Defending, according to former Dutch midfielder-turned-analyst Jan van Halst, is “almost a dirty word” in the Netherlands.
This should come as no surprise when the overarching coaching philosophy in the kingdom is predominantly attack-oriented; central defenders are expected to combine their bread and butter — stopping goals from being scored — with playmaking, while full-backs must serve as auxiliary wingers.
In the Eredivisie today no one illustrates the latter more perfectly than Dutch-born Moroccan right-back Noussair Mazraoui who is levelling up in front of our very eyes and, by doing so, has reportedly attracted customary glances from the usual suspects including Barcelona and Juventus.
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Rise, fall and rise again
A graduate of Ajax’s world-renowned academy, by nurture Mazraoui is well-versed in multiple positions. Curiously, like Trent Alexander-Arnold (who, alongside Achraf Hakimi, is the current benchmark when it comes to his designated role) the native of Leiderdorp was raised as a midfielder and in fact made his first-team debut there, albeit a one-minute cameo against NAC Breda at home in February 2018, and next five Eredivisie appearances before Erik ten Hag had other ideas. Taking a page from Pep Guardiola’s playbook, whom Ten Hag shadowed as Bayern Munich’s reserve team coach, Mazraoui started at right-back in a 3-0 win over AZ in April 2018 and he’s never looked back since.
Throughout the follow season, Mazraoui was De Godenzonen‘s first choice right-back in Ten Hag’s fluid 4-2-3-1 shape, with his breakthrough moment coming at Bayern in the Champions League group stage. It was a game that showcased the potential specialness of this particular Ajax side; trailing Germany’s finest, Mazraoui displayed his keen eye for goal by equalising, striking a sweet left-footed shot from distance.
The effort complemented Mazraoui’s full-back play which channeled his predecessors including Ten Hag’s right-hand man Michael Reiziger. He finished 2018/19 having registered four goals and recording four assists in 48 matches across all competitions, winning the Marco van Basten Award presented to Ajax’s ‘Talent of the Year’.
However, niggling injuries that led to a substantial dip in form, plus the emergence of Sergiño Dest, put Mazraoui on the back foot, with some observers questioning his future in the Dutch capital. But Mazraoui’s former understudy and rival for that right-back berth jumped ship instead.
Dest followed Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona, allowing Mazraoui some breathing room to regain the previous form that lit up Ajax’s first double-winning campaign under Ten Hag’s leadership. The productivity in the preceding two years wasn’t there, however, as Mazraoui recorded just one assist and no goals across 32 league matches between August 2019 and May 2021. With that being said, Mazraoui remained a tireless worker and someone his manager and teammates could rely upon – but a switch was certainly flipped in the summer.
“I’m comfortable in my own skin,” he told Voetbal International last month.
“This is also due to my summer vacation being more than three weeks. It’s been six years since I’ve experienced something like that. I started the season fresh and could therefore keep up with everything.”
To say Mazraoui is flying at the moment would be a gross understatement. The 23-year-old made 11 appearances across all competitions before the October international break, netting four goals and creating three (one of those assists being in the sensational 5-1 win at Champions League group rivals Sporting on the opening week). To put that into some perspective, he managed only five goals in 102 matches before this campaign. In any given Eredivisie outing, Mazraoui is seemingly enjoying more time in the opposition final third.
No moment expressed this more explicitly than when he recently ghosted past Groningen’s backline to convert Ajax’s third in their 3-0 rout. It further highlighted transitioning from defence to attack as Mazraoui’s most distinguished strength. It’s also worth noting that in Ten Hag’s system he fulfils another important task. By regularly moving into midfield, Mazraoui gives Ajax a numerical advantage in the middle third, which allows the formation of (passing) triangles, with the fundamental aim to create scoring opportunities. Of late it’s been too easy. Prior to a shock 1-0 home loss against Ten Hag’s former club FC Utrecht, the Amsterdammers were ruthless, relentless and remorseless.
