It takes a special kind of football player to stand out in the environment of De Toekomst, the academy of Ajax Amsterdam which translates into English as ‘The Future’, but then the diminutive midfielder of Dutch/Morrocan heritage Abdelhak Nouri is, without a doubt, a special player.
Those that follow Dutch football or indeed the international youth tournaments have been aware of Nouri for some time now, with the midfielder regularly being amongst the stand out players for the Netherlands, and impressing with his ability and creativity in possession of the ball. Those traits have translated across to his form at club level with Ajax coach Peter Bosz showing an increasing willingness to use Nouri as part of the first team squad as the season progressed.
Now at 20 years of age, we can expect to see Nouri really kick on and make his mark at first team football, especially given that club captain Davy Klaassen is expected to move on in the summer and create a regular space in the centre of the midfield.
If Nouri were British born then there is a real chance that his slight frame and lack of physical strength would have seen him moved to a wide position by this point in his career, but the Dutch do things differently, and his vision and range of passing are seen as pivotal for a creative player in a central role.
This past season has seen Ajax under Peter Bosz play a very Dutch 4-3-3 with the two most advanced central midfielder deployed more as traditional number eights rather than number six’s. This has meant that Hakim Ziyech and the aforementioned Davy Klaassen have played in more advanced positions when in possession, that we would traditionally expect from a central midfielder.
Recently on an episode of the Double Pivot podcast, the excellent Priya Ramesh stated her belief that Nouri could be seen as the replacement for Ziyech should the attacking midfielder decide to move on after a single season in Amsterdam. The same could be said if Klaassen leaves, although a central midfield due of Ziyech and Nouri could be too attacking even for Bosz.
Nouri offers a rare blend of tactical awareness, creativity and vision with his ability to thread a through ball or switch play to either flank of particular note. Given his relatively slight frame, Nouri has also developed his ability to contribute in the defensive phase as any modern day midfielder player has to do.
What though can we expect from the young midfielder going into next season?
Ability in one on one situations
As befits a player that has been trained and developed at De Toekomst, Nouri is extremely adept in one on one situations where he can use his balance and pace to isolate opponents and beat them on either side. He is also largely two-footed with the ability to control and manipulate the ball comfortably on either foot.
The ability of a player to beat an isolated opponent in the central areas is then key to disrupting deep defensive blocks as the attacking player moving into space will provoke a second opponent to engage him, and this will, in turn, create space elsewhere that can be exploited.
Here we see Nouri on the ball in the final third of the field against a team set out in a deep defensive block. As he initially beats his opponent the defensive player is able to regain his position and get back to engage Nouri for a second time. Here we see the balance and composure of Nouri as the defensive player attempts a challenge the young midfielder simply shifts his weight and manipulates the ball away from the challenge.
We then see the tendency that Nouri has to look for a passing lane instead of shooting himself. He tries to force a through ball into the corner of the penalty area and the attempted pass is easily intercepted by the defending player.
Again in this example, we see how adept Nouri is at beating his opponent in a one on one situation. As the ball is played into the feet of Nouri in the central areas he initially is facing his own goal with a defending player in close proximity.
It is here however that Nouri shows his balance in tight areas as he spins the defensive player and manages to keep his feet despite nearly going to ground.
When Nouri is able to beat the defender in this area we clearly see how exposed the opposition team is as the midfielder accelerates towards the centre of the penalty area at speed. The opposition is then caught in a near impossible situation as any attempt to engage Nouri will lead to the defensive structure being weakened considerably.
In the end, Nouri slips a through ball into the feet of Kasper Dolberg before the play breaks down.
Interplay in the final third
As well as being adept at manipulating the ball when in possession Nouri also sees and utilises space all over the pitch in an extremely effective manner.
His ability to act as a pivot in the advanced areas for his team sees him take up central positions with a view to taking and them recycling possession of the ball in order to take advantage of spaces that are created in the final third. These spaces across the width and depth of the field tend to be created because, under Peter Bosz, Ajax play with their wide players holding the width of the field to stretch the defensive structure of the opposition.
In this example we see Nouri take possession of the ball in the central area as he senses the defensive player closing him down. Instead of taking the relatively safe option and playing the ball backwards he chooses to keep the attacking momentum going by flicking the ball one way past the defender before spinning the other.
He collects possession back again immediately having found a pocket of space and once more we see the instinctive playmaker in Nouri as space opens up when he could shoot himself he instead looks to connect with the advanced player in the central area.
On this occasion we see Nouri take possession of the ball in a slightly deeper positon, just inside his opponents half. As he senses pressure we again see his balance and composure as he twists in possession of the ball until he is free of defensive pressure.
As he then moves into space towards the left-hand side he identifies the space across the field and plays an accurate pass out to the wide area with the outside of her foot. The player taking possession wide on the left-hand side is then isolated against the opposition full back with attacking players streaming into the penalty area.
Intelligence in possession
For a twenty-year-old with relatively limited exposure to first team football Nouri displays a footballing intelligence that is rare in players of his age.
He is constantly looking to play forwards and to take advantage of spaces in the opposition’s defensive structure as he carries the initiative of the attacking move whilst not slowing play down. Indeed he has the characteristics of a player who embodies the philosophy of football at Ajax.
Once again Nouri picks the ball up in the central area before driving at the opposition’s penalty area. It is his strength and persistence that stand out though as the opposition midfielder tries to force Nouri off of the ball. The young midfielder, however, is able to keep his balance and his composure in riding the challenge and maintaining possession of the ball.
As he continues to drive forwards the player in advanced areas know that he has the quality to play an accurate through ball and they start making runs to stretch the spaces in the opposition’s defensive line.
Nouri is able to read these movements and he times and weights a pass perfectly into space behind the defensive line for the attacking player to run on to.
Where previously we had seen Nouri in a similar position we had seen him spin the ball out to the left-hand side with the outside of his foot this time he pauses in possession and waits for the play to develop.
As the left winger makes his run from outside to in Nouri plays the through ball into the channel for the winger to run in on goal.
There is little doubt that Nouri is a special player and we should see him develop in the coming season into a regular first team player at Ajax.
If he is given a chance to put together a decent amount of minutes over the first half of the season then the European media will quickly seize on his creativity and vision and Ajax will have another hot commodity on their hands.
Arguably there are few coaches better suited to develop Nouri than Peter Bosz. It should be fun to watch.