Ajax full-back Noussair Mazraoui recently signed with Bayern Munich on a free transfer. He encapsulates everything we love about Ajax: determination against all odds, a pension for highwire-like acts on the sideline, and confidence to throw everything at the opponent. Nous will be missed in Amsterdam and his unique style will add something special to the German champions.
Many years ago, I penned an article listing the 19 most promising youth players in Ajax’s world-renowned youth structure, De Toekomst. The list was naturally subject to my own biases, but I felt it reflected the skill level of many under-20s in the Amsterdam academy. Matthijs de Ligt, Kasper Dolberg, and Noa Lang all featured towards the top of the list, but it was the lanky utility man named Noussair Mazraoui who just barely made the list, coming in at nineteenth.
‘Nous’ Mazraoui was at the time a starting defender for Jong Ajax, the reserve side offering academy players quality minutes against professionals in the Dutch second tier. To call Mazraoui a defender even now would be a bit of a misnomer; only João Cancelo and Trent Alexander-Arnold, of the full-backs I watch often, have a similar calmness in transition, intelligence in their passing choices, and deftness on the ball. It’s this jack-of-all-trades sort of aura that becomes obvious once you’ve seen Mazraoui play for a game or two. The rumours have it that Nous was nearly cut from the academy at multiple age levels, perhaps because of his inability to stand out in one category or position. It’s an incredible stroke of luck that he wasn’t.
I recall a Johan Cruijff quote where he pondered how, with the advances in scouting and data analysis in the modern game, he would’ve never made it to Ajax 1 as a player today. Cruijff was a similarly scrawny kid from the city – he expanded his sporting toolkit by playing one-two’s with the brick curbs, competing on the concrete courts that now sprawl all over greater Amsterdam. One feels grateful to support a club which emphasizes the eye test, and a player’s competitive spirit and intelligence above all else, when deciding who to continue training and who to show the door.
Now, after four seasons of spectacular performances at the Johan Cruijff Arena, Mazraoui is ready to show himself the door. He defied expectations and then set a new bar for himself and everyone else who will come after. Thank you, Nous. Thank you for being the perfect representative of Ajax and all who support the club. You are tenacious, smart, arrogant, and suave, and Bayern München can count themselves lucky to have you.
Noussair Mazraoui: Player Profile
Nous Mazraoui at 24-years-old has an opportunity unlike any other. Unburdened by the pressure of a high transfer fee, he walks into Munich as a player still with world-class potential and a pension for high-velocity, bold football. Mazraoui left Ajax on a free transfer, unlike his teenage teammate Ryan Gravenberch, who will join him at Bayern for around €30 million. Wunderkind Gravenberch will have the spotlight, even after an off-year in Amsterdam, which may allow Nous to sneak by under the radar as the pair adapt to life in Germany and the undoubtedly faster Bundesliga play style.
I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t call attention to the reasons why Mazraoui may not need time to adapt at all.
Bayern manager Julian Nagelsmann offered his side a degree of flexibility throughout the past several months. Regularly in a back-four and sometimes in a back-three, the German champions’ defense is not only strong, but dangerously versatile. Mazraoui, who was one of Ajax’s most brilliant players throughout the last few seasons when fit, is versatile through necessity. He gallops down the wing and into dangerous central areas like a creative midfielder or winger, which would be perfect for a 3-4-2-1.
Mazraoui is at his best when full of confidence. He takes on all comers willing to put in a tackle, beating most of them, before playing a one-two with a teammate or simply taking a long-shot himself. That’s what happened when Ajax visited Munich in 2018: Hakim Ziyech controls a long ball and lets Mazraoui take over. He beats Ribéry with ease, cuts inside past a lunging Alaba, and lays off a pass for Dušan Tadić in a dangerous area. The Serb chips the ball into the space between Bayern’s back line and Neuer, where Mazraoui has continued his run and finishes with his left boot.