Oh Nous… pic.twitter.com/Xun833TBYQ
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) September 25, 2021
One single blip doesn’t change the fact Ajax currently average 3.7 goals per game. Of their 10 competitive matches this season (not including the Super Cup) they’ve scored three or more goals on five different occasions, including an eye-watering 9-0 shellacking of Cambuur on Eredivisie matchday five. Mazraoui’s influence is telling.
So far the defender has completed 134 passes in the final third, bettered only by Feyenoord’s Orkun Kökçü (144) and teammates Ryan Gravenberch (169) and Daley Blind (208) across the Eredivisie. Last season, Mazraoui managed 18.83 per 90 and he’s roughly already matching that return (18.47). Even more eye-catching is the fact all four of his league goals have come from open play with one being a header. In terms of expectations, Mazraoui sits in the top five among defenders when discussing open-play xG goals (2.62) and xA (2.47 – two assists).
This is a far cry from last season, when his numbers read 0.53 xG (0 goals) and 2.79 xA (one assist) respectively. Mazraoui is also in the top 10 among defenders when it comes to Big Chances created (three), assists during open play (two) and touches (619). This is a distinct improvement from last season when he created two Big Chances created and recorded one assist during open play. Regarding touches, Mazraoui averaged 83.55 touches per 90 last term and 85.31 so far this season, being proficient in mastering continuous ball circulation also eases the burden applied on Ajax’s front six.
What the future holds
“Players should not just run with their legs, but with their head as well,” as Guus Hiddink once put forward. Ajax’s pride in educating their footballers to be calm in a multitude of roles and scenarios – during each match they are left to their own problem solving devices – has shaped Mazraoui, who continues to shine with each passing matchday when either marauding forward or defending one-on-one. He’s already made 20 tackles this season, just 14 fewer than in 2020/21.
With maturation comes greater responsibilities and being one of Ten Hag’s field generals Mazraoui is thriving in a position of authority as well as multiple roles as touched upon. Universality is a fundamental principle of Ajax’s teaching. Players need to be comfortable in several positions.
One facet integral to Ajax’s positional interchange game is that once an area is vacated, a teammate drops in maintaining the chosen possessional shape; traditionally either 3-1-4-2 or 2-1-4-3, though it’s more akin to a 3-3-4 this season with Mazraoui’s average position being just inside the opposition’s half.
So far at Ajax Mazraoui has featured in no fewer than eight positions, ranging from his familiar right-back berth (127 games) — where he’s forged a telepathic understanding with David Neres and now the club’s other Brazilian winger Antony — to nine outings on the left wing as a forward. As for his original position, he’s sat 44 times in the traditional No.8 role and 13 more times as a No.6 anchoring the midfield.
When deployed here Mazraoui naturally adjusts his game, displaying acute vision and speed of thought to pick out the right pass. As strong runner, Mazrouai has another trait that seamlessly combines individual skill and playmaking with stamina. This versatility already makes Mazraoui a hot commodity in the modern game. Returning to the midfield on a permanent basis seems remote but never say never, especially with his reading of the game improving substantially (he registered 29 interceptions last season, and it’s 11 with 26 matches remaining this campaign).
Consistently making awe-inspiring headlines, which only happens when you’ve reached the next level, naturally leads to attention – unwanted in the case of Ten Hag and co. Nous’ situation is no different with rumoured interest from Italy and Spain regarding his signature.
Mazraoui’s current contract expires in June 2022 and supporters are unsurprisingly anxious of a departure; those worries have only risen tenfold after the 12-time Moroccan international appointed super-agent Mino Raiola to be his representative. By all reported accounts the 23-year-old is content with his boyhood club but seeks reciprocated feelings.
“Mazraoui will not leave in January,” sporting director Marc Overmars recently proclaimed.
“We want him to stay and we aim to renew his contract.”
It remains to be seen whether he joins back-four buddies Daley Blind (2023) and Lisandro Martínez (2025) by signing new deals or flies the nest and tests himself in one of Europe’s more demanding leagues.