Recently it was announced that Edson Álvarez is allowed to leave the club for €50.000.000. The Mexican international has played an important part in Ajax’s success over the past few years after struggling to adapt to Erik ten Hag’s playing style in his first season. In this article, I will try to find potential options in the Brazilian Serie A to replace Álvarez. It is important to note that I am trying to identify players that would suit Ajax’s playing style.
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The defensive midfield position at Ajax has been a problem recently, as Edson Álvarez has predominantly played as a central defender next to Dutch international Jurriën Timber. Florian Grillitsch and Kenneth Taylor have been Álvarez’s replacements, but both failed to reach the level required in this position to play consistent football for Ajax. Taylor is a central midfielder, and not a defensive midfielder. Silvano Vos is an incredible talent, but not ready to play 40+ matches in Ajax’s first team.
A defensive midfielder at Ajax, first and foremost, needs to be good in first-phase possession. This means that I expect an Ajax defensive midfielder to progress the ball into the opposition’s half, while also being press-resistant and able to dribble past an opponent. The player also needs to have good spatial awareness (finding space between the lines in order to progress play), creative on the ball and technically consistent. Defensively, I expect an Ajax defensive midfielder to be aggressive and tenacious, intercepting balls and recovering possession often. Because I don’t want to make this article too extensive, I will keep it short in terms of playing style.
The first step in this process is to gather data from FBRef (all credits to them!). I chose to only pick the Brazilian Serie A because this is an exemplary piece.
The next steps in order to create the ideal dataset for this article are to remove all defenders and attackers, players with less than 1250 minutes played, players older than 28 (during the 2022 season), players who made a transfer recently and players who are not listed as a defensive midfielder on Transfermarkt. Now, I have an ideal dataset of only 18 players.
The following step is to create four categories that are important for an Ajax defensive midfielder. These are dribbling, chance creation, playmaking and defending. I picked 4-5 stats that reflect a player’s ability in all categories. You will see in the following paragraphs that I sometimes chose to have a higher weighing for some stats than other stats. For the explanation of the stats you can send a message to me on Twitter (@JPT5_).
First of all, I am going to talk about the stats I used to gather a weighted score for dribbling:
- Successful take-ons (25%):
- Progressive carrying distance (25%):
- Carries into final third (25%):
- Miscontrols and dispossessed (25%):
Miscontrols and dispossessed are used because I am interested in the player’s press-resistance. They are not stats to determine dribbling ability but they are important for press-resistance. All stats are equally important to determine a player’s dribbling ability. You can see the scores here:
To determine the player’s creativity in the final third and chance creation, I used four stats:
- Shot creating actions (25%)
- Goal creating actions (25%)
- Expected assists (25%)
- Key passes (25%)
All stats are equally important to determine the creativity and chance creation ability of a player. You can see the scores here:
I used five stats to determine a player’s playmaking ability:
- Progressive passing distance (30%)
- Passes into final third (27,5%)
- Passes into penalty area (10%)
- Progressive passes (25%)
- Progressive passes received (7,5%)
Here you can see that not all stats are equally as important. In the Ajax playing style, the defensive midfielder usually drops deep to make a back three in first-phase possession. As a result, Edson Álvarez scores really low in the progressive passes received stats. It is also more important for an Ajax defensive midfielder to progress the ball in first-phase possession and on the opposition’s half rather than to play passes into the penalty area.
You can see the scores here:
Lastly, I used five stats to determine a player’s defensive ability:
- Interceptions (10%)
- Tackles won (15%)
- Recoveries (25%)
- Aerial duels won in percentage (22,5%)
- Dribbles challenged (27,5%)
A player in a more dominant playing style will have less interceptions and tackles won than players in a more defensive playing style, while they will have more recoveries. Edson Álvarez’s stats reflect that. He scores relatively low on interceptions and tackles won but very high at recoveries. The most important stat is dribbles challenged though, which reflects the number of unsuccessful challenges including the players tackled.
You can see the scores here:
Now that we have all the weighted scores for each category, it is necessary to determine the weight for each categories. The most important part for an Ajax defensive midfielder is to operate as a playmaker, progressing the ball further up the pitch. After that, defending is the most important for an Ajax defensive midfielder. The defensive midfielder needs to have good defensive vision, positioning and decision-making. In third place,
- Playmaking (35%): An Ajax defensive midfielder needs to good in first-phase possession, progressing the ball into the final third or opposition’s half.
- Defending (30%): An Ajax defensive midfielder needs to have good defensive positioning, vision and decision-making. He is very important in transitioning from attacking to defending.
- Dribbling (20%): An Ajax defensive midfielder needs to be capable of carrying the ball forward aggressively, while also being capable of dribbling past an opponent in first- or second-phase possession.
- Chance creation (15%): An Ajax defensive midfielder does not necessarily need to create any chances, but he needs to be creative in second-phase possession.
You can see the final scores here:
Based on my data-analysis, Allan (Atlético Mineiro) and André Trindade (Fluminense) are the best fits stylistically for the defensive midfield position at Ajax. Other options could possibly be Jesús Trindade (on loan at Coritiba), José Welison (Fortaleza) and Thiago Maia (Flamengo). That they are the best options statistically based on my data analysis does not mean that they are good enough to play for Ajax. I am using data to identify possible fits for Ajax and if you’re using data correctly you can write off plenty of players which means that the video scouts have to watch less players. The next step for me is to watch Allan and André Trindade to determine whether they are good enough for Ajax.
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