The famous and well-renowned Ajax academy has been home to some of the world’s greatest footballing talents throughout the years and still stands as an example of a club possessing a classy and productive working model in player development.
The Dutch giants are not only known for developing their academy products and providing them with the opportunity in the first team but they are also renowned for creating a successful business model when allowing those talents to depart and also bringing in new players from the academy.
A player well versed and moulded in the Ajax strategy, currently taken the Dutch Eredivisie by storm is 20-year-old £27m-rated centre back, Jurrien Timber.
The wonderkid has rightfully earned Erik ten Hag’s trust and confidence with his stunning performances and maturity as well as his composure, vision and defensive understanding that fits perfectly with Ajax’s strategy.
His impressive displays has granted him a regular berth in Ajax’s starting XI which he has grabbed the opportunity with open arms, becoming one of the finest and most trustworthy cogs in Ten Hag’s well-oiled machine.
While they have always been successful in attack, this term their defensive performance has been exceptional. At the time of writing, Ajax have only conceded 13 goals goals in 27 games, a remarkable record underlying the importance and sheer resilience of their defensive players.
Reports are already emerging regarding much interest in his services with Chelsea and Tottenham previously rumoured to be keen on signing him.
With the way Timber has been developing at club and international level, there’s no reason why he can’t make the steady transition to Premier League-level football in the near future.
Who is Jurrien Timber?
Born in Utrecht, Netherlands. Timber and his twin brother Quinten Timber, who is also a footballer plying his trade at FC Utrecht, are of Aruban and Curaçaoan descent. Their mother Marilyn is from Aruba and their father is from Curaçao, both part of the ABC Islands in the Dutch Caribbean.
After impressing scouts for his hometown club, the 20-year-old was snapped up Feyenoord. However, Ajax’s famed history of developing and nurturing young talent was too great for him to ignore, so he joined the club at the age of 13 for the formative years of his footballing education.
Timber has only just recently emerged as the hot prospect everyone is raving about.
After making his debut in the last league game before lockdown, he returned from the enforced break with an even more important role in the first-team squad. The following summer, he was part of the Dutch team at the delayed EURO 2020.
Ajax coach Erik ten Hag, was impressed with what the youngster showed on his debut. “He has proven himself, and I will take that into the new season,” Ten Hag had said after the season abandonment was confirmed.
The Ajax boss was true to his word and the 2020-21 campaign proved a true breakout year for Jurrien Timber. He took every chance that came his way enroute to making 20 appearances in Eredivisie, with 16 coming from the start. He added another five appearances in the Europa League as he gained some continental experience, never once looking out of his depth, a testament to his strength of character.
On the international scene, he has appeared for Netherlands age group teams, from U15s to U21s. Timber has even made his international debut for Netherlands.
The 5 foot 10 defender has won six caps for his country at the age of just 20. Therefore, he is well on his way to matching his esteemed colleagues at the international level, in de Ligt and Van Dijk.
What’s so special about Timber?
Ajax are currently the best performing team in Eredivisie with just 13 goals conceded all campaign so far, displaying high awareness, composure and consistency. The team’s well-measured actions and anticipation skills result in a high success rate in almost every aspect.
Ten Hag’s men are proficient in winning their challenges clearly, despite actually having the highest challenge intensity (duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession) in the league.
Timber has contributed immeasurably to Ajax’s defensive success this season, where he has been rewarded with an impressive SofaScore rating of 7.40 from his performances in the Eredivisie.
Despite the lack of experience, the youngster possesses impressive composure in defence which puts him ahead pf his peers despite his lack of physicality and height. His technique and confidence on the ball allow him to dive into challenges and escape pressure through dribbling which helps the team in retaining possession.
His composure results in winning over 70% of his defensive duels this season, which puts him considerably alongside more experienced stalwarts in Ten Hag’s side such as Lisandro Martinez.
What makes him successful defensively, though, is his positional sense. Timber’s ability to read the game helps him in anticipating the oppositions’ movement and move into spaces so he can pressurise his opponents and block their attacking efforts.
The Dutch wonderkid has won 69% of his ground duels so far this campaign, as well as averaging 2.1 tackles per game and 1.5 interceptions highlighting his impressive defensive resilience and ability when halting his opponent’s progress with the ball.
The key qualities that have led to his valuable contribution are his concentration and work ethic. The 20-year-old is constantly aware of his surroundings and it is difficult to catch him out of position and unprepared.
Timber’s defensive work is often forthright and aggressive in his dueling. His positioning during final third attacks often puts him in good stead to press onto forwards immediately. When he has free reign to attack opposition ball-holders, he’s capable of timing his challenges from behind and finding the right space to reach through to nick the ball well.
As you watch him closely, you’ll find that this element of his defensive dueling is his calling card when battling against opposition attackers.
However, it’s all a different matter when Timber is tasked with marking someone.
