Ryan Gravenberch made a big impact for Ajax against Sparta Rotterdam on Sunday and the 17-year-old midfielder looks set to be the latest sensation to make his breakthrough in Amsterdam.

  • By Michael Bell
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It’s odd to say that a 17-year-old has had to be patient for first-team chances, but that is the case for Ryan Gravenberch, who became the youngest ever player to represent Ajax when he came off the bench in September 2018 against PSV Eindhoven at the age of 16 years and 130 days, beating a record set by Clarence Seedorf back in 1992.

Gravenberch’s seven minute cameo in Eindhoven proved to be his only Eredivisie minutes of last season, with one appearance in the KNVB Cup against amateur side HVV Te Werve, the only other first team appearance for the midfielder, who scored in that clash to also become the youngest ever goalscorer for the club.

“We have plans for him, so that is why he has already made his debut,” said manager Erik ten Hag following the 7-0 win over HVV Te Werve, but Gravenberch had to settle for Keuken Kampioen Divisie action with Jong Ajax, scoring twice and providing nine assists before the end of last season.

The expectation was that Gravenberch would feature more prominently for the first team this season, but that only resulted in three short substitute appearances before the end of November. For Jong Ajax, though, Gravenberch has been in excellent form with six goals and four assists in 14 games.

Due to his form for the reserves, Ten Hag couldn’t hold Gravenberch back any longer and in the final Eredivisie game before the winter break, the midfielder started his first league game against ADO Den Haag. He played the full ninety minutes, and not only scored his first Eredivisie goal, but also provided an assist in a comfortable 6-1 win.

During the winter break, Gravenberch was involved fully with the first-team and spoke of his confidence in becoming a regular starter in the second half of the campaign, “I think it will be my chance now. I think I am ready. The trainer is looking for reliability, he wants to be able to trust me.”

Against Sparta Rotterdam on Sunday, Gravenberch felt that trust as he once again started ahead of big summer signings Edson Alvarez and Ravzan Marin. He repaid the faith with a stellar performance in a 2-1 victory, which saw him net the second goal after some clever footwork in the box.

After the game, former Ajax and Netherlands great Ronald De Boer was delighted with the youngster’s performance, telling Fox Sports, “He has done well. He has surpassed both Marin and Álvarez. That says something.

“De Ligt might have been an exception at that age, but Gravenberch has unrivaled qualities.”

Ten Hag was also impressed with his young star, “He met the expectations exactly. He played great.”

Praise is nothing new for Gravenberch, who has received plenty of plaudits and accolades since joining the Ajax academy in 2010. He won two Future’s Cup’s with Ajax’s U17’s and was awarded player of the tournament in 2017. A year later he received the first ever Abdelhak Nouri trofee, which is handed to the top talent in the Ajax academy. Also in 2018, Gravenberch played a key role in Netherlands success at the U17 European Championships.

Gravenberch now has the reputation of being one of the Netherlands biggest talents but that may come at a cost for Ajax. Coupled with super-agent Mino Raiola, Gravenberch is yet to sign a new contract with his boyhood club and his current deal expires in the summer of 2021. Talks are ongoing but several clubs are circling the midfielder, including Juventus, who are said to be big fans of the Netherlands U19 international and have close ties to Raiola.

In December, Ajax technical director Marc Overmars was confident that a deal would eventually be reached, “We are discussing this with his agent and him. Both parties intend to continue with each other. I cannot say much more about it.”

The involvement of Raiola is enough to make Ajax fans uneasy about losing a top talent, but Gravenberch is happy in Amsterdam and with his involvement in the first team now assured, a new contract is surely only a matter of time.

Ajax forked out around €30 million on Alvarez and Marin in the summer, but once again it’s a product of their own academy that is impressing in the Johan Cruijff ArenA. Gravenberch’s career is only just getting started but there is already high expectations in Amsterdam that another superstar is in the making, ready to follow in the footsteps of Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong.

Style of Play

A versatile box-to-box midfielder, Gravenberch has often been compared to both Paul Pogba and Frank Rijkaard in the press and it’s easy to see why.

At over 6ft 2, Gravenberch is a physical presence in the midfield and with his excellent dribbling ability, he can be difficult to stop when in full flow.

The youngster’s quick feet and technique were in full view against Sparta on Sunday during his goal, and Gravenberch has often shown a keen eye for popping up in the right places around the box to score goals.

The 17-year-old is also a fine tackler with a good range of passing ability, which makes him the perfect man to control Ajax’s possession in the absence of a Frenkie de Jong or Daley Blind. Against Sparta, Gravenberch had the most touches of the ball before he was substituted, but was sloppy at times in possession.

Gravenberch is a massive talent but he has often been criticised for looking rather lazy during games, but this is something that Ten Hag has been working hard on and he drilled into the youngster that he has to be more ruthless and clinical in matches to ensure he doesn’t lose the ball.

Ten Hag recently told a press conference, “He is going through a great development, but just like everyone else, things have to improve every day.”

Gravenberch was also self-critical of his performance against Sparta, “It went pretty well, although those moments of stupid ball loss have to go. I could have gone into some duels a bit more aggressively. Those are the things I’m working on.”

If Gravenberch can continue his rapid development there should be no stopping him from reaching the top and becoming one of the finest midfielders of his generation.

Netherlands fans can get excited about the prospect of Gravenberch one day lining up alongside De Jong in an Oranje midfield.




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