The Netherlands have been blessed with some incredible players over the years, and some wonderful midfielders included in that. Some of these Dutch greats include Clarence Seedorf, Ruud Gullit, and even the legendary Johan Cruyff, to a certain extent, just to name a few.
Even recently, Frenkie de Jong was produced from the Ajax youth academy system, having an exceptional few seasons with the Eredivisie giants, reaching the UEFA Champions League semi-final at 21 years of age, before transferring to Barcelona in the summer of 2019 for a huge initial fee of €75 million, tipped to be the heir to Sergio Busquets’ throne.
2020 has seen Ajax produce another young prodigy from their academy ranks, who has been tipped to be the next great Dutch midfielder and to reach the heights of a player like de Jong, according to those that have seen him at underage and professional level.
Kenneth Taylor, who captained the Netherlands throughout their historic U17s European Championship victory in the Republic of Ireland back in May 2019, is the player that will be analysed in this article.
The 18-year-old made has mainly played with Jong Ajax since 2018 but has recently started to earn some minutes with the first-team under manager Erik ten Hag. Taylor made his professional debut with Ajax’s first-team recently, in a 4-0 victory over PEC Zwolle, coming off the bench after the hour mark, in what may be a historic moment for the player.
In this tactical analysis article in the form of a scout report, we will take a look at the midfielder’s attributes and style of play, which make him one of the top young players in the world at the moment, and which could help him to become Holland’s next great midfield player. It will also be an analysis of how Taylor fits into ten Hag’s tactics at Ajax.
Position and brief style of play
Taylor is a fantastic young midfield player who predominantly plays in a double-pivot 4-2-3-1 but can also operate in a 4-3-3. He likes to have a lot of the ball and moves into space to receive a pass, constantly acting as an option off the ball for a teammate to play it to.
For a player his age, as well as his elegant style of play, he is also quite physically, standing at six feet tall and weighing 66kg.
In the double-pivot, Taylor typically plays on the left of the two for both Ajax and Jong Ajax, as he is left-footed, but can also play on the right and is comfortable playing short with his right foot as well. The following visual representation shows these two positions that the youngster usually plays in.
The Amsterdam-based club are very fluid in terms of the positioning of their players from the academy system all the way through to the first-team and so Taylor’s positioning tends to be quite free in the midfield.
Under ten Hag, Ajax play a style of football similar to that of a refined and more modern version of ‘Total Football’ played by Ajax in the 1970s, as well as the Dutch national team, both under Rinus Michels. This essentially means that Taylor has license to roam into space when his side has established possession of the ball, which can be seen clearly on his heat map.
The 18-year-old’s movement is not restricted, and he can venture to one side of the pitch to the other once there is space free to move into, and with his excellent passing ability and vision, he slots right into the Dutch manager’s system easily, much like Frenkie de Jong did when he first came through the club’s famous academy system.
Free movement whilst in possession
In the previous paragraph, we briefly touched on Taylor’s ability to find space on the pitch regardless of the opposition that he is facing, as well as their defensive set-up, which makes him perfectly suited for Ajax’s style of play.
The ability to find and interpret space on a football pitch is a core element of the Dutch club’s philosophy as well as the coaching at the underage levels. To make Ajax’s playstyle work, players need to drift in and out of positions, finding little pockets of space to receive the ball in before passing it on to a teammate and moving into another area of the pitch.
Donny van de Beek, who was recently sold by Ajax to Manchester United for just under £40 million, was one of the best in the club’s recent history at finding pockets of space on the pitch to either; move the opposition’s defenders, or create space to dictate play and create goalscoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.
Whilst Taylor is not as adept as van de Beek, he is still well-versed at finding space to receive the ball in order to give himself time on the ball.
In this image, we can see Taylor’s free positioning to aid his side in moving the ball around an opposing team’s defensive block. The youngster starts in the central corridor, playing a pass back to his centre-back. Once the pass is played, he instantly moves out to the wide channel in order to receive a pass in space.
Not only did this give the player on the ball an open passing lane with low risk to play to, but it also dragged one of the PEC Zwolle midfielders out to close him down, opening two passing lanes in behind their forward press, allowing Ajax to break down the defensive block.
Taylor does subtle movements into space all over the central corridor, however, he commonly drops next to the centre-backs as a false-back or a third central defender to do it. In the previous image, he pushed out wide on the right to receive a pass, however, as he is left-footed, he prefers to drop to the side of the left centre-back instead, which can be seen in the following image:
The reason he likes to drop or is perhaps instructed by his coaches to drop, as a false left-back, is because it allows him to open out his body, by receiving the ball on the backfoot, and looking to play down the line.
In this image, Taylor has become a make-shift left centre-back whilst his side have the ball in the established possession phase. Firstly, this allows for the fullbacks to venture high up the pitch as most modern teams utilise in their offensive set-ups.
Secondly, it forces the opposition’s winger to step out and press. As we can see, the England winger has begun to push up in order to close down Taylor who has received the ball in this area. By doing so, he has left space in behind for one of the ball-near players to take advantage of by making a run down the line.
Generally, Taylor tends to perform these kinds of subtle movements when his side are struggling to break down the opposition’s block through the central areas.
Once again, this disorientates the opposing team’s defensive block, creating gaps to play through, which Taylor does extremely well by taking up positions as such. The youngster is able to play inside on his left-foot or outside on his left-foot, giving him twice as many options.
