Anwar El Ghazi: Ajax winger who models his ball striking on Ronaldo
Anwar El Ghazi continued his highly impressive debut season with a goal and an assist in Ajax's 3-1 victory away to league leaders PSV Eindhoven on Sunday. His emergence has been one of the few bright spots in a largely disappointing campaign for the Amsterdam giants, who are still 11 points adrift of PSV at the top of the Eredivisie table despite their win.
Born in the Rotterdam suburb of Barendrecht to Moroccan parents, El Ghazi began his career at the local side BVV Barendrecht. Feyenoord took him into their youth academy at the age of 11, but he failed to make the grade and was released two years later. After a brief spell at Spartaan '20, he joined Sparta Rotterdam and, after a slow start, eventually showed enough talent to attract the attention of Ajax, who signed him up for the 2013-14 season.
After a year of good performances for the under-19 side, El Ghazi took full advantage of his opportunity to train with the senior squad last summer. He was expected to spend this season with the reserve team, Jong Ajax, but eight goals during preseason and some positive reports from the coaching staff, including one from youth-team coach Jaap Stam, saw him promoted straight into Frank de Boer's first-team squad.
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A substitute appearance in the Dutch Super Cup was followed by an assist off the bench in the 4-1 win over Vitesse in Ajax's Eredivisie opener. Goals against AZ Alkmaar (off the bench) and PSV (from the start) in his next two appearances quickly convinced De Boer to give him regular game-time, which he has justified with a return of eight goals and seven assists to date. Indeed, he has made a direct contribution to a goal every 95 minutes.
The 19-year-old was also far from fazed by his introduction to Champions League football. He was the first player to score against Barcelona this season and also gave left-back Jordi Alba a hard time in the return leg in Amsterdam. Ajax moved quickly to extend his contract through to 2019 in December. He has represented Netherlands at U17, U18 and U21 level but could still elect to switch allegiance to Morocco at senior level.
El Ghazi is a tall and strong wide forward, whose pace and power in possession make him a potent threat in the final third. Just as comfortable going down the line to provide a cross into the area as he is cutting infield and unleashing a shot on goal, he always makes life difficult for his markers. It can sometimes take him a little time to work his way into a match, but once he does there are few defenders capable of keeping him completely under wraps.
The 19-year-old showed his versatility on Sunday, when he was moved infield into the centre-forward position just before the hour mark. He showed good strength with his back to play and also scored the third goal with a superb finish from the edge of the area. De Boer has lacked a reliable central reference point at times this season and El Ghazi, who switched between wide and central roles during his youth career, could be a good option.
- strong and quick
- good close control
- strikes the ball well off either foot
- decision-making and awareness in the final third
- clumsy in his defensive work
Tackling: He is both the least prolific tackler of Ajax's forwards and the member of the squad who has given away the most free-kicks per match so far this season. Willing to help out defensively but can be a little clumsy in his attempts to do so.
Marking: Does a decent job of tracking back with his full-back when required.
Heading: At 6-foot-2 tall, he certainly has the right build to be a threat in the air. However, Ajax prioritise low deliveries from the flanks and El Ghazi therefore averages just one headed attempt on goal for every five matches he plays. On average he is involved in just over two aerial duels per match, of which he wins around half.
Close control: Possesses good touch and quick feet in close quarters. In combination with his strength and speed it is unsurprising that defenders often struggle to cope with him, as illustrated by the fact that he is Ajax's most-fouled player in the Eredivisie this season. His ability to carry the ball forward into the final third from deep positions was shown by his assist for Arkadiusz Milik's decisive goal in the 2-1 win over Heracles last September.
Passing: A decent passer of the ball, and is capable of linking neatly in close quarters, but the primary threat he offers is his deliveries into the area. Sometimes guilty of failing to get his head up to assess the options available to him, which can allow canny defenders to shepherd him into blind alleys. His completion percentage of 74 percent is about par for Ajax's forwards.
Positioning: He usually sticks to his flank but does drift infield when appropriate. Does a good job of getting himself into the penalty area when play is building on the opposite side, with three of his goals so far this season coming from far-post tap-ins. His off-ball runs in behind full-backs are mostly well-timed.
Crossing: Generally provides drilled, low crosses into the area having skipped past his marker or received a pass in behind the full-back, with five of his seven assists so far this season coming from such deliveries. Capable of providing dangerous higher crosses, but he does so less often. Relatively comfortable using his left foot when necessary.
Finishing: Strikes the ball very cleanly off of either foot. Places his shots well from the edge of the area, as seen on his superbly taken goal against PSV on Sunday, and those against AZ and Utrecht earlier this season. He gets just under half of his efforts on target. Has been a little wasteful at times -- most notably in the draw with Willem II in mid February -- but is generally a crisp and accurate finisher.
What The Experts Say
Ajax youth-team coach Jaap Stam: "Of course he's got the talent and skills to become a good player, but it's at an early stage. He's already done very well for himself now, but he needs to concentrate on his work and keep the level up."
Netherlands-based football journalist Peter McVitie: "The 19-year-old possesses impressive skill, technical ability, height, speed and a powerful shot, which makes him a huge threat in many areas."
Kishna and El Ghazi are two of the most talented wingers Ajax has seen in recent years, such incredible skill, pace and power.- Michiel Jongsma (@JongsmaJongsma) November 22, 2014
El Ghazi's idol is Cristiano Ronaldo and he has admitted that his style of striking the ball is predicated on that of the Real Madrid forward.
El Ghazi has not enjoyed a particularly easy rise to prominence. He was released from Feyenoord at 13, while his weight, work-rate and inconsistency of performance all came under scrutiny during his early years at Sparta Rotterdam. He does, however, appear to have settled since his move to Ajax and is now making his talent clear for all to see.
Caution should still be exercised. Viktor Fischer made a similarly exciting impression after breaking into the first-team in 2012, but he was unable to maintain that level once opposition sides began to grow wise to his ability. While defensive organisation is not as rigorous in the Eredivisie as it is in say Serie A or Ligue 1, El Ghazi will nevertheless have to overcome that same hurdle in the coming months and years.
There are still some raw elements to his game, but his current level represents a very strong starting point from both a physical and technical standpoint. He is willing to take responsibility for bad performances -- "It's my job as a forward to score. If I failed today I can only blame myself," he said following the draw with Willem II in February -- and his desire to improve his game suggests that he is a player with a very bright future ahead of him.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.