punch or catch, while he is eager and confident going into one-on-ones – easily the best in the Eredivisie in that regard. And he certainly suits Ajax and Barcelona’s criteria when it comes to goalkeepers being required to show composure and quick thinking with the ball at their feet.
The progress Cillessen has made in a short space of time has been impressive, but it has not all been simple for him. After almost a decade in the youth system, he was given his first start for NEC in the third week of the 2010-11 Eredivisie season at 21 because Gabor Babos was out injured. The goalkeeper seized his opportunity well, playing every minute of league football for the remainder of the campaign.
Ajax duly snapped him up after that year to act as backup to Kenneth Vermeer following Maarten Stekelenburg’s sale. As a result, he had to wait for his turn in the first team, spending the majority of the next two years on the bench barring a few appearances. During that time, he had been playing for the team’s reserve side in the second tier of Dutch football.
Then, thanks to some disastrous performances in the early stages of 2013-14, he was able to usurp Vermeer as Ajax’s first choice keeper. By then, he was already 24.
So bright were his performances and so crucial had he been to the Godenzonen’s fourth straight Eredivisie title win that less than a year after his last Jupiler League game with Jong Ajax, he was leading Louis van Gaal’s national team at the World Cup – helping them on their way to third place.
Just as Cillessen had to wait for a long time to earn his chance at Ajax, he didn’t become a regular starter for Oranje until the run up to the tournament in Brazil – over two years after he was first called up to the national team for a friendly, which Tim Krul played ahead of him.
Yet there he was, a sound performer on the biggest stage the global game has to offer as the Dutch defied belief by taking home the bronze.
But he was hardly given credit for making such a rapid rise and dealing with the change in pressure so well. The conversation surrounding him was all about the humiliating substitution in the last minute of extra-time against Costa Rica. Replacing him with Krul just so the Newcastle keeper could step up for the penalty shootout proved effective for the Dutch – not only did he save two, but he dived the correct way for each one and seemed to have a psychological advantage over his opponents. It was understandably a sore one for Cillessen to take, though, and it brought new light to the fact that he had never saved a penalty in his professional career. That talk was only exacerbated when the semi-final against Argentina went to penalties with Cillessen still between the sticks and he was unable to stop any spot kicks as the Dutch’s dream of reaching the final ended.
Cillessen, in a sense, carried the blame in the aftermath, but too much was made of his penalty record. It was perhaps surprising, but it seemed unnecessary to decry him as utterly useless from 11 metres.
Beyond the penalty debacles, the most illustrious moment of his campaign was the iconic #JasperCillessenSitsOnThings trend, which, although delightful and entertaining, was perhaps not the extent of praise he deserved. He had, after all, been good in every other way. His saves were comfortable and plentiful, his passing was rarely a problem and he even showed off his skill under immense pressure.
That evasion of a Gonzalo Higuain followed by the cheeky glance back and sly grin perhaps sums up the Nijmegen native’s mentality – even under pressure it is difficult to shake his confidence. His desire to win is immense, leading to him trying to gain a mental edge over opponents by provoking them. Colin Kazim-Richards called it “baby games”, others call it a winning mentality. Whatever it is, it has been a crucial part of Cillessen making it to where he is.
Even as Ajax disintegrated under the challenge of PSV, Cillessen remained a stalwart of the side. Frank de Boer grew stagnant as a coach and the team regressed, but the goalkeeper was as consistent as ever. The Godenzonen finished 17 points behind Phillip Cocu’s men in 2014-15, but Cillessen was such an example of dependency that he was named the club’s player of the year. As they missed out on the title on the last day of the season the following year, he was given the honour once again.
This summer has been a tumultuous one for Ajax. The pressure is on them to regain their place at the top of Dutch football, but again they have focused heavily on youth when it comes to signings as they prepare for life under new coach Peter Bosz. The capital club are severely lacking fully developed talents, while PSV have continued to improve. At 27, Cillessen is the oldest first-team regular they have, and there are only four players older than he in the full squad.
As further uncertainty looms around the Amsterdam Arena and with inconsistency creeping into his game, it seems clear Cillessen needs a new challenge. After seeing nothing materialise from the links to Manchester United a year ago, he seemed eager to get things tied up once Barcelona’s interest emerged this time around and become the 19th Dutchman to represent the Catalan giants.
Just like with his move to Ajax and his time with the national team, Cillessen moves to Camp Nou as a back up option, with the immensely talented Marc-Andre ter Stegen expected to play regularly. But the Dutchman will continue to develop and remain patient to pounce on any opportunity he gets in the first-team.
A highly capable and sturdy keeper to call upon, his arrival at the Blaugrana is not as highly anticipated as those of his compatriots like Johan Cruyff, Frank de Boer, Mark van Bommel or Phillip Cocu, but Barca have chosen well in their hunt for Claudio Bravo’s replacement.