Ajax Amsterdam is one of the world’s most prominent and respected clubs regarding youth development and academies. In the last few decades, we saw plenty of their students emerge as world-class players, wining everything with their clubs and their national teams, many of them earning a legendary status by the end of their careers. There is no change in the Ajax philosophy ever since: they invest tremendously in the youth, making sure that the players receive the best physical and mental development, and what is even more important, that they are granted the earliest possible trust on the highest level. A research published in April 2020 by Swiss sports organisation CIES (International Centre for Sports Studies) recognised the club as the ‘Main stepping-stone club to the big-5’ which means that with 22 players at the time of speaking the Dutch giant has supplied the most players to the top five leagues from their academy.
In this scout report, we will analyse the latest sensation in the making: Ryan Gravenberch. At only 17 years of age, the Dutch midfielder already has 14 appearances in the first team of Ajax, nine of which coming from the 2019/2020 season of Eredivisie, the top-flight of the Netherlands. Even though these nine games included only a total of 513 minutes on the pitch for the youngster, in this short period of time there are two goals and some outstanding figures by his name already, proving why he is so highly rated and has been approached by European giants like AS Roma, Juventus or FC Barcelona. No question that he has already outgrown Eerste Divisie, the second tier of Dutch football, and in this tactical analysis we will analyse his performance in more depth and details, by comparing his statistics to the average figures of those midfielders in the Eredivisie who has at least the same playing minutes as the youngster.
With 186 cm and 77 kg, Gravenberch has a close to perfect stature of body for the role that Erik Ten Hag seems to assign to him. He is mainly used as a pivotal defensive midfielder in Ajax’s usual 4-3-3 tactics or as a left-defensive midfielder if the team is set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. By this, he mostly serves as the deepest lying member of the central trio which allows his two other teammates to join the attacks more often and play in a free roam role while Gravenberch rather sticks to his position and aims to provide stability to the team. As illustrated in the below chart, his defensive statistics are above the league average in general.
One of the most important elements of a holding midfielder is their involvement and success rate in defending duels. In this area, Gravenberch has a great advantage coming from his physical attributes: his height, strength, and long legs all help him a lot in succeeding. By numbers, he is around average in the league with 7.72 defending duels per game – a decent figure with such a short experience. Moreover, with an outstanding success rate of 68.18%, Gravenberch surpasses the average by 15.45% and is the fifth-best midfielder in the Eredivisie from this perspective – we can see his great position among the midfielders in the next diagram. Another key factor is that he manages to end these duels mostly with gaining back ball possession for his team instead of a dead ball situation – with his massive presence in the heart of the pitch he helps his team tremendously in controlling the game and turning from defending into attacking with ease.
However, he still has room for improvement in offensive and aerial duels: his 46.15% and 33.33% figures per 90 minutes are quite far from best, as visible in the next chart. While the offensive duels are not key for the role he fulfils, in the air the youngster must be more aggressive and prolific, confirmed by the fact that he is 30.70% below the Eredivisie midfielders’ average.
The ability to read the game quickly and effectively is also a fundamental element of the Ajax style of play. Gravenberch has a great vision on the pitch which he uses both for offensive and defensive tasks. In defending, he needs to be able to understand the game in full, predict what will happen one or two touches later, and tailor his movements and actions proactively, so that he can overcome his opponents and stop their attacks even before starting. Gravenberch is very good at cutting the passing lanes, covering the zones, and intervening in the offensive actions. His 7.43 interceptions per 90 minutes in the current Eredivisie season is 42.56% better than the average of the league.
Apart from his physical appearance, Gravenberch’s greatest attribute/skill comes to the surface when his team turns from defending to attacking: in these situations, he uses his acceleration to bring the ball out of defence by performing long progressive runs into the middle and final third of the pitch. He plays with a great rhythm and is almost unstoppable when at full speed. As an example, let’s take a situation illustrated below: the youngster intercepts a pass inside his penalty area and initiates a progressive run across the middle third. With his agile movements and strength, he successfully gets past two opponents and in only a few seconds time, he is already at the half-way line from where he can supply his teammate without any challenge.
This explosive style is clearly visible in his statistics too: he has an average of 3.16 progressive runs per 90 minutes which is three times better than the average of all Eredivisie midfielders and on top of all, it is the best figure in the whole league.
He is also a key element of the transitions when he is not the one carrying the ball. In these cases, he constantly looks for empty zones and passing lanes, and with his movements he always aims to provide a passing option for the teammates, just like in the below snapshot from the game against ADO Den Haag in December: as the away team is pressing high up the pitch with six players, the Ajax defender is forced to get rid of the ball, therefore Gravenberch steps between two attackers and creates a free passing lane.
