As far as stunning first-team debuts from 17-year-olds go, Justin Kluivert’s 51 minutes off the bench for Ajax against PEC Zwolle last weekend is up there with the very, very best. It was an outing made all the more special considering he’s the son of Patrick Kluivert—a Champions League winner with the club before moving on to enjoy an illustrious career with Barcelona.
It is the second coming of Kluivert, and the burning question is whether or not Justin’s career has any chance of matching his father’s. That cannot be answered after one senior appearance, but there was enough in that solitary showing to suggest he has a fighting chance. Trophies-wise, it seems highly unlikely Justin will achieve the jump-start Patrick did—the latter scored Ajax’s winner in the 1995 Champions League final against AC Milan at age 18—but talent-wise, it’s possible.
3 – Most successful dribbles in the Eredivisie, match day 18:
Arber Zeneli – 8
Anwar El Ghazi – 8
Justin Kluivert – 6
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) January 16, 2017
Kluivert‘s remarkable work against PEC Zwolle on Sunday improved Ajax’s chances of winning the game. He slid a beautiful pass in for Anwar El Ghazi in the box, which resulted in a foul and a penalty, and he completed six dribbles (second only to El Ghazi’s eight, per OptaJohan) as he terrorised the Blauwvingers right side.
It was a true tornado of a performance, inclusive of speed, agility and quick feet. More than that, though, it featured some strong decision-making and a definitive end-product—the two eternal scourges of the average winger.
Kluivert’s debut exhibited all of his finest skills on the day; there was no fear in his eyes, no hesitation in his intentions. He is the type of footballer who unlocks defences with creativity, weaving runs and electric speed, and those were all on show. Rather than shrinking under the spotlight or buckling under the weight of expectation, he grasped the mantle and confidently asserted himself as a difference-maker.
Ultimately, we shouldn’t be surprised. Kluivert told UEFA.com in May 2016: “They [fans and media] anticipate things from me, but I feel no pressure—I just love playing football.” He made that abundantly clear against PEC Zwolle.
Playing off the left flank, he made 28-year-old right-back Dirk Marcellis’ life a living hell. Jinking this way and that, chopping between cutting inside and taking the outside lane, Kluivert left his marker guessing, wondering and trailing in his dust with frequency.
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He consistently squared up his opponents, allowing them to set their hips, before bursting one way or the other; he completed 100 per cent of his dribbles, meaning no one ever got close to stopping him. Despite being right-footed, he sent in a couple of dangerous crosses with his left. At youth level, when fielded on the right flank, he’s been far more accurate when delivering from his native peg, but he did himself no disservice here.
The real danger, though, came when he cut inside off the left flank onto his right foot. A couple of inswinging balls into the box caused mild mayhem, before Kluivert began flummoxing the defence with a series of reverse passes.
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The first one saw him shimmy inside, beat two and feed his runner, but El Ghazi mistimed his run and was called offside. The next created the breakthrough goal: Having drifted infield to receive possession from a throw-in on the right, his pass resulted in El Ghazi‘s drawing a penalty. The weighting, direction and disguise were all perfect.
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There are certain traits players boast that make you sit up and take notice, and this is one of them. Wingers are difficult to project due to so much of what separates them consisting in the “mental” spectrum of football. But in showcasing dribbling, crossing, shooting and creativity of this level…well, it’s not often you see 17-year-olds manage it—let alone within 10 minutes of making their debut.
Understandably, people will be wary of Kluivert’s showing, scared it’s a fluke, a one-off. But he’s been consistently starring for Jong Ajax at under-19 level and carried his great form to senior level. He was given a chance in early January against Excelsior in a club friendly and impressed, earning the right to take his place on the away bench at the MAC3PARK Stadion on Sunday.
There may also be those who presume he’s a luxury player; one who offers much in the final third and can break the game open, but who will not track back and muck in for defensive duties. But again, Kluivert has shown for Ajax’s second team that he is willing to fulfil those duties. Although there have been some issues in terms of tracking runners all the way back, he doesn’t shirk. Against PEC Zwolle, he worked hard and fought for loose balls fiercely.
It was clear to those monitoring the UEFA Youth League that Kluivert would break out, but that he did so this soon—and in such emphatic fashion—came as a shock. He played his natural, fearless game when entering the fray against PEC Zwolle. If he continues to do that, ignoring the inevitable attention that his debut will draw, it feels like Kluivert could indeed be reborn.