With Hakim Ziyech departing Amsterdam in search of Premier League football with Chelsea, Eredivisie giants Ajax were left searching for someone to fill the void. While it is true that they have a number of young midfield prospects hungry for a breakthrough, Erik ten Hag and co. opted to search the market for a fresh face. Ghana international Mohammed Kudus, who impressed in 2019/20 with his performances for Danish outfit FC Nordsjælland, is the man who Ajax have turned to. Costing around £8.1m before add-on fees, the 20-year-old attacking midfielder has shown a keen eye both scoring and creating goals.
This scout report has been devised into two sections. Firstly, a technical and tactical analysis of the player’s 2019/20 performance will be undertaken to highlight the strengths he has to offer Ajax. This will be followed by a data analysis to compare his 29/20 performance to Hakim Ziyech, to assess his chances of being a successful replacement for the Moroccan star.
Position and Role
As the heat map above shows, Kudus is an ideal candidate for the role of creative midfielder, but also has qualities that enables him to perform adequately as a right winger or a centre forward, adding some depth to various positions for Ajax. His role in an attacking midfield position requires him to help his team progress possession out of defence and through the middle third of the pitch, as well as being present in a high frequency of attacking situations. Throughout 2019/20, Kudus garnered a reputation for his high energy performance, both off and on the ball. Off the ball, he would support his team by either making a bursting run into a dangerous area to receive the ball, or ferociously chasing down opponents to try and win possession back or slow the opposition attack down. On the ball, he shows great confidence in his ability to carry the ball, which he does with great speed and strength, not to mention his impressive agility. It is clear that when he picks the ball up, his first thought is to attack, something that will play right into Ajax’s hands.
As we have just briefly discussed, Kudus’ attacking hunger sees him make long but quick runs to add an extra body in attack for his side. This is just one example of such action, but it’s part of his game which seems to be intentional and pre planned between the coaches and himself. Quite a lot of attacks for his side start by Kudus himself dropping in from a more advanced area to collect the ball, before offloading it, usually to a wide teammate. From here, instead of just holding his position and eventually getting into a threatening position, he opts to do this early on, forcing the opposition to make a quick decision about who is to mark him – a smart move tactically as it can cause the opposition to lose focus on the man on the ball, or let Kudus run free around the box.
While his role for Ajax may be adjusted slightly from his style for Nordsjælland to fit the ten Hag’s desired tempo in attack, the qualities he shows in this area can be shaped to offer Ajax a different level to their attack.
His off-the-ball work isn’t just limited to operation while his side are in possession. As mentioned, he is tenacious in trying to dispossess the opposition, but he applied his smartly, pressing at angles that force the opponent a certain way. In the image above, for example, instead of allowing the opponent to carry the ball forward, Kudus tracked back at speed to unsettle the opponent before putting in a strong tackle. However, the angle he approaches the tackle is vital – regardless of the outcome, the opponent cannot progress the attack, the worst-case scenario would be Kudus conceding a throw in. In this situation, he did in fact regain the ball before laying the ball back to his teammate, allowing his team to start an attack with a player under no pressure.
This part of his game may seem less relevant at first when you consider how much Ajax tend to dominate possession. However, they have also displayed quality in the form of counterattacks and attacking in transitions. Having a player like Kudus in the middle who can regain possession in dangerous areas will allow them to launch more transitional attacks when the opposition defence is not fully prepared for it.
Mohammed Kudus is a valuable asset off the ball, but even more so on it. One of the most impressive features in his game is his talent to dribble the ball at speed – his natural power making it difficult to stop him without either fouling him or committing two or three defenders to him at once. The example above sees him utilise this skill, as well as cleverly involving the teammate next to him. The move begins with Kudus as you see him above, before quickly driving past the defender with the ball, causing his teammates to position themselves in attacking positions, causing the opposition to retreat to defend. Kudus drove about 15-20 yards forward, before he found himself in a two-on-one situation, in favour of the opposition. However, he knew the highlighted teammate would be in proximity to receive the ball under little pressure, and he immediately picked him out.
While Ajax’s philosophy is centred around possession, with attacking movement consisting of a high number of passes, players of certain positions to have a license to attack in this manner, again adding a different dynamic to their approach. In 2019/20, Kudus’ dribbling was a key part of his side’s philosophy, and with good reason. His dribble success rate of 59.28% was one of the highest in the Danish Superliga, with a lot of that success coming from dribbling against opposition midfielders, similar to the position in the image above.
An area which he will look to improve upon in the next year or two is the ability to use his weaker foot when dribbling. The youngster is naturally left-footed, and this shows through quite regularly on the ball. He favours the left foot in areas like first touch and dribbling, rarely using the right foot, which could become predictable if not rectified down the line.
