Jasper Cillessen – attracting Europe’s giants after a rapid rise with Ajax
When the end of season awards were being handed out at Ajax last week, it seemed like an inconvenient formality. The idea of giving out accolades after a dismal and embarrassing campaign must feel utterly futile and rather exasperating for players, coaches and fans.
However, despite the brutal and turgid year in which Ajax finished 17 points behind champions PSV, there were indeed some individual aspects for Ajax which were more than worthy of praise.
Amidst the rotten performances, the sloppiness throughout the team, Frank de Boer’s lack of inspiration, the season-long striking problems and the disciplinary issues with Ricardo Kishna and Richairo Zivkovic, there were bright spots. The emergence of Riechedly Bazoer, the electricity and impressively quick development of Anwar El Ghazi and the increased influence and versatility of Davy Klaassen are three such notable positive notes.
However, there is one even bigger and more crucial spark for the shamed Amsterdammers without which it’s difficult to say just how much of an omnishambles we might be discussing when dissecting Ajax’s season.
When it came to announcing the Godenzonen’s Player of the Year, there could only be one option.
At the start of the 2013-14 season, Jasper Cillessen was playing in the second tier of Dutch football. Less than a year later, he was helping guide Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands team to third place in the World Cup. Skip forward less than a year again and he has been by far Ajax’s best player and is linked to a move to Manchester United in excess of €25 million.
The rise of Cillessen has been swift and monumental.
Ajax have had plenty of problems this season, but the man between the sticks has not been one of them. In fact, without Cillessen, Ajax may have been in danger of falling out of the top two in the Eredivisie, while their Europa League campaign might have ended in embarrassment at the last-32 stage at the hands of Legia.
“He’s one of the few players who has had a very good and consistent season. Actually, he is the only one,” Frank de Boer said after the shot stopper was named both the fans’ and club’s player of the year. And one could argue that if the title wouldn’t have gone their way in 2013-14, the Ajax coach would have said the same last season.
Despite Ajax’s unstable defence, they conceded the fewest goals in the Eredivisie. A massive part of that is down to Cillessen, who has the best save percentage in the division – not just this term, but last year too.
It’s not only his shot stopping ability that makes him such a strong keeper, though. He has quickly developed into a more complete No.1 and become more of a strong presence in his box. His aerial presence has become increasingly important as he has been commanding on crosses and corners, while his one-on-one skills are still unrivalled in the league.
“The least past defence means something,” De Boer continued. “Of course he doesn’t do it all alone, but it says something about him. Not only as a goalkeeper, but also as the leader of the defensive unit, he has been very good for us.”
While the 26-year-old’s rise to the top has accelerated immensely over the last two years, he has had to wait longer than expected to reach his current level.
Cillessen’s first full season of Eredivisie football came in 2010-11 with NEC. The then 21-year-old looked back on a positive campaign, with the Nijmegen side finishing 11th in the league knowing it was the start of a bright career and no less than he deserved, after spending nine years in the club’s youth academy. However, he would not have imagined he would make only 12 league appearances over the following two years.
The €3.7 million move to Ajax in the early weeks of 2011-12 saw the Nijmegen-born keeper play second-fiddle to Kenneth Vermeer. A huge amount for an Eredivisie team to spend on a backup goalkeeper.
When the 2013-14 season rolled around and Vermeer remained at the Amsterdam ArenA as the undisputed No.1, Cillessen grew frustrated. He was not willing to spend much longer waiting on the sidelines to play in the Dutch Cup in between reserve games.
It was, though, just unfortunate that he was stuck behind the best goalkeeper in the league. But while decisive and reliable, Vermeer is often unpredictable. So, after some shaky performances in the opening weeks of the campaign, his time in between the sticks was over when a blunder saw the floodgates open in a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of PSV.
From then on, Vermeer was banished and Cillessen was the main man.
Athletic and tall with quick reflexes, the Netherlands international grabbed his chance with both hands and Ajax have not looked back.
Not content with warming the bench at Ajax, Vermeer earned a move to Feyenoord last September and has been excellent for an overall strong and generally exciting team. It says a lot about Cillessen’s development, though, that Ajax have not missed possibly the second best in the league.
Cillessen is much more rounded and commanding than Vermeer now. He handles himself better with crosses and he is sound with the ball at his feet. On the field, he is a nuisance, too. He wants a psychological advantage over his opponents as he riles them up, as we saw with Colin Kazim-Richards in the 0-0 draw with Feyenoord earlier this year.
The goalkeeper seemed to have great fun winding the striker up and he got to the Turkey international so much that he spent his post-match interview accusing Cillessen of “playing baby games”.
“It began with an interview before the game in which Colin Kazim-Richards said that I had to keep my mouth shut against him,” Cillessen explained to Voetbal International.
“He gave away his weak point. So I responded to it. I study my opponents and throw everything at them to get an advantage. If I can get Kazim off balance by talking to him, I will do it. An opponent who is irritated is less sharp.
“You can compare it with goalkeepers who try to ruin the concentration of a penalty taker. You are provoking them in order to increase your chances of a victory.”
While Cillessen values getting into the mind of an opponent, he still values sportsmanship, regretting trying to get Kongolo in trouble with the referee.
“I should not have asked the referee for a yellow card for Kongolo. That was wrong. With everything else that day, I didn’t do anything wrong. I also had an altercation with Jens Toornstra, but that’s part of the game. Afterwards we laughed together about that.”
For Ajax fans, he is a saint. For fans of most other clubs, he is a less than popular figure, but that does not interest him.
“I had to look in the mirror and I had to focus on myself. It makes no sense to you annoyed by what others call you. Mark van Bommel said eloquently: ‘Opponents do not criticise you for nothing; if you do something good, they resent you.’
“I did not come to Ajax to be a popular guy, I’m here to win titles.”
And he has done just that. Since he moved to the capital, Ajax have won three titles, although he will be most proud of the most recent one because of his new found importance to the team.
His excellent season saw him beat Tim Krul and Michel Vorm to the No.1 spot under Van Gaal in Brazil last year and he had a solid tournament. Unfortunately for him, though, he will be remembered more for the bizarre substitution in the last minute of extra time against Costa Rica as Krul came on just to save penalties. It worked, but Cillessen did not take it well initially and his reputation of never having saved a penalty became a big detail, especially after Netherlands lost to Argentina on penalties in the next round with him between the posts.
While he still has not saved a penalty, there is no doubt that he has developed a lot since the World Cup. In fact, over the last 24 months it’s probably the only aspect in his game where he hasn’t grown to a European top level. Manchester United and even Bayern Munich have been linked now, but Cillessen insists he is not preoccupied with a move.
Technical director Marc Overmars says he is not going anywhere, insisting that United’s reported €25m valuation would not be enough to see the club sell him.
“I have checked with my agents and those clubs have not called,” the keeper says. “I am not really thinking about any clubs other than Ajax. Look, if I wanted to leave, I would not have renewed my contract until 2018.”
While Ajax are seen as a selling club to Europe’s top leagues, they are in no need to give up their main assets this season. As always, though, it is more of a case of when he leaves the Eredivisie and makes the next step, not if.
“Can he reach the level of world class goalkeepers like Edwin van der Sar and Manuel Neuer?” De Boer asked. “I think he can get very close.”
The coach is spot on. When it comes to replacing David de Gea or Manuel Neuer, United and Bayern could do much worse than make Cillessen one of their top targets.