Why is Ajax wonderkid Ryan Gravenberch attracting such attention?

Ajax wonderkid Ryan Gravenberch describes himself as a ‘contortionist’ and invites comparisons to Paul Pogba while saying he dreams of playing with Messi at Barcelona… so will the 18-year-old wanted by Man United and Juventus dazzle at Anfield tonight?

  • Ajax take on Liverpool in the Champions League at Anfield on Tuesday night
  • 18-year-old midfielder Ryan Gravenberch will get a chance to impress suitors
  • Latest gem from the Ajax academy is linked with Man United and Juventus
  • Teenager has been compared with Paul Pogba for his abilities in midfield
  • Youngster has made no secret of his desire to play for another suitor, Barcelona 

It really doesn’t take long these days for European football’s elite to line up the latest Ajax wonderkid.

Such is the first-class reputation of De Toekomst, the Dutch club’s academy, and its ceaseless conveyor belt of talent, a young player only needs half a season in the red and white before the vultures circle.

Take 18-year-old Ryan Gravenberch. Just 25 games for Ajax’s first-team and Manchester United, Barcelona and Juventus are jostling to be first in the queue to sign him.

Ryan Gravenberch celebrates his eye-catching goal for Ajax against Midtjylland last week

The midfielder’s 25-yard stunner set Ajax on their way to a 3-1 win at the Johan Cruyff Arena

Already, Gravenberch is being hailed as the next Paul Pogba – a comparison he seemingly doesn’t want to play down – has turned down the advances of Paris Saint-Germain, and openly speaks about his intention to line up alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona.

His stunning goal against Midtjylland in the Champions League last week brought him to wider attention and now Gravenberch will play at Anfield when Ajax take on Liverpool on Tuesday night.

There is absolutely every chance Gravenberch will follow the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek in moving on to bigger things abroad in the coming months.

First, the Pogba comparison. It’s not difficult to see where this came from. Both stand 6ft 3in tall and both are central midfielders who like to be the driving force for their team, always looking for the forward pass or run to start attacks.

‘I hear that continuously,’ Gravenberch said of the Pogba comparisons in an interview with NOS in 2018. ‘I recognise that, we are the same types.’

The tall figure of Gravenberch in midfield when Ajax played Liverpool back in October

Gravenberch has drawn comparisons with France and Man United midfielder Paul Pogba

Intriguingly, the teenager then added: ‘But my example is Zinedine Zidane.’

In another interview with Voetbal Primeur, he said of his style: ‘I am a kind of snake. Long, quite narrow and I slip along everywhere. I can learn a lot from Paul Pogba, he is also a bit of a snake.’

Gravenberch and Pogba share the same agent in Mino Raiola and reports in Italy last month suggested Juventus are trying to take advantage of their good relationship with him to seal a deal for next summer.

Raiola is also De Ligt’s agent and helped the defender secure his £67million move to Juventus from Ajax back in July 2019.

It’s probably also bad news for United’s chances given the spat between Raiola and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer earlier in the year.

But if it was up to Gravenberch, it seems he’d pick Barcelona. When Elfvoetbal asked him for his dream club in a 2018 interview, he replied: ‘Barca! I love the game they play. I watch all their matches on TV.

Juventus hope their good relationship with Gravenberch’s agent, Mino Raiola, will enable them to jump the queue and sign him next summer, according to reports 

It looks certain that Gravenberch (left) will be the next Ajax academy product to move abroad

‘I would like to be in the midfield there, haha. I can already see myself playing football in Camp Nou, with Messi, Coutinho and Suarez.’

At most top clubs, talking so gushingly about another team would be a definite no-no. But at Ajax, it’s different. They know full well any player of any talent they produce in their academy will be snapped up eventually and most likely for a significant transfer fee.

Not that interest in Gravenberch is anything new. PSG tried to sign him when he was just 15, a year before he became Ajax’s youngest ever debutant.

He was 16 years and 130 days when he appeared in a 3-0 Eredivisie loss to rival PSV Eindhoven in September 2018, surpassing Clarence Seedorf’s record of 16 years and 242 days.

Speaking about PSG’s interest, Gravenberch’s father said: ‘He could go anywhere. I saw all the club [linked to him]. Many millions of euros came by, but we discussed that quietly at home.

‘Then we sat down as a family, I explained the situation and finally Ryan gave his opinion. He always said, “I’m good at Ajax”.’

Paris Saint-Germain made an attempt to sign the midfielder aged 15 but he stayed at Ajax

Gravenberch’s physicality and speed allows him to ambush opponents and control midfield

Having become their youngest debutant, he also became the club’s youngest ever scorer when netting against non-league team Te Werve in the Dutch Cup.

Coach Erik ten Hag gradually gave him more game time in the Eredivisie last season and he certainly would have enjoyed more had the league campaign not been voided amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sometimes he played in midfield alongside Van de Beek, now at Man United, and sitting behind Ziyech, already impressing at Chelsea.

Their departure undoubtedly bumped Gravenberch up the pecking order and this season he has started all eight league and four Champions League games he has been available for.

His hard work in central midfield has become important to Ajax, who sit top of the league table with nine wins from their first 10 games.

Donny van de Beek, a fellow midfielder, left Ajax to sign for Manchester United in the summer

Winger Hakim Ziyech made the move from the Dutch club for Chelsea before this season

Though Gravenberch admits his tall frame doesn’t necessarily make him any good at heading, his long legs do allow him to ambush opponents to steal the ball and intercept passes before opposition moves become dangerous.

Though only 18, he does have a physical edge and an aggression to his game and covers ground quickly. His stats in defensive duels, interceptions and recoveries of possession are among the best in the division.

Having won the ball back, the first priority is always to take Ajax forward and his pass completion averages in the high eighties.

Gravenberch’s own descriptions of his game are colourful. Asked by Het Parool to outline his game, he said: ‘I would say: a contortionist. I am able to slip and turn everywhere. And I have extension legs, pretty handy too.

Gravenberch will be tasked with keeping Mohamed Salah and Liverpool in check on Tuesday

‘I am tall, six feet tall. It is often said that tall players have less technique, but I have to rely on my technique. By the way, I have a bad header for a tall footballer. I found it difficult as a child.’

So a ‘snake’ and a ‘contortionist’. Not bad qualities for a holding midfielder, it would seem.

The goal against Midtjylland, a strike from 25 yards that made a satisfying noise as it clipped the underside of the crossbar and the back of the net, was his fifth for the club.

It was a moment that makes it all the more likely Gravenberch’s name will join De Ligt, De Jong, Van de Beek, Ziyech and others in the recent Ajax academy diaspora.

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