Ajax-fans have been spoiled the last few years. They had the possibility to watch players like Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech hone and excel at their craft before they moved from the Eredivisie on to more prestigious leagues. Normally, the departure of players of their calibre was equal to a long and painful rebuild. And while obviously these are still not players you’d easily replace, Ajax look to have attracted a new batch of supertalents.
I’d like to highlight Mohammed Kudus in particular. The puzzle that was Ajax’ midfield after de Jong left, proved difficult to solve for manager Erik Ten Hag. But after just a few games into the 2020-2021 season, with a promising Kudus in their side, everything indeed looks like it is going to be alright.
Elite and versatile ball-carrying
Mohammed Kudus comes from the Ghanaian Right to Dream Academy, a youth football academy which provides opportunities for West-African families to build a better future. He followed the projected trajectory from academy to partner-club Nordsjælland in the Danish Superliga. From a country with well over 30 million inhabitants and the sun scorching down year-round, to the bustling town of Farum in Denmark: populated by 20,000, and a warm-weather season of two months tops. Who doesn’t go through such a change of scenery at the ripe old age of seventeen?
During his first season at Nordsjælland, he played a total of 1,615 minutes in which he scored three goals and assisted two. He was regarded initially as a purely attacking asset, starting the first few matches as a false 9 or as a number 10. Over the course of the season he would cement his place in central midfield, culminating in him being a regular starter during the Danish Championship play-offs to see out the season.
Kudus looked more and more out of place, during his second season in Denmark, in a good way. The number on the back of his shirt is now 10, instead of the more anonymous 39 in his debut season. An easy tell of a player on the up. It became apparent a move towards a more prestigious league was getting closer. He recorded eleven goals and one assist in 1,998 minutes. Subsequently, he earned his debut for Ghana during their qualification campaign for the Africa Cup of Nations, in which he scored his first goal for his country as well. Kudus is flying and being linked to clubs like Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Sampdoria.
At Nordsjælland, Kudus is still being deployed both as a dynamic attacking midfielder and as a false 9. In both roles his excellent ball carrying abilities and movement off the ball are pivotal in Nordsjælland’s attacks. Early in the 2019-20 season, smarterscout metrics show Kudus is involved in over 60% of Nordsjælland moves that end in up a goal scored.
Dribbling, vision and off-the-ball movement
Now that we have identified how influential Mohammed Kudus was in Nordsjælland’s output, let’s see where his strengths and weaknesses lie. His dribbling absolutely is his standout trait.
He was the best dribbler in the Danish Superliga by far during his last season there, completing an outrageous 118 dribbles.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) July 14, 2020
His technique and control of the ball in small spaces are excellent, while he looks over the ball for open spaces or teammates. It doesn’t always look as refined as you’d maybe expect from an elite ball-carrier, but Kudus rarely turns over the ball regardless. And sometimes, it does look smooth as butter.
— Sully (Mo Kudus stan account) (@Yalsully) September 30, 2020
Kudus has great vision as well, often finding the best way to progress the ball. His dribbling aside, he’s perfectly capable of finding teammates by both short and long passes. His pass-selection can be risky at times, but this shows his desire to progress the ball instead of just maintaining possession.
An excellent dribbler with great vision, and quick too? That’s right. Kudus’ acceleration is off the charts, which often is on display in his movements without the ball. His speed and ability to make quick turns, as well as his recognition for where he can hurt the opposition most, make him an easy open option to receive the ball from his team. The goal below is a prime example–Kudus recognizes where the ball will be, where he should be to become a threat and he then has the ability to be there way faster than his marker.
His skill in playing without the ball is visible as well in his pressing. As the StatsBomb radar shows, he’s one of the best pressers in the Danish Superliga. 2.49 pressure regains per 90 minutes is indicative of his talent to help his team without the ball at his feet.
Mohammed Kudus, Nordsjaelland 2019-20.
Kudos for Kudus? pic.twitter.com/TdvCl1dJ3A
— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) February 21, 2020
Immediate impact in the Eredivisie
It’s easy to imagine why Ajax were happy to bring Mohammed Kudus to the Eredivisie, as they were still looking for a creative dribbler and passer playing in midfield–the role Frenkie de Jong excelled at. You’d have to be very pessimistic to view the €9 million they paid for the then-19-year old as an overpay.
Already (beware, this is a tiny sample size), he’s averaging 2.5 shots, 1.5 key passes and 4.5 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. These are elite numbers in the Eredivisie, especially for the position Kudus is playing in. He is part of a double pivot with the more defensive-minded Edson Álvarez, which gives Kudus more license to think forward and be creative.
As Kudus’ passing and dribbling are at times risky, defensive stability in midfield is a necessity. So far, Kudus has been able to regain possession on athletic ability alone, but it’s uncertain how transferable this is when opposition gets tougher and more physical. So far in the Eredivisie he’s averaging 4.5 successful tackles and 2 interceptions per 90 minutes, which put him high up those national statistics leaderboards as well.
Against Vitesse Arnhem he had fourteen ball recoveries and six successful dribbles, in both categories by far the most on the pitch. His teammate and Dutch international Quincy Promes was stunned by how quick Kudus is integrating in his new environment and how crucial his performances are on the pitch.
It seems only a matter of time before Kudus becomes the same standout in the Eredivisie he was in Denmark.
The Eredivisie is just a stepping stone
All in all, Mohammed Kudus looks set to be a revelation in The Netherlands, before moving on to a dominant force in a top-5 league. His dribbling and his ability to receive and distribute the ball in promising positions are a joy to watch. He is quick to get in position when his team turns over the ball, while he relies on his physical prowess to regain possession. However, he is at his best as long as there is another central midfielder covering for him, so he can be creative and take risks.
I think it’s fair to say Ajax Amsterdam is just another place to gain experience at a higher resistance level and to develop further into the modern, dynamic midfielder that so many elite clubs are looking for.
In the meantime, Nordsjælland’s new number 10 goes by Kamaldeen Sulemana. A young and talented winger with roots in the Right to Dream Academy as well…