This Sunday, Ryan Gravenberch could make his Netherlands debut. It has been a big year for the 18-year-old, who has continued to go from strength to strength in the Ajax midfield.

  • By Michael Bell
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“I thought someone was playing a joke on me,” Gravenberch told Fox Sports after he was called up to the Dutch national team. The youngster let Frank de Boer’s call go to voicemail, “He called me and I thought: hey, who is this number? Then he sent me a text that he called me. I didn’t know! I don’t normally answer anonymous numbers.”

De Boer was certainly not joking as he offered Gravenberch his first chance in Oranje following Tonny Vilhena’s positive coronavirus test. The Netherlands boss had already indicated he was keeping an eye on the midfielder when he was asked about young players during a press conference earlier this month, “Gravenberch is doing fantastic, also at a European level. He is certainly a candidate that comes to mind,”

It is a reward for the 18-year-old, who has grown from strength to strength in the Ajax midfield this season, not only excelling in the Eredivisie, but also standing out in the Champions League.

Ajax boss Erik ten Hag has also been full of praise for his young star’s maturity, “It is becoming increasingly clear to him what top football entails. He looks less and less at himself and puts himself at the service of the team and the result.

“When you are young you mainly think of attacking, but in defending Gravenberch must be the first man in midfield to conquer balls and thus initiate the switch. He understands that game better and better.”

Former Netherlands international Wim Kieft is also convinced about Gravenberch, stating in his De Telegraaf column, “He is the greatest talent in the Netherlands. Only 18-years-old, but the prototype of a complete player. You see him grow every week.

“If someone like this makes his debut at the highest level, the big question is whether he can keep up with the faster pace. Gravenberch picks up on that very quickly. Also in the Champions League. When you see how, despite his height and physically, he easily turns away in the crowds and accelerates, you don’t see that much.”

Gravenberch made history in 2018 when at the age of 16 years and 130 days, he made his Ajax debut in the Eredivisie. He was the youngest player to ever represent Ajax, breaking a record set by Clarence Seedorf. That debut had been on the cards for some time, with Gravenberch seen as an exceptional talent in the academy for years. He also won the European U17 Championships with the Netherlands that year and was named the club’s talent of the year.

Since then, Gravenberch has become a key player for Erik ten Hag, and this season he is one of the first names on the teamsheet. Gravenberch is the complete midfielder in Ajax’s eleven, offering protection to the defence, while also contributing to the attack.

He may be over 6ft but Gravenberch has exceptional technique on the ball, and loves dribbling forward and escaping from tight spaces using tricks and flicks. Speaking to Het Parool, he described his own game, “A contortionist. I am able to slip and turn everywhere. And I have extension legs.  I am tall, six feet tall. It is often said that tall players have less technique, but I have to rely on my technique. “

Ever since his breakthrough, Gravenberch has gained comparisons to Paul Pogba and even Frank Rijkaard, but he has another player in mind, “My example is Zinedine Zidane.”

This Sunday, Gravenberch can take the next step in his already impressive career by making his Netherlands debut, and he will have his sights set on a place at the European Championships next summer.

The competition for places in the Netherlands midfield is fierce at the moment with the job of partnering Frenkie de Jong coveted by several talents including Teun Koopmeiners and Pablo Rosario, while Marten de Roon, Davy Klaassen, and Leroy Fer are also in the running.

However, Gravenberch has the potential to be the most suitable candidate of all. He offers the defensive awareness that De Roon, Klaassen and Fer would, but has more attacking talent and creativity, while his dribbling ability stands him above the rest.

He may only be 18 but Gravenberch already has the world at its feet and he looks set to be the next world class midfielder to come out of the Ajax academy. Sunday could just be the start of a long career in Oranje.

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