There has been a trend in recent years of Ajax players achieving outstanding greatness before moving on to pastures new. We’ve seen the likes of Matthijs de Ligt make the switch to Italian giants, Juventus, to play alongside such names as Cristiano Ronaldo in the Serie A and Champions League. Luis Suarez, now recognised as one of the most prolific goal-scorers in the world, made a name for himself in the famous Amsterdam red & white. The impressive infrastructure in the club has enabled the continuous production and development of football superstars, meaning they are always prepared for a scenario that involves one of their key players leaving the club.
In the season of 2017/18, a young Dutchman by the name of Frenkie de Jong had an impressive campaign, attracting interest very quickly. Opting to stay loyal to his side for the 2018/19 season, de Jong performed at a consistently high level, helping Ajax reach the Champions League semi-final, before securing a move to Barcelona at the end of the season, leaving the opportunity for a new youngster to take the world by storm at Ajax. While his playing opportunities have been limited in the 2019/20 season, mainly due to the current ongoing global pandemic, young midfielder Ryan Gravenberch has created some buzz in the Eredivisie with his promising performances. At the age of just 18 years, Gravenberch has displayed some great potential – this scout report looks to provide a tactical analysis of the youngster’s performances and tactics in 2019/20, while also producing an analysis to compare Gravenberch this season to Frenkie de Jong in 2017/18 – his breakthrough season.
Gravenberch’s 2019/20 Campaign:
In this next section of the scout report, we will provide an analysis of Gravenberch’s talents for Ajax from the 19/20 Eredivisie season.
Position & Role
In his brief time in the Ajax first team, Gravenberch has operated mainly as a defensive midfielder – stopping opposition attacks and turning them into Ajax possession or counter attacks. This makes him essential in the instance of a transition in which Ajax look to go quickly from defence to attack. His positional map can be seen below.
As we can see, despite his primary role being that of a defensive midfielder, he also covers ground in more advanced positions, aiding Ajax in attacks. He is able to complete both tasks thanks to his versatile skill set – quick and tough in defensive situations while composed and efficient on the ball.
Progressing the attack
Although Ajax like to dominate games by maintaining possession in the opposition’s half, they also thrive in situations where they can execute a counter-attack of sorts during a transition, which is where Gravenberch has a lot to offer.
His composure in such situations can be seen in the analysis above. After receiving the ball, two Heracles Almelo players are quick to apply a press from either side, limiting both Gravenberch’s time and options. However, the youngster’s quick thinking allows him to receive the ball on the half-turn, knowing a teammate would be in position to receive the next pass. His immaculate first touch sets the ball nicely, allowing a pass into Donny van de Beek – the start of a dangerous Ajax attack. This part of Gravenberch’s game plays a vital role in the Ajax system, and could do for years to come – Ajax like to utilise the central defensive midfielder as a link between defence and midfield to move the ball more efficiently, lowering the risk of losing the ball. The skillset of the Dutchman comes in very handy for times like this – composure, awareness, vision, ball control, and passing skills are all on display in such a small action.
While he likes to offer strong defensive support in that anchor role, he also has a clear talent for moving the ball upfield himself. Standing at 6’ ft 1”, his physicality is impressive when dribbling, but his pace on the ball is surprisingly high as well. In the previous analysis we saw him use close ball control in a certain situation, but he is adaptable to use different types of control to suit the situation.
In this image, we see an example of Gravenberch’s raw ability when it comes to dribbling. Receiving the ball facing his own goal with two opposition players applying a low press to him, he rotates and drives forward towards the opposition goal, causing the same two opponents to apply more pressure. However, such an action wasn’t enough to dispossess Gravenberch, who proceeds to drive with the ball at remarkable pace with long strides, into the red marked zone. It was at that moment that his intelligence as a footballer was on display once more – instead of aimlessly running with the ball and hoping for the best, he had in fact positioned himself perfectly to play a pass into van de Beek, who then found Ryan Babel, who very nearly found the back of the net. This is another example of Gravenberch setting up a dangerous Ajax attack using his own exciting skill set.
Above, we have another example of Ryan Gravenberch’s dribbling capabilities. Surrounded by numerous opponents attempting to box him in, he manages to evade the first opponents to apply any real pressure before darting inside, to skip past a second opponent, deploying his close control attributes wisely. Following this impressive phase of play, he’d be forgiven for continuing to drive with the ball and shoot in an attempt to claim a wonderful solo goal. However, this is not the case for Gravenberch – after beating the two opponents, he spots the clever run of van de Beek, and plays a smart pass into his teammate’s path; another example of Gravenberch being the catalyst of an Ajax attack. In this move alone, he demonstrates his speed and agility while dribbling, while showing his strength to hold off challenges from opponents.
