The famous Ajax academy has produced some of the world’s greatest talents throughout the years and still stands as an example of a well working model in player development. The team are known not only for developing the academy players and giving them a chance in the first team but also for creating a successful business strategy with their transfers.
One of the latest talent’s that has taken Eredivisie by storm is the 20-year-old centre-back, Jurriën Timber. The youngster earned Erik ten Hag’s trust with his composure and vision as he reads the game well and fits Ajax’s strategy perfectly. His displays granted him a regular starting spot which he hasn’t taken for granted and has used to prove his qualities while becoming one of the team’s key players.
While they have always been successful in attack, this term their defensive performance has been exceptional. At the time of writing, Ajax have only conceded four goals in 16 games, which is a remarkable record and underlines the importance of their defensive players.
Ten Hag’s side also made history in the Champions League by winning all their games in the group stage, outplaying Sporting CP, Borussia Dortmund and Beşiktas.
Timber has also played for the Netherlands’ youth teams up to the U21s and is expected to be featuring for the senior squad in the future, after having already made a few appearances in 2021.
Ajax’s defence in numbers
Ajax are currently the best performing team in Eredivisie, displaying high awareness, composure and consistency. The team’s well-measured actions and anticipation skills result in a high success rate in almost every aspect.
The Ajax players are proficient in winning their challenges clearly, despite actually having the highest challenge intensity (duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession) in the league. They are first in the league in terms of successful actions with 66.9% of won defensive duels on average. What makes the biggest difference in their defensive performance, though, is their aerial presence.
They are the most successful team in the air with a 54.6% success rate. This allows them to win loose balls and defend well against long balls, along with, most importantly, retaining possession in midfield, keeping the opposition away from the goal.
Their aerial success is, expectedly, very important in defending and attacking set-pieces and has made them one of the most efficient teams, with 10 goals scored from their set-play opportunities.
Ajax have a 61.87% average share of possession, which is a result of their successful pressing strategy. With a PPDA of 6.63, they are the team with the highest press intensity in the league, resulting in 86.26 recoveries per 90 which are well distributed all over the pitch. Their pressing movement makes them successful defensively due to their strong judgement of the situations. Despite constantly pressing high or inviting the play in their own half, they apply a mixed approach and apply pressure whenever they find convenient according to the opposition’s build-up strategy and style of play.
The most impressive part of their defensive displays is the accuracy of their actions. Despite being the team with the highest challenge intensity, they commit the fewest fouls on average (7.25) and have earned only 14 yellow cards.
Timber’s defensive performance
Despite the lack of experience, the youngster has impressive composure in defence which puts him ahead despite his lack of physicality and height. His technique and confidence on the ball allow him to dive into challenges and escape pressure through dribbling which helps the team in retaining possession. His composure results in winning 76.2% of his defensive duels, which is a better percentile compared to his centre-back partner, Lisandro Martínez (73.5%).
What makes him successful defensively, though, is his positional sense. Timber’s ability to read the game helps him in anticipating the oppositions’ movement and move into spaces so he can pressurise his opponents and block their attacking efforts. He contributes with 13.35 recoveries per game and roughly four of them are in the opposition half. This underlines his strong positioning and anticipation skills, although it also indicates the whole team strategy, which has the defensive line positioned high in possession. This allows them to press in the opposition half should they lose the ball.
The key qualities that have led to his valuable contribution are his concentration and work ethic. The 20-year-old is constantly aware of his surroundings and it is difficult to catch him out of position and unprepared. That makes him the Ajax defender with the fewest lost balls on average (6.81) compared to the other regular starters Daley Blind (11.8), Lisandro Martínez (8.03) and Noussair Mazraoui (10.21).
Ajax prefer to build up from the back, starting from circulating the ball laterally between Timber and Martínez. The team usually move into a more advanced position with the centre-backs right behind the central line and the full-backs often going past it to overload the opposition half and provide width. The team’s main strategy is to use high pass frequency and a lot of movement to bypass the opposition pressing structures and advance the ball to the final third.
Ajax average 646.13 passes per game and have the highest pass completion rate in the league, which underlines the players’ strong positional sense and connection. They tend to progress the ball through the wide areas due to the full-backs’ advanced positioning and involvement in attack. That movement results in frequent crossing attempts (25.88 p90), hence more attempts on the goal.
The team do not like to use long balls but prefer holding onto the ball for long periods through short passing, which is also indicated in their passing rate. After PSV, they are the team with the most passes per minute of possession (15). That allows them to move into a more advanced position and control the game in the opposition half.
Their attack-minded approach is successful thanks to their creativity and intelligence as their link-up-play is key in moving the ball forward. It requires strong positional awareness, passing range and flair in front of the goal. The high number of progressive runs that they make (19.18) also shows their willingness to advance the ball and exploit spaces.
Timber’s contribution in possession
His reliability and partnership with Martínez are key in possession. Due to his confidence on the ball and work under pressure, he is used for retaining possession and building up from the back by combining with his CB partner and the fullbacks too.
One of the reasons for Ajax’s success in building up from the back is that both of their centre-backs are ball-playing defenders. Timber is actually second in the league in terms of pass frequency with his 82 passes per game on average which support the team’s efforts to deliver the ball to the final third. His positional sense and the team’s advanced position allow him to have a great contribution to their attack. He supplies the advanced areas with 15.51 passes per 90 which is the second-best record in the league and underlines his impact.
That, combined with his lack of height for a CB, are the reasons why Ten Hag has relied on him as a right-back on a few occasions. He can easily hold onto the ball and deliver it to the advanced areas and has a passing range that allows him to make combinations with his teammates and exploit spaces. The only reason for him not being able to fully succeed in this position is his hesitancy to cross the ball. Due to his inexperience in this position, he has failed to be beneficial for the team in terms of supplying the box with balls and creating goalscoring opportunities.
Apart from that, he was outstanding in his passing and ball retention, as his ball losses were minimized to 4.3 on average. He also attempted more long balls than usual as he met more resistance from the opposition in this position and aimed to escape the press.
It won’t be a surprise if the Ajax manager temporarily employs him in defensive midfield, trying to use his passing range to orchestrate play, as he has previously said that a central midfield position might be suitable for Timber.
His displays for the Netherlands
He already has six caps for the Netherlands where he has also been used both at centre-back and right-back. While his passing ability is key there, his impact on the attacking actions is limited due to the deeper positioning. It results in different build-up dynamics and fewer balls to the final third.
His role there is focused more on providing defensive stability, as he dives into more defensive challenges than usual and tries to intercept the ball more frequently. The Netherlands’ pressing strategy differs from Ajax’s and isn’t as aggressive, which is reflected in his contribution too as he isn’t as involved in ball recovery as he is on a club level.
His performance has a lot to do with the whole team’s lack of connection on some occasions and the lack of clarity in terms of playing style and tactics.
As our analysis shows, Timber’s performance is beyond his years and he has shown reliability that makes him a key figure for Ajax. There are reports that link him to Chelsea and Tottenham, and it seems that it is only a matter of time before he seeks new and better opportunities for his career.
Gaining more experience and showing consistency will be key for his future and more Netherlands call-ups might be the sign for some of the big European clubs to make a move for him. Continuing to develop at Ajax, though, will be crucial if he wants a big move to the Premier League or elsewhere.