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Noussair Mazraoui: The unheralded star of Ajax’s Real Madrid triumph

21:10 EAT 07/03/2019
Noussair Mazraoui Ajax 2018-19
The Morocco full-back has been one of the unsung heroes of the Dutch giants' return to continental prominence
As the football world sits up and takes notice of Ajax Amsterdam once again, a player whose performances have gone somewhat under the radar is Noussair Mazraoui.

Tuesday night’s incredible result, a 4-1 away win for Ajax at the Santiago Bernabeu against Real Madrid, has propelled many of their players into the spotlight.

After three successive seasons out of the Champions League proper, Ajax are back where they belong, and have the platform to showcase not only their famed playing style, but also their academy-produced starlets and bargain signings.

Whilst the world rightly gushes over Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, or marvels at Dusan Tadic’s metamorphosis into a top-level forward after leaving Southampton, very little attention is on Dutch-born Mazraoui.

The right-back has been at Ajax since the age of eight, playing mostly as a midfielder in his younger years.

His conversion to full-back has been the making of the player.

In the Champions League this season, he has scored a crucial equaliser away at Bayern Munich and a deflected 92nd-minute winner against Benfica.

In the latter game, he was booked before the half-hour mark and had to show maturity to play out the rest of the game without being sent off.

Against Real Madrid, he was booked after 26 minutes, and Erik Ten Hag sent Joel Veltman to warm-up with a substitution in mind. Ajax could not afford to go down to 10 men.

However, Mazraoui was kept on the field and had a hand in Tadic’s goal to make it 3-0, as VAR deemed the full-back to have kept the ball in play in the build-up.

Mazraoui was very strong defensively in the game, making four tackles, three interceptions and winning three aerial duels.

His proactive defending is a real feature of his game; he’s averaged 2.3 interceptions per game in the Champions League this season, while his 3.8 tackles per game puts him ninth overall amongst players in the competition.

In Ajax’s formation, with international teammate Hakim Ziyech cutting inside on the right flank, having an adventurous attacking full-back is absolutely crucial. Mazraoui fulfils that role with aplomb.

In modern football, full-backs often have amongst the most touches of any player on the field, are expected to provide width and also to get back to defend.

However, despite their demanding and multi- functional roles, they are still criminally underrated in their importance and the transfer fees they command.

The very high athletic demands placed on full-backs in modern football means that their peak years are more likely to be around 23 to 27. At 21 years old, Mazraoui is ripe for a move to one of Europe’s bigger and richer clubs.

In October last year, Barcelona were said to be interested in his services, but that move seems unlikely.

The Catalan giants spent €30 million to sign Nelson Semedo from Benfica just 18 months ago in the same position, and also brought in young Senegal right back Moussa Wague last summer.

Whilst the latter is currently playing for Barcelona B, he is in their Champions League squad and recently made the bench in the Copa del Rey. The Liga leaders look sorted in that position for years to come.

There are certainly other European clubs who could be looking to spend big at right-back; Manchester United are set to lose Antonio Valencia in June, and had to usa Eric Bailly in that role against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side could certainly do with refreshing that area.

Mazraoui is not the only young African full-back said to be attracting interest from bigger clubs; OGC Nice’s 22-year-old Algeria international Youcef Atal has also caught the eye for his strong attacking play and athleticism.

While Ajax’s other young stars take the limelight, Mazraoui continues to grow and impress, and could be the ideal addition for a shrewd club this summer.

Certainly, his interaction with Ziyech should be a joy to watch down Morocco’s right flank during the Africa Cup of Nations.