Yet again here, Taylor has picked up a position on the left flank as a false fullback. This provides the player on the ball to have a low-risk passing option out wide but also gives his side an open passing lane for a bounce pass from his partner in the double-pivot.
This is extremely intelligent play by the Dutchman and is almost identical to the type of clever positions that de Jong was occupying whilst playing for Ajax.
Safety first in possession
What many people may see as a poor quality in a central or holding midfield player, is perhaps one of Kenneth Taylor’s best qualities, which is his safety in possession.
So far this season, the youngster has averaged 58.9 completed passes per game across all competitions and levels. What is more impressive is his 86.1 percent passing accuracy. In a recent game against ADO Den Haag, the Dutchman only played 47 minutes in total, yet completed 40 passes out of 44, almost 1 pass per minute of being on the field. He ended the game with a 91 percent pass completion rate.
Whilst on the ball, Taylor’s main function is to help his team circulate the ball, and move into space to receive it, as stated previously. He typically opts for shorter passes on the ball to help his side keep the ball in possession, as his job is not to break the opponent’s defensive line. Almost 20 percent of his average passes per game are backwards.
An example of this safety in possession can be seen in the next image:
The midfielder has dropped as a false fullback and has two options to play forward. He can either play down the line by opening out his body or else play inside to his partner in the double-pivot. Both of these are quite risky passes but would progress his side up the pitch. Instead, Taylor opts to play safe and square it to the left centre-back.
This is not a bad trait to have in a midfielder and actually shows his maturity on the ball. There was a high risk that both of the possible progressive passes would have resulted in a turnover of possession to the opposition team, particularly the central passing lane as the player had three bodies around him to press if he received the pass.
In the end, Taylor decided to play laterally, allowing Jong Ajax to continue to circulate the ball patiently trying to find a better option to move forward.
This image is another example of the midfielder’s safe play. He has three options to play the ball to a player in a more advanced position, which would allow Ajax to progress higher up the pitch quicker.
All three passing options are split passes between two of the opposition’s players. If he received the ball on his backfoot, he would be able to pick one of these three men out, but once again, there is a high risk that a turnover of possession will occur and so he plays the ball back to Perr Schuurs in defence.
Tactical and footballing intelligence at eighteen
Certainly, a defining characteristic of Taylor’s game that makes him one of the best young players in the world is his tactical and footballing intelligence.
In 2017, Scott McTominay was a decent academy product at Manchester United, but very few would have expected his rise to becoming mainstay in the team’s current starting eleven under Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The Scot was solid on the ball but was nothing special considering he was playing alongside players such as Angel Gomes and Callum Gribbin, who were miles better.
What he did have over others was an incredible ability to read the game, and to understand when to press, when to cover, when to attack, when to defend, etc. This was what enticed Jose Mourinho to eventually hand McTominay his United debut.
Taylor is far better on the ball than McTominay ever was and still is, but his tactical intelligence for such a young player separates him from the rest at his age level. An example of his tactical intelligence from a defensive standpoint can be seen in the following image:
Here, the opposition overloaded the wide area with bodies, forcing Ajax’s backline to push across to try and make up the numbers. The ball-far centre-back has been dragged across whilst Ajax’s right-back is preoccupied with the opposing team’s winger.
Taylor sees the gap opening up in between the two players and also sees the opposition’s player making a run into the box, and so plugs the gap, cutting out the danger.
Yet again here, similarly to the first, the centre-backs for Jong Ajax have been split, with the ball-near centre-back being dragged out to cover the halfspace. Taylor checks his shoulder and sees an attacking run on his blindside and so tracks the run whilst plugging the gap between the two central defenders.
He does not just plug gaps in Ajax’s defence though. The 18-year-old is also adept at covering for those who need to step out to close a player down, which can be seen here:
The Jong Ajax fullback has stepped out to press, and so Taylor has dropped in to cover so that the winger cannot exploit the space that would have been left behind the fullback.
This tactical intelligence is vital for any player, particularly a player being played as a single or a double-pivot, with one of the main functions from a defensive aspect is to plug gaps in the backline when needs-be. Taylor does this exceptionally well.
However, this game intelligence does not just come from a defensive aspect. It can also come in the attacking phases of the game, especially in moments such as when to create overloads or move over to the wide areas to provide support for his teammates.
In this image, two players were being outnumbered on the flanks by the opposition and had no passing options to play the ball to in order to get out of their opponent’s trap. Taylor quickly moved over and took up a deep position, allowing the winger to turn around and play backwards, retaining possession for his team.
Little moments of intelligence like this go a long way for any side. Had Taylor not aided his teammates, the defending team would have almost certainly regained possession and looked transition forward.
Kenneth Taylor may not be too well-known to avid football viewers outside of the Ajax fan base or those who keep a keen eye on the Eredivisie. However, if he manages to fulfill his possible potential, the midfielder will certainly become a household name, much like Frenkie de Jong has become, and could quite easily go on to become one of the best Dutch midfielders of his generation.
According to TransferMarkt, the player’s current market value is only just under £3 million pounds as of writing, but the continued game time as of recent may see this rise to potentially double figures come the end of the season.
He is certainly a player to keep your eyes peeled as, chances are, like de Jong himself, Taylor will quite possibly be touted for a big-money move in the future to a top European club.