Simon Kelly takes a look at some of the future stars hoping to make an impact at the Euro 2020 tournament this summer. First up is 19-year-old Dutch midfielder Ryan Gravenberch, who is just off the back of an impressive season at Ajax.
Who is he?
The Ajax academy is famous for churning out fantastic footballers on a consistent basis. But occasionally, there’s a player that sticks out from the rest and sets down a marker for the new generation. Ryan Gravenberch is one of those players.
Already touted as the next Paul Pogba, Gravenberch has a big future ahead of him. At just 19-years-old, the Ajax midfielder has emerged from his breakout season in the Eredivisie, playing 47 games for the Dutch champions, scoring five goals and contributing six assists in all competitions. He made his senior debut for the Dutch national side last year and after just three appearances, has been included in Frank De Boer’s squad for the Euros. There will no doubt be a lot of eyes on the young Dutchman this summer.
Gravenberch was signed by the Ajax academy when he was 9-years-old and rose through the ranks. While playing in the academy he won the Abdelhak Nouri award in 2018, a prestigious annual prize given to the talent of the future. On the same day, he signed his first professional contract with the club and broke into the first team almost immediately. He became the youngest ever Ajax debutant at just 16-years-old and subsequently became their youngest ever goalscorer, scoring in a 7-0 cup win against Te Werve.
Last season, he cemented a starting role at the heart of the midfield and was instrumental in Erik ten Hag’s championship-winning side, including some impressive performances in the Champions League and Europa League.
Style of play
Gravenberch is a well-rounded central midfielder. For the Ajax youth team, he was deployed in more of an attacking role, however in the senior squad he plays deeper with more defensive duties. Usually found in the central area of the pitch, he’s not afraid to run forward in possession and can sometimes show up on the wings, showing off his positional versatility and intelligence.
Despite his towering presence at 6’3 tall, he is an eloquent player with the ball at his feet. He plays intricate short passes throughout the midfield, creating excellent build-up play in the process. For his size, he uses his body especially well to shield the ball and can break through the lines with relative ease.
He uses his height to his advantage and can easily regain control of loose touches with his long legs and speed with his feet, changing pace and direction quickly, usually leaving an opposition player in his wake.
He’s also not afraid to shoot from range and has scored several notable goals from outside the box, hovering intelligently on the edge of the box in expectation for loose balls from set pieces or crosses.
Role within the team
For Ajax, Gravenberch is used on the left side of a midfield three or a left-sided defensive midfielder. For the Netherlands, his pathway to his natural position is blocked by a strong midfield consisting of Frenkie De Jong, Georginio Wijnaldum and Ajax teammate Davy Klaassen, so we may not see much of him starting games in the Euros.
However, in his last appearance for the Netherlands, he was subbed on at halftime for Denzel Dumfries and filling in well at right back, albeit against a very weak Gibraltar side. His versatility will make him a reliable option off the bench for Frank De Boer to cover a variety of positions as the tournament wears on.
This tournament may have come a little too soon for Gravenberch to really stand out amongst a talented and experience Dutch midfield. However, his inclusion alone will stand to him in the future and will no doubt embed him into the national team setup for the next few years.
What the future holds
Gravenberch has already attracted interest from Manchester United, Liverpool and Barcelona and if he makes an impact at the Euros this summer that interest could heighten significantly. He has already signed up with super-agent Mino Raiola, who also represents Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Matthias De Ligt and Erling Haaland so there is no doubt he will be touted to get a big move sooner rather than later.
However, having recently signed a new three-year deal at Ajax until 2023, any future move will not come cheap. Liverpool in particular will be very intrigued as he could be a perfect replacement for his compatriot Gini Wijnaldum. He is expected to stay at Ajax for the upcoming season but beyond that the young Dutchman will undoubtedly have a lot of big clubs ready and waiting to swoop.