NXGN x Euro 2020: The rise of Ryan Gravenberch
By Peter McVitie
It is a tremendous privilege for most young players to be considered for a first call-up for their country, let alone be part of the squad for a major international tournament.
But in the case of Ryan Gravenberch, he has every right to feel he can compete for a place in Netherlands’ starting XI at Euro 2020.
Having only turned 19 in May, the midfielder is, by almost a year, the youngest member of Frank de Boer’s squad. He only made his international debut in March and is coming off his first full season in Ajax’s first team, yet he deserves his place alongside global superstars such as Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay.
Playing with a maturity beyond his years has, though, been a theme of Gravenberch’s journey to the top level.
He earned a reputation as a precocious talent as he rocketed through the age groups in both Ajax’s academy and the national youth teams. Blessed with technical ability and the physical strength to match, he had no trouble keeping up with older players.
At the age of 12, he was brought into the Ajax Under-15s, and soon became captain of the side. He was still only 15 when he was playing for Ajax’s U19s and assuming an important role in Netherlands U17s’ 2018 European Championship success.
A few months later, Gravenberch was looking comfortable in Dutch football’s second tier with Jong Ajax (U21s) having become a starter for the Oranje U19s.
“Ryan was very young making his debut for Ajax U19s and later Ajax U21s. He had to compete against physically strong players,” Maarten Stekelenburg, who was coach of Netherlands U19s at the time and is now assistant to De Boer for the senior team, tells Goal.
“When I saw he could cope with those physical demands of the game I had no doubt he could step up and show his technical and tactical talent.”
He added: “For me, talent is when you can adapt to the next level. Ryan managed to play himself into the team after every step up in age group.
“When you cannot keep up with the speed of the game, you are not in the team. Ryan showed in training and games he could contribute to the team.”
Amid that rapid rise, Gravenberch broke Clarence Seedorf’s record as the youngest player to ever represent Ajax in the Eredivisie at 16 years and 130 days old, coming off the bench against PSV in September 2018.
That proved to be his only top-flight appearance that season, though, and he had to wait until December 2019 for his first league start.
His performance in that 6-1 win against ADO Den Haag was a revelation.
Gravenberch, who has routinely been likened to Paul Pogba, helped get the goals started when he received a pass just past the halfway line, darted forward and shook off his marker by playing a one-two with Dusan Tadic outside the ADO box.
After sending the ball wide, he lingered outside the penalty area as a passing option as Hakim Ziyech came under pressure, though the Morocco star eventually managed to blast a shot into the visitors’ net.
While Ajax were rarely threatened by ADO, Gravenberch was comfortable in the box-to-box role, did not neglect his duties when his side were off the ball and was strategic going forward. Always aware of the space he needed to move into and picking the right moments to charge into the box when Ajax attacked, he displayed his ingenuity when he scored his first Eredivisie goal.
As Tadic dropped back to get the ball in ADO’s half - dragging a marker out of place with him - Gravenberch drifted into the space to receive the pass, turn and evade a defender in one smooth move. After a quick change of direction, he lashed an effort into the bottom corner just as three opponents closed in on him.
His second senior goal - against Sparta Rotterdam in the following matchday - required quicker thinking and more intricate footwork.
Again he found the space just outside the box despite the abundance of bodies around him and combined with Tadic to get around two players. The ball ended up with fellow midfielder Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, but Gravenberch stole it away and slid it into the bottom corner before the goalkeeper and three defenders could shut him down.
He featured just 12 times in all competitions that season, but was ever-present in the Ajax starting XI in 2020-21, proving himself as one of the most promising teenage players in the world.
“It’s unimaginable what he shows every week,” said ex-PSV and Netherlands midfielder Orland Engelaar. “[He] almost always makes the right choices.”
Gravenberch made 47 appearances in all competitions this season as Ajax won the domestic double and reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League, missing only four matches over the course of the campaign.
He played more minutes than any other Ajax player in the Eredivisie, and subsequently won the Johan Cruyff Award for the best young player in the league.
“Ryan is making huge strides in his development, and has made it clear that he can no longer be seen as just the up-and-coming talent,” Ajax captain Tadic told De Telegraaf in May.
“He has really shown what he can do, had a really good season and I think he will only get better. He is a real product of the youth academy.”
He has popped up with decisive goals in important matches, too.
He made the difference in a 1-0 win against Feyenoord in January, backing into a space of his own on the edge of the box to receive the ball and make a quick turn before sending it past the goalkeeper.
He also scored the opener in the 2-1 KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup) final victory over Vitesse, sauntering into the box to meet Davy Klaassen’s cross at the back post - once again able to find loads of space in a dangerous position - and lash it into the net.
“I find him very comfortable on the ball. Physically he is also strong. For his age too, because he is still allowed to play in the [U19s]. We must not forget that and that is really special,” Feyenoord star and Netherlands team-mate Steven Berghuis said recently.
“He has a lot of confidence and always wants to play forward. I can always appreciate that. He's got a lot of guts. He's a complete midfielder, I'm charmed.”
Gravenberch finished the season with five goals and six assists in all competitions, but as a central midfielder getting on the scoresheet is not the focus of his game.
“He is the example of a modern, complete midfielder at the top level,” ex-Netherlands, Ajax and PSV star Wim Kieft wrote in a column in April. “Although he is only 18 years old, Gravenberch is physically strong, has good motor skills, is very good at playing football forward and does his work defensively in the transition when the ball is lost.
“Furthermore, when you see how easily he turns away and gets in front of the goal, that is what you expect from a midfielder in 2021.”
Playing in the Ajax midfield with Klaassen and Edson Alvarez, Gravenberch is a strong and reliable presence. There is a simplicity and subtlety to his game that helps him avoid making mistakes, and while there have been underwhelming appearances, sloppy moments are to be expected for a player of his age.
Nevertheless, coach Erik ten Hag has been impressed by his progress.
“Ryan is developing well, has become dominant, shapes our attacking game, switches well, but also makes goals. Ryan is not very exuberant, but confident and stable. He knows what he can do and loves football,” he said in December.
Ten Hag followed that up in April, saying: “He has moved up the hierarchy. In the first year that I was here, I already brought him into the group. He really started at the bottom in the locker room. It has been quite a process. Slowly but surely he is working his way up.
“But he remains himself. And with his beautiful smile, he can laugh everything away. If he works hard and makes the right choices, Ryan has the potential to become a world star.”
Ten Hag is right that Gravenberch has a lot of learning to do, but it is a testament to his potential, rather than a suggestion that he is weaker, slower or less technically proficient than older team-mates.
“As a senior player your reliability is most important. In every aspect of the game, you need to reach a high level. Ryan has made big steps in this aspect,” Stekelenburg adds.
“It is always a fine line between success and failure. Ryan worked very hard for his opportunities, and when they came, he took them. Also, he has good people around him to make the right choices at this young age.”
The enormous strides Gravenberch - who placed seventh on the 2021 NXGN list - has made have already been noticed by the biggest clubs in the world, with Barcelona, Liverpool and Chelsea rumoured to have strong interest in signing him.
Gravenberch himself has suggested that he will stay in Amsterdam for at least one more year, but another display of his qualities at Euro 2020 will emphasise that, yet again, Ajax have produced one of football's hottest properties.