Reinvented by de Boer, Ajax’s Daley Blind transforms into the ‘Dutch Lahm’
By Mohamed Moallim
Innovation swirls around Ajax like leaves, in the Vondelpark, on a blustery autumn’s day. “Almost every club tries to imitate them,” Aad de Mos, who managed them between 1980 and 1985, recently said. “But they are unique and two steps ahead [of their rivals].” What kept Ajax ahead of the game, and could do so again, is the education their footballers receive. One such individual is Daley Blind son of club legend Danny.
His impressive displays at left-back over the last eighteen months cemented his position as one of the most improved footballers in the Netherlands, but the last few months has seen him reinvent himself, moving into the heart of midfield where he continues to excel.
Arguably the tactical manoeuvre so far this season at least the most high profile. But this is nothing new in Amsterdam, the idea (and pursuit) of universality, being comfortable in multiple positions, is central to the club’s ethos and instilled from an early age. Blind isn’t the first player – whilst donning the colours of Ajax – to move into a new position, subsequently making it his own, and will certainly not be the last.
His transformation, in some quarters, is reminiscent of Johan Neeskens who began at right-back – where he greatly impressed – before converted into midfielder tour de force. However it’s more accurate to say Blind has gone back to his roots, a testament to his versatility that he’s an accomplished left-back, for much of his youth playing career he was utilised as a 'number six’ (or controlling midfielder). Frank de Boer throughout last season (2012-13) hinted Blind’s future would be in midfield it so happened to come to fruition in the following campaign.
His familiarity in the role and Ajax’s modern interpretation of totaalvoetbal (modified by Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal, which De Boer has gradually re-implemented) has made his assimilation smooth. His energy and discipline has become the kernel around which the rest of the side’s panache is constructed. In the role Blind is essentially a 'third centre-back’ – dropping between the central defenders – and conductor rolled into one. He’s tasked with retaining and recycling possession: averaging 68.6 passes, 2.1 tackles and 2 interceptions per game (according to WhoScored.com).
Blind, who often operates as single-minded man-marker – normally designated to do a job on the opposition’s playmaker – shuttles across the pitch following the ball once with it his impeccable metronomic passing and grandiose football intelligence triggers their positional game/ Ajax in possession morph into a 2-3-2-3, one-touch combination football is second nature to them. In the Eredivisie their pass accuracy (86.8%) and average possession (62.9%) is ranked first (stats from WhoScored.com). He dictates the tempo: whether Ajax needs to slow things down or raise it. This also depends how high up the pitch they are.
The controller, or in De Boer’s system 'third centre-back’, is the most important position. Sergio Busquets – a revelation under Pep Guardiola and easily Barça’s second most important player – plays a similar role and has long fascinated the former Oranje captain. Guardiola, now managing Bayern Munich, played alongside De Boer for three seasons at Barça and has been a silent influence. As teammates they enjoyed lengthy conversations about the game. De Boer noted how Guardiola back then was effectively a coach. Guardiola equally saw the same.
Both see Cruyff and Van Gaal as a reference and share a steadfast belief in the 'Ajax model’. Ronald – Frank’s twin – once commented Guardiola is obsessed calling him 'half-Dutch’. He even approached De Boer to be his assistant at the Catalan giants only for the Dutchman to politely turn the offer down in order to strike out his own path. Guardiola’s four-year stint as Barça manager impacted on De Boer as it showed the 'Ajax way’, in its purest form, still has a place in the modern game.
No position typifies it more than the controller (see Frank Rijkaard), but Busquets is an up to date version, one that has since been pivotal to De Boer realising his objectives which is to dominate games through possession: circulation football as a means to not only create goal scoring opportunities but also a defensive weapon. If you have the ball the opposition can’t harm you. Blind is equally of most value – if not crucial – when out of possession as he would instigate Ajax’s pressing game (or 'pressure play’): making the pitch as small as possible (compressing and closing down all space), enabling them to retain possession and win the ball back at times mercilessly more often than not by provoking their opponents into making a mistake.
“The controlling midfielder in the modern game primarily builds [the attack],” De Mos adds. “Philipp Lahm and Blind have shown that.” The former, under Guardiola, has thrived in midfield but equally remains as Europe’s finest right-back. Blind is a considerable distance from Lahm’s all-round level but there’s nothing stopping him reaching it.
Blind’s seamless transition is second to his resurrection. Before the arrival of De Boer his future in Amsterdam was bleak. De Boer’s unyielding faith was built on seeing the potential he is now exhibiting. By restoring Ajax’s classical approach Blind, a De Toekomst graduate, has flourished. The inconsistencies that dogged him, at times shot of confidence, coincidentally eroded. “I’m indebted to Frank de Boer,” Blind said looking back.
His consistent performances throughout last season, many of which stood out, earned him the club’s player of the year award and a first Netherlands call-up. He’s been ever-present at left-back since making his debut against Italy in February 2013. Van Gaal, who still views Blind as his “first choice”, recognises the “number six” role is his true position. Nigel de Jong, who’s been a shining light at AC Milan, is expected to play there for Oranje at the World Cup.
He is now in the nations conscious. Elf Voetbal magazine, who at the backend of 2012 published an op-ed titled “The rehabilitation of Daley Blind”, readers named him – alongside Lucas Piazón of Vitesse – as the best player of the first half of the season. Not many would disagree. He is the pivot of a side chasing a historic fourth successive championship. And few are backing against them.
Now an elder statesman, albeit only 23-years-old, it will be surprising if he doesn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and captain the club he joined as an eight-year-old on a full-time basis. He recently wore the armband, decorated in Amsterdam’s coat of arms, away to ADO Den Haag describing it as “a special moment.”
A role model is Paolo Maldini, remaining a one-club man could prove to be difficult, but there’s no escaping his current iconic status: “Daley Blind is een echte Ajacied” as supporters now enthusiastically chant – hard to imagine only two years ago. "Everyone knows Ajax is my club,“ he said after penning a three-year contract extension in spring 2013. He’s really come full circle.
This piece was written by Mohamed Moallim, a Senior Writer for AFR. Comments below please.