The new Van de Beek or De Ligt? Meet Ajax's next academy wonderkids

16:00 SAST 2020/10/20
Hansen Gravenberch Taylor Ajax GFX
The Dutch giants may have bid farewell to the homegrown heroes from their 2018-19 European run, but their conveyor belt of talent is not slowing down

Back in 2018-19, Ajax took the Champions League by storm as they knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus on the way to the semi-finals of Europe's premier club competition.

With Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek playing key roles for the Dutch giants, the football world was again left struggling for superlatives when it came to hailing Ajax's academy structure.

Regarded as one of the finest finishing schools for any young player in world football, the production line in Amsterdam continues to churn out players who go onto become some of the world's best.

And it is not just Dutch wonderkids who are being developed either with Ajax able to tempt teenagers from around the globe to join them with the dream of one day stepping out at the Johan Cruyff ArenA to represent the first team.

But with De Ligt and Van de Beek having now left for pastures new and with a fresh Champions League campaign set to get under way against Liverpool on Wednesday, who are the next batch of Ajax youngsters for fans around the world to get excited about?

Right now the leader of Ajax's latest group of teenage stars is 18-year-old central midfielder Ryan Gravenberch.

The youngest league debutant and goalscorer in the club's history, Gravenberch has long been compared to Paul Pogba due to his long-legged running style and ability to pick a pass that few others on the pitch could even dream of completing.

With four goals and two assists in his first 17 senior appearances he is already a key figure in Erik ten Hag's side, and, despite increased competition in midfield this term he has started three of the club's opening five league fixtures having been forced to sit out the other two due to a positive Covid-19 test.


Good job, boys! +3! 🙏🏾

A post shared by Ryan Gravenberch (@ryanjiro_) on Oct 18, 2020 at 10:37am PDT

Gravenberch, though, is not the only youngster who could be involved when Jurgen Klopp's side arrive in the capital.

Nineteen-year-old Jurrien Timber was handed the No.2 shirt at the start of the season and has thus far made three appearances.

Able to play at either centre-back or right-back, the departure of Sergino Dest to Barcelona could open the door for Timber - whose twin brother, Quinten, is recovering from a broken foot and is a talented midfielder himself - to earn more minutes.

On the other side of the defence Devyne Rensch enjoyed an excellent pre-season, with the 17-year-old seemingly being prepared to step in once Nicolas Tagliafico moves on.

As to be expected, there are a whole host of players who at present are starring for Jong Ajax in the second division of youth football.

Perhaps the most exciting is 17-year-old forward Naci Unuvar, who in January became the youngest player to score on their Ajax debut.

Most comfortable playing from wide areas, Unuvar has previously been linked with Manchester United and Barcelona, but it is hoped he will step up over the next 12 months and help fill the void left by Hakim Ziyech following his move to Chelsea.

Another who is closing in on earning first-team minutes is Sontje Hansen, who just under a year ago won the Golden Boot at the Under-17 World Cup in Brazil.

The 18-year-old has already made his senior debut for Ten Hag's side, and recently committed his future to the club despite interest from Manchester City in signing him during the January transfer window.

His regular strike partner for Jong Ajax is fellow 18-year-old Brian Brobbey, who has scored 12 goals 21 matches for Jong Ajax since the start of last season.

One of the more physically imposing teenagers anywhere in the world, Brobbey's pace and power has, along with his finishing ability, seen him compared by some to Romelu Lukaku.


First 3 points happy with my goal🙏🏿

A post shared by Brian Brobbey (@brianbrobbeyy) on Sep 18, 2020 at 2:20pm PDT

Hansen and Brobbey tend to benefit from the playmaking ability of deep-lying midfielder Kenneth Taylor, with the 18-year-old - who is regarded as one of the finest passers at his age anywhere in Europe - having been the beating heart of both Ajax and the Netherlands' youth teams for a number of years.

Taylor tends to play alongside 17-year-old Youri Regeer, who has been dubbed by some as the 'next Frenkie de Jong' and is likely to make the leap into the first team over the next 12-18 months.

Aside from their Dutch talents, Ajax continue to secure the signings of some of the best talents from around the world.

They beat off competition from Chelsea to sign Brazilian playmaker Giovanni earlier this year, with the former Santos starlet already a regular in the Jong Ajax line-up following his arrival from South America.

There is also a strong Scandinavian influence, with 17-year-old Danish playmaker Christian Rasmussen having enjoyed an excellent first year with the club following his arrival from FC Nordsjaelland at the start of the 2019-20 season.

He has been joined this season by compatriot Jeppe Kjaer, who is already something of a household name in his homeland having earlier this year become the youngest debutant and goalscorer in the Danish Superliga when playing for AC Horsens.

Likened to ex-Ajax star Christian Eriksen, Kjaer has begun life with his new club playing for the U18s, though it is hoped that he will be closing in on a place in the Jong Ajax squad by the end of the campaign.

Kjaer might be the most high-profile 16-year-old at the club right now, but he is far from the only talented player in his age group.

The Eredivisie champions were thrilled to announce in September that they had been able to tie winger Amourricho van Axel Dongen down to a new contract amid intense interest in the winger from Chelsea.

Amourricho, who is most comfortable playing off the left-hand side, scored seven goals in nine games for Ajax's U17s last season despite playing against players who were two years older than him.

Check out football's latest wonderkids with NxGn:

Another 16-year-old who is getting used to playing above his age group is defender Olivier Aertssen, with the young centre-back particularly noted for his ability to carry the ball out from the back and pick a forward pass almost at will.

Behind him, England fans will likely get to know the name Charlie Setford over the course of the next few years, with the goalkeeper already having been capped at U17 level by the Three Lions as he learns his trade on the continent.

But as tends to be the way in youth football, it is attacking players who tend to have the most limelight cast on them, and Ajax currently have three 15-year-old forwards who are beginning to make their presence known after impressing over the past 12 months.

Striker Julian Rijkhoff has been in electric form so far this term, scoring nine goals in four games for the club's U17s having made his debut at that level during the course of last season.

He has been joined at U17 level by David Kalokoh, while Noah Gesser is unlikely to be too far behind having already recorded 11 goals and three assists for the club's U16s this season.

What is for certain, though, is that the conveyor belt of talent at Ajax is showing no sign of slowing down. If even half of the standout youngsters currently at the club are able to make the grade, then another deep run in the Champions League may not be too far away.