They say you should never go back but in the case of Davy Klaassen, his Ajax return was a decision that has ultimately resurrected a once fledgling career.
A product of Ajax’s esteemed and world-renowned youth academy, the Hilversum-born midfielder returned to his first love following a rehabilitating spell at Werder Bremen last summer. As it turns out Die Grün-Weißen could have done with the Dutchman, as second-tier German league football now awaits them.
Their loss has certainly been the Amsterdammers’ gain. Klaassen was brought in to fill a similar role to Daley Blind and Dušan Tadić before him: experienced heads, who are greatly familiar with the Eredivisie and top level UEFA club competition whilst having so much left to give, helping those at the beginning of their journey as they chase their goal of becoming a top 20 side in Europe.
Expectations were understandably low. It’s been a while since Klaassen was heralded, and the man he essentially replaced (Donny van de Beek) just completed a mega switch to Manchester United after becoming the one for the big occasions during two eye-catching seasons. Klaassen even inherited Van de Beek’s No.6 jersey and, despite the wealth of experience he possessed, they were big shoes to fill especially when Van de Beek had somewhat updated that Ajax attacking midfielder role.
It wasn’t going to be an easy task but, against everyone’s better judgment, the wily 28-year-old proved his doubters wrong and then some. A few of those dissenting voices belonged to his club’s own supporters. Klaassen’s signing, for a reported €11m, was seen as a backward step and the funds could have been invested elsewhere. His time away from home didn’t help; some felt he faded into obscurity following a high-profile £23m move to Everton which in truth was doomed from the start, others brushed off his resurgence at Bremen as nothing outwardly special.
What made this comeback story even more special was the different layers. Klaassen initially helped Ajax as a ‘No.6’ before manager Erik ten Hag decided to deploy him just behind their centre-forward where he came alive as a game-winner. By working in the final third he became a serious goal threat and, as time went on, Klaassen became Ajax’s go-to man when the going got tough. For those who have followed Klaassen’s career, this was an evolution though it had always felt inevitable.
Bergkamp or Litmanen?
Klaassen garnered headlines during his formative years when Johan Cruyff took a shine to him. As far as the legendary No.14 was concerned no player representing Ajax in the early 2010s symbolised his approach more when it came to intelligent play. Klaassen’s most standout performance in red-and-white came against Cruyff’s other love Barcelona in November 2013.
“He played with tremendous intellect,” Cruyff enthused. Comparisons with Dennis Bergkamp, then Klaassen’s coach, from a technical and tactical perspective were made. Others, including Het Parool columnist Henk Spaan, instead saw similarities with Jari Litmanen, another great deep-lying forward. During the 1990s, the celebrated Finn became a perfect reference when playing and transitioning between the midfield and forward lines.
Both were simply No.10s par excellence – a position Ajax, until recently, seldom used. In this current incarnation under Ten Hag’s leadership, Klaassen acts as a deep-lying forward inside a fluid midfield triumvirate with Ryan Gravenberch and Edson Álvarez, the latter operating as the classic ‘No.6 and 8’ tandem. Gravenberch, who sees himself more of a ‘No.8′, wins possession and effectively distributes. Álvarez likewise, either through impeccable tackling or good positional sense.
Having a strong passing technique and being comfortable with both feet has played a huge role in Klaassen re-settling into the Amsterdammers’ midfield carousel. His confidence grew with every passing game and, by combining individual skill with stamina, he became a great asset to Ajax’s pressing game which adheres to the Cruyffian ideal of forwards being the first defenders. Nevertheless, it’s his eye for goal that has got everyone talking.
Prior to joining Everton, Klaassen had scored 55 times across 181 first-team appearances for Ajax, playing an instrumental role in them reaching their second Uefa Cup/Europa League final. An impressive return for a ‘No.10’ predominantly tasked with defensive responsibilities. Those attacking instincts were largely dormant before this season; he rarely played for the Toffees having made 16 total appearances, whilst at Bremen there were glimpses (16 goals in 81 outings) though it was clear their set-up was more towards a reactive strategy.
His new/old team is the opposite of being conservative. Playing on the front foot and dominating possession is why Ajax finished last season’s Eredivisie with 102 goals. A small percentage (11.8) was Klaassen’s input, with the Dutchman scoring 12 league goals and adding a further four across various other competitions. Putting the ball away is one thing but it’s Klaassen’s timing which has stood out, just as his predecessor Van de Beek was more often than not in the right place at the right time. Klaassen took it to another level.
If we break down those strikes even further, we find that nine broke the deadlock (in other words putting Ajax a goal up), leading Klaassen to be called ‘Mister 1-0’. This could have easily been earned during his first spell too, when he scored the first goal of a match on no fewer than 17 occasions, albeit spanning across six seasons and 31% of Klaassen’s original goal output compared to 56.3% so far the second time around.
Klaassen’s first two such moments last season came on the road at Utrecht and Emmen, with those games ending 3-0 and 5-0 respectively, Willem II were next to experience Klaassen’s newfound panache to open the scoring, and Gery Vink’s side would end up falling to a 3-1 defeat. At that point, this was an Eredivisie exclusive habit: Klaassen would next pop at Heracles Almelo as Ten Hag’s defending champions eventually registered a hard-fought 2-0 success.
It wouldn’t be long, however, before ‘Mister 1-0’ took his show to Europe as Klaassen opened the scoring in the Europa League round-of-32 second leg tie against Lille, easing any tensions in an eventual 2-1 victory. He repeated the trick at the Johan Cruyff Arena in the following round against Swiss club Young Boys, setting Ajax on the way to a 3-0 victory, but their luck ran out against Roma as Ajax could not capitalise on another Klaassen go-ahead goal. His last contribution of the season proved seismic, though. A keenly fought league match against title rivals AZ on matchday 30 was heading towards a stalemate before You Know Who (Klaassen, not Voldemort) popped up in the 66th minute.
Klaassen grabbed another with seconds remaining, thus crowning de Godenzonen unofficial champions as they hadn’t quite crossed the mathematical threshold. Watching intently, as he’s done all season, was Dutch national team boss Frank de Boer, the man who handed Klaassen his professional debut. The Netherlands’ friendly against Spain in November 2020 ended a three-year international exile and recently he’s been a presence in the Dutch midfield with Van de Beek — the man he replaced at Ajax, who Twente boss Ron Jans once described as a “slightly more refined” player than Klaassen — seemingly on the outside looking in.
When your idol becomes your competition
Football is a funny old sport. We also know a year is a long time in the beautiful game. Before completing a reported £35m switch to Man Utd many had Van de Beek, who likely studied and looked up to Klaassen whilst coming up the ranks at Ajax, pencilled in as Marten de Roon’s biggest competition to line up alongside Frenkie de Jong and Georginio Wijnaldum in Oranje‘s midfield. A subsequent lack of playing time at Old Trafford, coupled with Klaassen’s rebirth, has seen him return from the cold and leapfrog ‘Maradonny’ who still remains in De Boer’s thoughts but cannot rationalise giving him a starting berth.
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As touched upon, Klaassen has started the Netherlands’ two most recent internationals (creating two goals in the process), before that he’d come off the bench to net against Turkey in a losing effort. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and right now he’s forging an impressive trifecta with De Jong and Wijnaldum which evokes a similar equilibrium he’s presently experiencing at club level. Yet to feature in an international tournament setting, Klaassen should break that duck at the forthcoming European Championship – a reward for betting on himself and turning his career around. Given his knack of settling nerves, particularly in matches with big stakes, he could be of great use as the Dutch chase a first title since 1988.