FEATURE: With Kudus, Ajax finally seems to have a replacement for Frenkie de Jong

Published on: 01 October 2020

Without romance, nostalgia, blind loyalty and even more optimism, football makes no sense. But football also contains logic. Every Monday, Het Parool analyzes 'the game behind the game' in the Da's Logisch section. With attention today for the most striking player on the side of Ajax in recent weeks: Mohammed Kudus. How the midmid with the unorthodox playing style can no longer be ignored in the game of the team from Amsterdam.

Of course we don't have to pretend it's shocking that Kudus - like the other summer addition Antony - turns out to be an instant hit on the Eredivisie fields. In the middle of the corona crisis, Ajax paid a sloppy nine million euros to FC Nordsjaelland for the Ghanaian left leg. In other words, before his twentieth birthday, Kudus was already allowed to cost more than the entire annual budget of the four smallest Eredivisie clubs in the 2019/20 season. So Kudus had a price tag with certain expectations.

Dribbling machine

Now that the new season has been underway for three weeks, Kudus seems to not only meet the sky-high expectations, but even exceed them. In Amsterdam, the talented Ghanaian is already further in his development on three fronts than was the case when he was still playing in Denmark.

In the home duels won with RKC Waalwijk (3-0) and Vitesse (2-1), it is practically the first thing that strikes the Amsterdam side: Kudus, who starts as second controller next to Edson Álvarez, is a true dribble artist. If Kudus continues the line of his first two league matches (4.5 successful dribbles per game), the Eredivisie will have a new dribbling champion. For the statistical context: last year Heerenveen attacker Chidera Ejuke was the leader in this category with 4.1 successful dribbling actions per game; the best dribbling midmid (Kudus' position) last season was AZ midfielder Fredrik Midtsjø, with an average of 3.1 dribbles per game.

After the departure of Frenkie de Jong, Ajax lacked a dribbling specialist last season, someone who can skip a line in his 'uppie', in the constructive positions in the team. Apart from Ryan Gravenberch, who only participated in nine games, in 2019/20 no Ajax player who comes out on the two inspector positions has an average of more than 1.5 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. Kudus is going to bring about significant changes in this regard.

In the run-up to the 2-1 against Vitesse we really see how valuable it can be for a team to have a dribbler walk in the axis of the field. The image below is of barely ten seconds before Antony shoots in the 2-1: the build-up of Ajax, which is in the bottom with ten men, is secured up to its own goal line by Vitesse, which with Matús Bero has let a midfielder get out to personally see Kudus. to guard (outlined). Not a picture that makes you think: 'This is how a hit is going to fall on the other side of the field.

But six seconds later it is Kudus, after Dusan Tadic has put back the goal kick of André Onana, who suddenly dribbles Ajax to a four-against-three goal with a splitting acceleration in Arnhem half.

Certainly in the face of opponents who try to secure Ajax, as Vitesse did regularly (with success), Kudus' ability to get from line to line with the ball at the foot of the line is a special weapon for Ajax, a weapon that was discussed last year did not dispose.

Perhaps even more encouraging than the fact that Kudus' dribble solos have come to a successful conclusion so far is that he is constantly providing himself with new opportunities to make a difference. Because, in addition to a magnetic ball handling, Kudus also has a natural ability to release from cover. He is therefore by far the Ajax player with the most ball contacts against RKC and Vitesse. What is particularly striking is how he manipulates the opponent with body movements.

Athletic enough for repairs

Kudus is not a pure midmid. In Denmark he often played as 'false striker', hanging winger and 'on 10'; creative positions with less defensive responsibilities. To counterbalance Kudus' lack of defensive experience, trainer Erik ten Hag has the sober Álvarez start next to him twice, and substitute Jurgen Ekkelenkamp has to take on that role when the Mexican gets red against Vitesse.

Against RKC and Vitesse, Kudus can indeed be caught making risky choices a few times, which temporarily gets him into trouble defensively. But for defensive help, he doesn't have to look only to teammates. The twenty-year-old midfielder has a considerable athletic ability, which he often uses in his first two duels to compensate for an earlier wrong decision.

Something that can be seen in the figures. No Ajax player has more successful tackles in the duels with RKC and Vitesse. Kudus is a technical type, and will never be deployed as a defensive debris cleaner. But if he can continue to compensate with speed and acrobatics, Ten Hag's biggest doubts about drawing up Kudus in a controller position have also been removed.