Although he has displayed signs of a player who could create a lot of attacking situations for Ajax in the near future, his defensive responsibilities cannot be overlooked. To date, he has shown a much-needed desire and ferocity to either win the ball back or breakdown an opposition attack.
Here is an example of his intelligence in defending. Having already forced the opponent in possession back toward his own goal, Gravenberch sets his sights on winning the ball back for Ajax. While he doesn’t achieve that directly in this phase of play, his actions lead to poor decision making from the opposition under his pressure, leading to a transition in favour of Ajax. His immediate and intense pressure gives the opponent next to no time to settle the ball, and as a result gives the ball away after attempting a pass. Ajax then looked to break on the attack, thanks again to the efforts of Ryan Gravenberch, who realised he didn’t have to fly in to a tackle to win the ball himself but use positioning and pressure to force a human error from the opponent.
Now, we take a look at a different section of Gravenberch’s defensive game. In a match against PSV, Ajax get caught in transition, allowing PSV to attempt a breakaway attack with several Ajax players out of position. Gravenberch utilises his speed to gallop back to provide defensive support in the midfield unit, before getting into a position that allows him to perform a tackle to stop the PSV player progressing and regain possession. His role in this Ajax team requires both attacking and defensive contribution – a task that seems to sit well with Gravenberch so far in his young career. His work ethic, bravery, and decision making combine well with physical aspects like speed and strength, as well as technical elements like tackling to showcase Gravenberch as an effective defensive midfielder.
Frenkie de Jong 17/18 vs Gravenberch 19/20 – a statistical perspective:
To gain further insight into the potential of Ryan Gravenberch, we will look at a data analysis of a select few key attributes. We will compare the stats from Gravenberch during the 2019/20 season against the stats of de Jong from 2017/18. To remain balanced and fair, percentages and averaged statistics have been used instead of total values – de Jong played considerably more games in the Eredivisie in 17/18 than Gravenberch has in 19/20.
In his earlier days in the Eredivisie, Frenkie de Jong operated as a central defender, as well as a central midfielder and defensive midfielder. While his individual playing style differs in several departments to that of Ryan Gravenberch, their defensive responsibilities and expectations remain equal – their job in that role was to provide defensive support, arguably a large task for a young player to undertake.
The graph above, there is a demonstration of the defensive talents that both players possess. While de Jong boasts the more impressive win rate for defensive duels with 70.1% compared to Gravenberch’s 68.18%, Gravenberch has a considerably higher rate of interceptions per 90. While the latter stat could be a reflection of de Jong having more of an influence going forward than Gravenberch has so far had, both possess impressive numbers considering their ages for the respective seasons. Frenkie de Jong usually appears calm and collected in defensive situations, so if Gravenberch is producing similar numbers in these key areas, he may have the potential to become a world-class anchor man if defensive midfield. becomes his trademark position. He also has a rate of 10.53 successful defensive actions per 90, alongside just 1.93 fouls per 90. These two additional pieces of data show that he involves himself frequently to help out at the back but doesn’t do it recklessly.
Despite only having played a handful of games for Ajax in the 19/20 season, Gravenberch has still demonstrated that he is more than capable and confident in his passing ability. His vision and decision making will come in key in future years once he has improved his craft of passing technique.
First of all, it is immediately clear that Frenkie de Jong belongs in the “world class” category when it comes to passing. He betters Gravenberch in two key areas – total pass accuracy and long pass accuracy, however, this does not diminish Gravenberch’s talent. While a rate of just 33.33% for long pass accuracy is quite low, it is worth noting that he has attempted considerably fewer long passes compared to van de Beek, but it is still a technique that needs improving. Furthermore, his total pass accuracy sits at 88.92% – an impressive stat for a young midfielder and a stat that will only be improved upon alongside his development throughout his career.
While Ryan Gravenberch arguably isn’t at the level now that Frenkie de Jong was at during the 17/18 campaign, he certainly has showed that he has an incredible amount of potential, and already is talented enough to fight for a regular starting place for Ajax. His game intelligence and understanding is clear in his performances, and he knows his strengths and when to utilise them. At just 18, he has created a substantial buzz around him – it is essential that he keeps his head in the game and his feet on the ground to let him continue his development to become a top midfielder.