For many decades now, Ajax’s famed academy has been known to produce talents after talents of impressive quality. The likes of Cryuff, Rijkaard, de Boer, Seedorf, Kluivert, Bergkamp, and Van Basten are some of the high-profile names who once rose through the ranks of Ajax’s youth setup then plied their trade in the Ajax first team before they became world-renowned players. Even in recent years, the Dutch giants have continued their tradition of investing heavily in the academy and developing players of remarkable ability. The talents such as Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek in recent years have proven that Ajax’s youth setup is still one of the best in Europe.
Despite producing remarkably talented players, Ajax, in recent years, have found it hard to keep hold of these players when the giant teams from Europe’s top leagues come knocking at their door. Even from the players’ perspective, the need to prove themselves in Europe’s top leagues is a proposition that is hard to overlook. Among Ajax’s current crop of academy graduates, who have been handed a prominent role in Ten Hag’s starting eleven, is Ryan Gravenberch.
Although he is still 19 years old, the young midfield sensation has risen through the academy and been integrated into Ten Hag’s midfield seamlessly. Gravenberch joined Ajax’s youth setup at the age of eight, and within the space of the next eight years, he was handed his debut for Ajax’s first team at the age of 16, a debut which effectively made him Ajax’s youngest ever debutant. Standing at 6’2”, Gravenberch is an agile player with impressive defensive abilities, ball control, and technical skills. Despite his age, the young midfielder displays elegance with the ball at his feet and is capable of driving through the midfield if required. In the past couple of seasons, Gravenberch has displayed his dominance in Ajax’s midfield and cemented his position on the left side of Ten Hag’s two-man pivot.
This season, he has already made 11 appearances in the Eredivisie out of a possible 12 and has been involved in all of Ajax’s group stage fixtures as Ajax cruised into the Champions League knockout round.
Inevitably, Gravenberch has started to gather attention from Europe’s biggest leagues, and it has been reported that Ajax are trying desperately to tie him to a new contract. Let’s dive into his stats to understand just how crucial he has been in Ten Hag’s double pivot.
Gravenberch is a brilliant progressor of the ball and his nimble feet allow him to get the ball out of the troublesome areas. He also possesses impressive awareness and vision and tries to break the opposition lines with his passes. This season, he has averaged more than five passes into the final third, while he also averages more than one progressive run. He has ranked highly this season in the Champions League in terms of passing and progression metrics, with the majority of the stats surpassing the league median value.
In Ten Hag’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Gravenberch is the one who fulfills the duties of a defensive midfielder. He performs the role of an anchor in the midfield, often staying behind and providing cover for the defense, allowing other midfielders to join in the attack. This season in the Champions League, he has excelled in loose ball duels and recoveries in the opponent’s half. He has averaged more than three recoveries in the opponent’s half. Most of his defensive stats surpass the league median value.
Although his role is that of a deep-lying midfielder, Gravenberch has often operated in the opponent’s half, as indicated by the heat map. This can partly be explained by the fact that Ajax have been flying through their group stage matches and have rarely been troubled defensively. His heat map also displays his span of movement on the pitch.
Gravenberch’s ability to carry the ball and his nimble footwork allow him to dribble the ball out of trouble both in the opponent’s half and his own half. In terms of successful dribbles, he is ranked at a respectable 12th spot in the Champions League so far this season.
Gravenberch has quickly evolved into an indispensable piece in Ten Hag’s double pivot midfield. At the age of 19, he already possesses a deep understanding of the game in addition to his defensive and technical abilities. While there is still room for him to grow in terms of his defensive output, he has nevertheless ingrained himself as a prominent part of Ajax’s starting eleven. His performances have been worthy of the attention that he has gathered. Ajax fans would be hoping that the midfielder ties his future down with the club.