Jasper Cillessen – From 2nd tier to World Cup semi-final in 10 months
Jasper Cillessen was fuming after being taking off in the World Cup quarter-final against Costa Rica, kicking water bottles in order to vent his frustration after being subbed for Tim Krul ahead of the penalty shoot-out. On the face of it it was an understandable reaction, but it seemed remarkable given the Ajax keeper was playing in the second tier of Dutch football only 10 months ago. It shows Cillessen has come a long way. After the game, he apologised for his outburst and his status as number one goalkeeper was only again re-affirmed by Louis van Gaal and the keeper that came on for him, Tim Krul. “Cillessen is the number one,” Krul told the media. While this all sounds logical to the ear of followers of the Dutch national team now, things weren’t always as sunny for the 25-year-old. But after guiding Ajax to a fourth consecutive title this year, keeping an incredible 14 clean sheets in 25 Eredivisie games, Cillessen seems as close as anyone to taking up the mantle Edwin van der Sar left eight years ago.
It has been a mercurial rise for the shot stopper, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Despite having been contracted to Ajax from 2011, he didn’t make his claim as the star keeper for the biggest club in the Netherlands until September 2013. The 6’2” Dutchman was forced to play second fiddle to Kenneth Vermeer for two seasons, waiting on him to make a mistake that would see the pair swap positions. Although Vermeer had a reputation as being error-prone, he had a long spell of consistency which ensured he remained the undisputed No.1. As Cillessen grew frustrated, though, the moment came. As Ajax faced up against fierce rivals PSV, a cross came in which seemed an easy one for the Netherlands international to deal with. However, he merely flapped at it, allowing it to fall in front of Tim Matavz who knocked it home comfortably. The floodgates opened and the Eindhoven side went on to win 4-0.
From then on, Cillessen was the main man.
He quickly showed coach Frank de Boer that placing his confidence in him was the correct thing to do. Cillessen finished the season as the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets and highest save percentage (84%) in the Eredivisie as Ajax went on to win a fourth consecutive league title. He was very much one of their star players.
He has the reflexes of a fox. In one-on-one situations, Cillessen stands tall and is able to get his arms and legs spread out to cut down any angle possible for the attacker to get the ball beyond him. His reaction times allows him to save multiple shots in a row from point-blank range.
The shot stopper has great command in the box, which shows signs of a player with great leadership ability. He rarely hesitates coming off of his line to punch a ball clear at set-pieces and has great leaping ability to clear any danger. Furthermore, he charges off his line to gather any ball misplaced by an opposition in true sweeper keeper fashion. Although he is not a true sweeper keeper, he does whatever is necessary to prevent the goal from going into the back of the net.
With such excellent displays, he had taken the chance that had come to him and cemented a place at the highest level in the Netherlands. However, while it was a great achievement, it came much later than expected. It may have been Cillessen’s first season in goal for the capital club, but he had already spent a full season playing in the Dutch top flight.
Cillessen, who started playing youth football for his hometown club in De Treffers, started his professional career in the youth set-up of NEC in 2001. After playing well in their academy for seven years, the Nijmegen club rewarded him with his first professional contract in 2008. He was then promoted to the reserves to take his game to the next level before being judged ready to make his senior debut against SC Heerenveen. In that 2-2 draw, an excellent performance saw the blonde youngster was named the Man of the Match.
At just 21-years-of-age, Cillessen showed promise to be a world class goalkeeper. Even when the regular keeper, Gabor Babos, returned from injury, Cillessen maintained his role as the starter with his fine performances match after match.
When Ajax bought him for €3 million, it seemed it wouldn’t be long before he would step in and continue his development. The 22-year-old, though, played just seven league games for Ajax in his first year, followed by five the next. As 2013-14 approached and it seemed there would be a repeat of a lack of first-team football, Cillessen gave Ajax an ultimatum, either he was given his chance or he would leave the next summer.
When Vermeer dropped that ball in the Philips Stadion, it gave coach Frank de Boer the excuse to let the talented player show what he was made of.
From then on, Cillessen caught the attention of Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal. The decline of Vermeer and Maarten Stekelenburg meant the goalkeeping spot at the national team was to be decided between Michel Vorm, Tim Krul and Jasper Cillessen. Despite having only played in one World Cup qualifier – the final one – Cillessen was made first choice goalkeeper for the Oranje.
Since then, Cillessen has appeared in 13 matches for the Dutch and was given the No.1 shirt prior to the start of the summer tournament in Brazil. In his first ever World Cup match, only a Xabi Alonso penalty got past him as Netherlands went on to hammer Spain 5-1.
Even though he was subbed off for Tim Krul right before the penalty shootout in the quarter-finals, Van Gaal has total faith in Cillessen and he will start on Wednesday against Argentina as Netherlands look to reach the final of the World Cup. After such a long journey, the 25-year-old is finally set to reach the top.
There is still room for improvement for Cillessen if he wants to be known as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but for now, he is just one of few goalkeepers left in the biggest tournament in football, which plenty of keepers can only dream.
Cillessen still has many more years left in the tank and will definitely be at the next couple of World Cups as the starting goalkeeper for the Dutch National team.
You can follow Kyle Sennikoff on Twitter @Kssennikoff