Love is ‘Blind’: Profiling Ajax & Netherlands stalwart Daley Blind
Priya Ramesh is an Indian-born Dutch football fan who grew up in Amsterdam and now lives in Singapore. She is a freelance football writer and has a fondness for people called ‘Frank’. You can follow her on Twitter @Priya8Ramesh.
While the Netherlands powered through to the World Cup final in South Africa four years ago, Daley Blind, a 20-year-old leftback, was completely lost about his future and unsure if it even lay in the famed white-red-white of Ajax. The son of club legend Danny Blind, the 2nd highest appearance maker behind only Mr Ajax, Sjaak Swart, and a Champions League-lifting captain, the pressure was on the youngster, but he had failed to live up to it.
Sent on loan to FC Groningen for the latter half of the 2009-10 season, Blind seemed to have very little confidence in himself and was unfortunately unimpressive to the extent that Ajax nearly offloaded him permanently. Despite the looming departure, Martin Jol had a change of mind and decided to keep Blind anyway, as a third choice behind Urby Emanuelson and Vurnon Anita. If that raised Blind’s hopes of emulating his father, they were immediately struck down by the taunting boos and jeers thrown at the curly-haired, baby-faced defender on his first match for Ajax back from the loan – from his own supporters.
Two years later, as the Netherlands stumbled completely capitulated and suffered a premature exit from Euro 2012, Blind was a 22-year-old left-back who had experienced a definite rise in confidence since Frank de Boer took over, but could not translate it into his performances, still getting outmuscled and jeered at by Ajax supporters.
Fast forward another two years to this World Cup in Brazil, Daley Blind is a 24-year-old defensive midfielder – being played at left-back – considering his future plans, having seen keen interest from a host of Europe’s top clubs and being named Man of the Match in the 5-1 demolition of Spain by Arsenal legend Thierry Henry.
That is a phenomenal feat considering that Ajax fans grunted and moaned at the sight of his name on the teamsheet just 2 years ago and in all truth, he justified their frustration at the time. Severely lacking confidence and often caught out at the back, the young Dutchman also suffered from the allegations of nepotism, since his father was assistant manager to Jol at the time, who people rumoured, convinced Jol to keep his son at Ajax.
The first match of the 2012-13 season, where Ajax were defending two consecutive Eredivisie wins and when Blind was substituted late in the game for recent signing Theo Janssen, a mocking applause resounded throughout the Amsterdam ArenA – the stench of sarcasm could not have been more palpable, even halfway across the world from there.
The prolonged unavailability of Boilesen meant Blind was first choice left-back – even though De Boer wanted to take him back to his original, natural position of defensive midfielder.
He faltered in his first few games, but from then on looked flawless in every match he started. He played the full 90 minutes in each of their Champions League encounters and made 34 appearances in the league. De Boer attributes this to his work ethic in training and bulking up. In an interview to Ajax TV, the boss said that Blind always had the technical skill and had started to develop self-confidence, but he wasn’t ready physically yet, being a skinny lad.
The 2012-13 season was his breakthrough season as a player. En route to helping Ajax lift a 3rd consecutive Eredivisie title, Blind’s impressive run at left-back was duly noticed by national team coach Louis van Gaal, who has since made the Amsterdammer a mainstay in his starting XI. Five years after being voted Ajax’s ‘Talent of the Future’, he started to ascend a steep curve in his development. He was then voted Ajax’s ‘Player of the Year’ by the very fans who had badmouthed him. A remarkable turnaround. And maybe more than the award, the vociferous chants of ‘Daley Blind is een echte Ajacied’ (‘Daley Blind is a real Ajax man’) resonating across the field in the Amsterdam ArenA by the very fans who sarcastically applauded him off less than 12 months ago, is testament to his rapid rise.
The next season, De Boer decided enough was enough, the time was more than right and that Blind would have to return to midfield permanently, especially with the lack of a real defensive midfielder following the departure of Vurnon Anita and Christian Poulsen’s deficiency of any semblance of mobility. The adamant De Boer went to the lengths of playing a right-back, a central attacking midfielder/winger and a 17-year-old schoolboy at left-back during Boilesen’s absence in order to keep Blind away from the position.