The analysis above also includes Kudus’ dribble ability, but the focus is on what he offers in terms of chance creation. As you can see in the image above, five opposition defenders are close-by, with seemingly nowhere to progress to in solo fashion. The instinct of most player would be to pivot to face away from goal and find a teammate who can approach the attack at a different angle. Kudus, however, knowing there will be at least two teammates around the back post if he can make it to the six-yard line, recognizes the gap in the opponents’ defensive line, and opts to dribble around one closing player, before bursting into space; opposition scrambling. Without any hesitation, he lofted a dangerous and tempting cross towards the far post, which should have been attacked with more urgency from his teammates. The danger caused by Kudus, though, was impressive.
Attacking like this in the current Ajax team will have better odds of the attack resulting in a goal, due to the quality and the instructions of Erik ten Hag. Although he only registered two assists in the league in 19/20, his passing attributes will be a key part of how Ajax approach the final third. With an overall passing accuracy of 88.95%, he is reliable and consistent in moving the attack on to other areas of the pitch.
There is a strong chance that Mohammed Kudus will take over the creative reigns left unoccupied by Hakim Ziyech, and with that in mind, this section of the report will compare 2019/20 stats of the two midfielders. It is important to remember that Ziyech was in his best season as an Ajax player, at a club known for dominating the ball, while Kudus’ club finished 5th in the regular season before coming bottom of the Danish Superliga play-off system.
The graph above compares two stats for each player – total recoveries made in 19/20 (orange) and the average number of recoveries made in their teams’ final third. Straight away, we see what could be an example of Ajax’s dominance in the Eredivisie, as Ziyech, who isn’t known for his defensive work, has registered 70 recoveries in total, 26 more than Kudus. In the context of the final third and game time though, we see a superiority in Kudus, averaging 4.59 recoveries in the final third per 90 minutes, beating Ziyech’s 3.71. This is an important stat as it fits with Ajax’s talents in executing fast attacks on the break – nearly five times every game, Kudus wins the ball back for his team in the attacking third, meaning the opposition defence may not be set up to deal with an attack, a scenario we’ve seen Ajax take advantage of in the past.
The technical analysis of Kudus allowed for a visual insight into his talents in the dribbling department, but we can now see how he compares to Hakim Ziyech, adored for his mesmerising technique to beat a player. Unsurprisingly, Ziyech comes out on top in dribbles per 90 and successful dribbles per 90, but Kudus is not far behind. With 4.24 successful dribbles per 90, Ajax may have acquired a player capable of driving the ball through important areas of the pitch in quick times, leaving opponent players out of position. It is noteworthy that while both players are talented dribblers, their styles differ. Kudus likes to front an opponent up before using his pace and power to get by them – attributes which will only become stronger in years to come.
This set of data again shows the type of style Ajax play with, as well as the level Ziyech is currently playing at. The now-Chelsea star averaged 20.19 forward passes per 90 in the 2019/20 campaign, which shows a real attacking desire, he wasn’t interested in passing backwards or sideways unless it was absolutely needed. In comparison, Nordsjælland who aren’t a team who can dominate games the way Ajax does, presenting less opportunities for Kudus to take the pass they want. However, when you pair Kudus’ passing accuracy mentioned before, with his forward pass rate of 6.73 and his rate of passing into the final third at 4.93 per 90, he shows no hesitation in progressing the attack, an admirable quality for a player of his age.
This final graph is an indicator that we may see Kudus feature regularly in the Eredivisie in the 2020/21 campaign. Registering 13 goal contributions in total from midfield, Kudus has shown a maturity and game understanding which will help accelerate the process of him fitting into the Ajax set up. A goal-scoring midfielder is a rarity in a top division, especially one a young age with great potential. His presence in a side like Ajax will likely give him more opportunities to chip in with assists, as he will want to improve on his total of two from the previous season.
Mohammed Kudus is not the finished product, he is an impressive player with immense potential, and Ajax had to beat other big clubs to his signature. His £8.1m transfer fee will likely be the highest we spend Ajax spend this summer, with many clubs being financially cautious due to the pandemic situation. They have managed to add a dangerous player to their midfield ranks, who offers qualities in attack as well as in defence. In recent years, we have seen Ajax midfielders rotated in roles, meaning we may see Kudus play in deeper roles in some fixtures – his skillset will allow him to undertake such a role adequately though. While Ajax may ease him into the first team, there is no escaping that he could be a highly influential player for the Eredivisie giants, especially if he can contribute goals the way he did for Nordsjælland.