When pressing from behind against a direct opponent, Timber is at fault for not establishing the sort of technique that can back up his constant aggression. He pushes into his opponent square-on, and will continue to jab towards the ball but without much care or effectiveness, so sharp turns and layoffs past him can easily catch him flat-footed.
It’s area of his game he will need to work on to become much more efficient and well-rounded on a consistent level like his compatriots de Ligt or Virgil van Dijk.
What favours him in many defensive situations though, is his ground coverage and physicality. At below 6ft and not being particularly stocky, Timber doesn’t appear to be much of a force, but it’s something he uses well to suffocate duels he’s engaged in. His height is a reason why he isn’t first to contest every aerial ball, but yet he’s managed to win 64% of his aerial duels. He’s proved himself to be capable of winning duels in plenty of mismatches thanks to his body-to-body strength on the ground.
Going forward, Ajax prefer to build up from the back, starting from circulating the ball laterally between Timber and Martínez. The team usually move into a more advanced position with the centre-backs right behind the central line and the full-backs often going past it to overload the opposition half and provide width. The team’s main strategy is to use high pass frequency and a lot of movement to bypass the opposition pressing structures and advance the ball to the final third.
Ten Hag’s men average over 600 passes per game and possess the highest pass completion rate in the whole division, underlying the players’ strong positional sense and connection.
Timber’s reliability and partnership with Martínez are key in possession. Due to his confidence on the ball and work under pressure, he is used for retaining possession and building up from the back by combining with his CB partner and the fullbacks too.
One of the reasons for Ajax’s success in building up from the back is that both of their centre-backs are ball-playing defenders. Timber is actually one of the highest in the division in terms of pass frequency with his 82 passes per game on average which support the team’s efforts to deliver the ball to the final third.
As per FBRef, Timber ranks within the top 10 percentile amongst the defenders in Europe’s top five leagues for passing metrics over the past 365 days. He ranks in the 98th percentile for passes attempted per 90 minutes (82.34), the 99th percentile for pass completion percentage (93.9%), in the 97th percentile for progressive passes (5.39) and the 97th for progressive carries per90 (6.46) meaning he is indeed one of the best around in his build-up play and progressing the ball in the attacking areas for his team.
His positional sense and the team’s advanced position allow him to have a great contribution to their attack. He supplies the advanced areas with 15.51 passes per 90 which is the second-best record in the league and underlines his impact when progressing the play.
That, combined with his lack of height for a CB, are the reasons why Ten Hag has relied on him as a right-back on a few occasions. He can easily hold onto the ball and deliver it to the advanced areas and has a passing range that allows him to make combinations with his teammates and exploit spaces.
However, the only reason for him not being able to fully succeed in this position is his hesitancy to cross the ball. Due to his inexperience in this position, he has failed to be beneficial for the team in terms of supplying the box with balls and creating goalscoring opportunities.
Apart from that, he remains outstanding in his passing and ball retention as shown in the stats in percentile stats above.
Timber is incredibly patient and will use every second he’s given to manipulate the opposition in order to create alleyways elsewhere. He’ll slowly adjust his position with the ball so that he can create space for teammates to rotate into untracked and unseen. This all facilitates the freeing up of Ajax’s Argentine decisive ball-sprayer, Lisandro Martínez, who can look to maximise the directness and tempo of play.
Despite how smartly he shortens and slows his passes as part of the team’s overall ploy, the 20-year-old has only shown glimpses of potential in this respect. He can weight a long ball perfectly well and is very quick to play through the lines when appropriate, but his adjustments when undecided can kill his ability to play vertically.
It’s why he’s best positioned further towards the right as shown in the heatmap below, as the angles remain open for him even when doing this.
It won’t be a surprise if the Ten Hag temporarily employs him in defensive midfield, trying to use his passing range to orchestrate play, as he has previously said that a central midfield position might be suitable for Timber in the near future.
Indeed, within the Ajax system and footballing approach, their young products are expected to perform numerous roles within their designated positions, and Timber is yet another one of those hugely versatile products within their prestigious roster.
What does the future hold for Jurriën Timber?
The somewhat caged talents of Timber have shed a light on a player with great promise in possession of the ball. Combined with how seamlessly he applies himself to different roles within such concentrated setups, Timber should, right now, be a very desirable offensive prospect for many of those slightly lesser teams in the top leagues that are looking to be assertive, progressive and dominant with the ball.
Even a step up to clubs such as Champions League challengers in Serie A and La Liga could be the perfect platform for him to ramp up his rapid development but also provide him with the added platform to enhance his profile and impress.
Would a move to reportedly interested clubs Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea be the right moves for him at this stage of his career? The former, much more plausible, but for a club like Chelsea who are faced with much pressure to win titles may not allow Timber the room to make mistakes and grow.
It’s a factor he will need to think thoroughly on if he is to embark on fulfilling the supreme and huge potential we know he possesses in abundance.