Having fully developed his technical skills in previous seasons and his strength at holding the ball, Blind took to the position like a child wrapped in his favourite blanket. He seemed ever so natural and instinctive in that ‘controller’ position and it is not a coincidence that before Boilesen was stretchered off and Blind had to give up his No. 6 position to move back, that Ajax were completely dominating Barcelona in terms of intent and possession-play. The 24-year-old celebrated many milestones this campaign, including joining the prestigious ‘Club van 100’ for Ajax, reaching a 100 appearances for the club, captaining Ajax for the first time in the absence of both Siem de Jong and Niklas Moisander as well as playing arguably the most integral role in helping Ajax land a record fourth consecutive Eredivisie title. It was no surprise then that he picked up the Dutch Player of the Year award.
Yes, the very man who was jeered off just two years ago and very nearly shipped away to Groningen four years ago was voted the best player in the entire league.
Blind’s strength lies in his mentality, on and off the field. Having been forced to endure such harsh criticism – some really unwarranted criticism – at such a young age has no doubt galvanized his mindset and it is something manager De Boer can relate to, apparently being called ‘van Gaal’s son’ at Barcelona initially. At 24, by no means old, Blind has also emerged as an outspoken, senior and leading figure at Ajax, helping the younger players get fitter and stronger by encouraging them and the squad as a whole – much like senior players did for him when he was that skinny young player who wanted to break into the squad. Jol may not have given Ajax a lot in that short explosive tenure, but blocking the sale of Daley Blind might have been his biggest gift.
On the pitch, despite being known to a majority of fans across the world as a left-back, because of recent performances at the World Cup, it is hard to see him moving to any club that would expect him to play in that position. While he is fit and has considerable stamina, he is not the fastest of players and this is a main factor in his position of choice. Furthermore, he is defensively weak, which is something Van Gaal’s 5-3-2 system covers for, but wouldn’t be the case at any other club.
The No. 6 position is the deepest of the midfield three in a 4-3-3 system – which is used by pretty much all clubs in the Netherlands and throughout every single level at Ajax’s De Toekomst youth system. The controlling midfielder, in Ajax philosophy (which is also the Barcelona philosophy now) is one that ideally possesses vision, mobility and acceleration as well as ball-playing skills.
When in attack, Ajax form a 2-3-2-3 on pitch, the wingbacks pushing high up and the No. 6 dropping to form the tip of a triangle with the two centrebacks. Ajax typically dominate possession in the Eredivisie and while teams start pressing them hard and back into playing amongst the defence and goalkeeper, they eventually burn out and let Ajax have the lion’s share of possession and look to hit them on the counter, since Ajax leave only three players behind in a normal attack – the defensive midfielder and the two centrebacks. And even then, Ajax play an extremely high line and first choice centre-halves Moisander and Joel Veltman both love venturing up as far as the opposition’s box with the ball. This puts immense pressure on Blind to curtail his own attacking instinct and stay as disciplined as possible to prevent any counter attack.
The position does not particularly require the player to be fast, just to be mobile and accelerate quickly, in order to cover ground as fast as possible and close down space for attackers and this movement is more often sideways than not, to cover the holes left behind the marauding fullbacks. This player has to be a leader, in directing the team in pressing the opponent when the ball has been lost. However, Blind’s passing range is easily the best in the Ajax squad (after Eriksen’s departure) and one of the best in the Dutch squad. He can spot the runs his attackers make and in addition to that vision, he possesses the execution of playing accurate aerial balls in behind defences.
His lack of pure speed at however, is something that might not be easy to cover up for if say, he moves to the Premier League and the overall style of teams is not as central as the Eredivisie. Consequently, it is understandable to fully understand why not only Blind but even De Boer and Van Gaal would like him to further his career in that pure No. 6 role – a dying breed in today’s football.
Hence, if you hear any ‘Man Utd prefer Blind ahead of Shaw’ or ‘Liverpool to choose between buying Blind and Moreno for left-back spot’, you can be assured it’s one of two possibilities. One is, the story is false. And the second being, the club has failed to scout him adequately and has misjudged his natural position.
So now the World Cup is happening in Brazil, Daley Blind is a 24-year-old – still baby-faced, still curly haired – defensive midfielder playing at left-back temporarily, confident about his present, living for the moment and aware, that regardless of whether he leaves Ajax or not (he recently said he’d be honoured to spend his entire career at Ajax), he can 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.
Because love is ‘Blind’ after all.