In the Ajax academy, Gravenberch has grown up surrounded by a philosophy in which possessing the ball and controlling the game is placed above everything else. He is deeply accustomed to this style of play and seems to fit into the system perfectly. No need for a better indicator than his 88,92% passing accuracy in the current season which is a figure of the elite. It is true, on the other hand, that the majority of his passes are rather safe ones, not taking much risk, with an average pass length of 15,62 meters which is 17,04% below the Eredivisie midfielders. Some would call these actions dull or even alibi ones, but the youngster’s pass range statistics suggest otherwise: 40% of his total is in a forward direction which underlines his contribution to the build-ups of Ajax. In the other chart, it is also transparent that his numbers of passes per 90 minutes are above the league average from almost all perspectives.
Obviously, young age and the lack of experience will always have their imprints on the player’s performance. The most common critics that Gravenberch receives is that he often looks sloppy and lazy on the pitch: he tends to wait too much on the ball and therefore loses the opportunity to make the best possible decision in many situations. In the 2019/2020 season, he has 7 ball losses per 90 minutes, an alarming figure from a holding midfielder. Just during the encounter between Ajax and Heracles in February, Gravenberch registered a total of 20 individual ball losses – no wonder that his team lost the game eventually. After the final whistle of the clash with old rival PSV Eindhoven – in which he was not able to avoid the mistakes once again –, the youngster was very self-critical and brave enough to admit in public that these types of errors are not acceptable on such a high level of football. The fact that he was aware of his underperformance and did not try to blame it away shows great signs of a personality that is inevitable for a player’s development.
From his deep-lying position, the main task of Gravenberch is to get the ball into the final third of the pitch as quickly as possible – and he has all the talent to live up to the responsibility. When fully concentrated, he constantly aims to find his teammates near to the penalty area which is visible from his 11,75 passes into the final third per 90 minutes which is a figure far above average. But an even more impressive data, demonstrated in the next chart, is that Gravenberch sends the most passes into the penalty area among all the Eredivisie midfielders: his 4.39 per 90 minutes is an outstanding figure from a rather defensive, pivotal role.
Although the player spends most of his time in the midfield, far from the goal, he does not shy away from stepping up with the attacks and take part in the combination plays. Being excellent with his feet, he can easily be involved in one-touch plays and can support his teammates in the short build-ups. Also, in many cases, he creates space for the rest of the attackers with quick runs into the half-spaces, stepping in between the defenders and creating an option to receive the ball. A perfect example is his first goal in the Eredivisie from December, against ADO Den Haag: as Dusan Tadic brings up the ball from the usual position of Gravenberch, the Dutch moves forward into the left half-space and is found easily by his teammate. After a few quick and controlled touches on the ball, he places it perfectly by the post from the edge of the penalty area.
The constant comparison to Paul Pogba is not a coincidence: Gravenberch plays in an elegant and solid defensive style paired with great technical skills and dribbling. His 3,68 dribbles per 90 minutes is almost the double of the average in the 2019/20 Eredivisie season among midfielders – so he tries and mostly succeeds: 66,67% of his tricks pay off. In the below chart, we will see how effective he is compared to his fellow midfielders, and not only in dribbling but in other areas as well: even though shooting and crossing are not incremental elements of Gravenberch’s role, when he gets there, he is outstandingly precise and effective.
Like any player in his age, Gravenberch is ahead of a lot of things to learn and develop. There is nothing to doubt about his talent and capabilities but these traits alone will not be enough to fulfil his potential: a lot will depend on his personality which is already the topic of discussions in the media and between fans. He has strong self-confidence which is translated as arrogance by many, but this is an attribute that can differentiate a player from the average if it can be paired with humbleness and respect towards the game. Ajax pays immense attention to the mental development of their players which determines that Ryan Gravenberch is just in the right hands.
Should he continue next season in the same style as he did so far, Gravenberch can count with significantly more playing time than what he was trusted with in the 2019/20 campaign. He has great chances of earning his place in the starting eleven very soon, probably in a more offensive position with a possible transfer of Donny Van de Beek who is currently the heart of the midfield and fulfils the box-to-box role that seems to be the most beneficial for Gravenberch too, given his technical abilities, rhythm, vision and explosive runs. Until that, he has nothing else to do than remain patient and value the trust he is granted at such a young age, by such a prestigious club.