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From NXGN winner to failed Leipzig loan: What next for Justin Kluivert?

3:00 AM EDT 5/31/21
Justin Kluivert Ajax RB Leipzig GFX
Three years on from being named the best teenage footballer on the planet, the Roma forward finds himself at a major crossroads in his short career

It was one of those strokes of genius that many predicted the world would see plenty of from Justin Kluivert.

In RB Leipzig's penultimate game of the Bundesliga season, the Dutch forward brilliantly controlled a long ball from Marcel Sabitzer, twisted and turned inside the box to leave Wolfsburg defender Kevin Mbabu on the floor before powering a shot into the back of the net.

A week later against Union Berlin, Kluivert got himself on the scoresheet again, latching onto Christopher Nkunku's through-ball against Union Berlin before rounding the keeper and firing into an empty goal.

That strong end to the season, though, should not detract from what was, on the whole, a disappointing year on loan in the Bundesliga for the 22-year-old.

In 27 appearances for Leipzig, Kluivert scored just four goals and laid on a solitary assist.

Three years on from being named the best teenage footballer in the world by NXGN, his career already finds itself at a crossroads.

His move to Leipzig looked, on paper, the ideal loan. The German outfit had an attacking void that needed filling following Timo Werner's sale, while Kluivert would get a chance to learn under Julian Nagelsmann at a club that he almost joined back in 2019.

"I was actually here two years ago and looked at the training ground," he revealed in an exclusive interview with Goal in February 2021. "I can't say why I didn't come here back then.

"I'm all the happier [to be here now]. The level is very, very high. We play in the Champions League and right at the top of the Bundesliga.

"These are the perfect conditions for young players like me."

The conditions were certainly better than at Kluivert's parent club, Roma, where his career had stalled due to a combination of injuries and lack of form.

Kluivert completed 90 minutes just seven times during the 2019-20 Serie A campaign, having netted just twice during his first season at Stadio Olimpico.

His father, ex-Barcelona and Netherlands striker Patrick Kluivert, had warned against him moving to the Italian capital during the summer of 2018.

Check out football's best wonderkids with NXGN:

Kluivert Jr. was coming off his NXGN-winning season at Ajax having scored 11 goals and laid on five assists in all competitions, and despite a host of top European clubs showing an interest in signing him, the advice he received was to stay put in Amsterdam.

"In the end, my father only wanted the best for me," Kluivert told Goal. "In his opinion, the best thing for me would have been to stay at Ajax for another year.

"It's important to listen to what your parents think. But it's also important to listen to yourself."

Needless to say, the step to the Giallorossi felt right back then.

And looking back? "From my point of view, the move was very helpful. I had a lot of great moments at Roma, but I also had to go through some valleys. I didn't know anything about that before.

"For years at Ajax, I had almost always had only positive experiences. Being confronted with bumps for the first time allowed me to mature. It was good to notice that a career does not always go up steeply, but also that depths are part of it."

Kluivert's change of scenery in the last year has not, however, seen those bumps disappear.

Unable to suitably convince Nagelsmann of his talents, he started just eight league games for Leipzig after arriving in early October.

"He drifts very far onto the wing, although he has a free run down the centre," complained the new Bayern Munich manager after one specifically frustrating performance from Kluivert against Eintracht Frankfurt.

According to Opta, the former wonderkid found the net with just a third of the 'big chances' that were presented to him over the course of the campaign, while his fitness levels - or lack of them - also raised eyebrows in Saxony.

"There was the phase when we played against Bayern Munich and Manchester United," Nagelsmann said in February, referencing back-to-back games in December in which Kluivert scored, "where we saw the Kluivert we were hoping for. Unfortunately, he has gone again.

"I see him very little in training. That is also the problem. He has to become more stable as far as his body is concerned."

A calf injury suffered around the turn of the year certainly did not help Kluivert, but there was no doubt by the end of the season that Nagelsmann had seen enough to suggest that he was not a player for him to build an attack around.

That said, with the 33-year-old coach having now departed for the Allianz Arena, there is a chance that Kluivert could remain with Leipzig next season.

"Yes, I can definitely imagine that, but in the end the decision is not mine alone," Kluivert told Goal when asking about staying past the end of 2020-21 season.

He reiterated his point in an interview with Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad in April, saying: "I feel good here. Whether I want to stay ? Yes."

According to Kicker, the Red Bulls would need to pay €12 million (£10m/$14.5m) to make the deal permanent, though it remains to be seen whether new manager Jesse Marsch is in favour of keeping him.

For now, Kluivert's attentions switch to international matters.

Back when he was picking up the NXGN trophy in 2018, most would have expected him to be a mainstay of the Netherlands squad by now.

Instead, he only has two caps to his name, the last of which came back in June 2018, and so while Frank de Boer's team prepare for this summer's European Championship, Kluivert finds himself with the Under-21s as they prepare for the knockout stages of their own Euros.

As one of the team's more experienced players, Kluivert will no doubt be looked at to lead them against France in Monday's quarter-final as the Oranje aim to win a trophy they have not lifted since 2007.

Doing so, though, would only be a minor positive moment at the end of yet another underwhelming season from Kluivert.