This is Nous in full form. By taking up such advanced positions as a right-back, he puts pressure on the defense in both a positional and numerical fashion. When you have a midfield controller like Joshua Kimmich – someone able to keep possession under pressure and recover when the ball is lost – this allows Mazraoui to play with the confidence that his forward runs won’t leave the team too exposed.
Perhaps it’s this brazen attacking mentality that could expose some vulnerabilities at the top level of the game. I think it’s more likely that Mazraoui adds something to the Bayern side that not too many elite squads have: a unique, versatile defender capable of making intricate displays in the final third of the pitch.
The Dutch Method
In Going Dutch, historian Lisa Jardine recounts the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’ – neither glorious nor a revolution – which culminated in William of Orange sending some five-hundred vessels sailing across the Channel towards Britain in what ended in a bloodless coup. The nature of the invasion says a lot, I think, about the Dutch mentality. This was not really an invasion, but a walkover. “The Dutch fleet achieved its key strategic aim, creating an unforgettable spectacle, inducing a feeling of shock and awe in onlookers on either shore.” Jardine draws the comparison to D-Day in World War II, seeing this as a “huge feat of transportation,” not a battle at sea.
William had everything planned. Only a portion of the ships were actual naval vessels; many carried horses, troops, and supplies, as well as a printing press and plenty of paper. Of course, the actual naval might it took to pull off the feat was down to the ingenuity and practicality of the Dutch state at the time. The equipment was made and gathered in secret across Holland and the men carried to Britain were prepared for every eventuality. Well, every eventuality except for the small detail of where the flotilla would actually land!
The question of whether to make landfall in Yorkshire or Devon was TBD until well after the ships set sail. William of Orange first led the armada past London and up towards Harwich, but realized the wind had changed direction to the west. He gave orders to proceed south-westward, past the British capital once more where “the English war fleet, trapped in the Thames estuary by the same wind, watched William’s armada go by twice, helpless to follow and engage until it was too late.” The Dutch did end up anchoring near Torquay in Devon and, after William became sick of sleeping below deck, finally landed in Brixham.
Is it not hilarious to imagine the British, after knowing full well their inability to counter any Dutch attack, watching William’s ships calmly pick and choose their port of landing? It’s as if the whole manoeuvre was intended to tease King James II, to force abdication before enemy troops had even made it to the Isles. There is something romantic about this idea: an entire military manoeuvre to conquer Britain being decided, in no small part, by the direction of the winds.
If ever there was a metaphor for Dutch football in its heyday: the militaristic approach used by Rinus Michels in Amsterdam in the late sixties, Cruijff’s exquisite strategy completely kerfuffling the opposition…
But is it not also true that this invasion reminds one of Erik ten Hag’s team at its best, when Ajax would walk over some of Europe’s smartest and most physical defences in an embarrassing fashion? Ten Hag prepared the side for every roadblock the opposition would set, for every gap in the armour of their midfield. In the end, against Real Madrid in 2019, it didn’t matter. The strength of their force – Frenkie de Jong, Ziyech, and Tadić in particular – was too much to counter, to even put up much of a fight against.
And yet, like the ‘Glorious Revolution,’ some part of the plan is always up to the winds. When the most talented and cohesive Ajax team in decades had a chance to go all the way to a Champions League final, Lucas Moura happened.
Thank you, Mazraoui…
The aforementioned names are probably who you think of when looking back on that wonderful 2018-19 Champions League campaign. Maybe even De Ligt or André Onana, anchors in a steadfast and intelligent defence, come to mind. But isn’t Nous Mazraoui the peak example of a player conforming to his team, willing to play with confidence, to play Totaalvoetbal? An attacker first, but a defender nonetheless, whose silky dribbling down the sideline resembles an acrobat performing a high-wire act atop a city skyline. A fierce competitor who pops up in a right-wing or striker position yet is able to sprint back and block a counter-attack. This is Mazraoui, and this is Ajax in its purest form.
Some may say that Nous Mazraoui’s rise to prominence in the Ajax squad is due to Ten Hag’s managerial intuition. This cannot be disregarded, as in recent years we’ve seen the notable improvement of Edson Álvarez, who has transformed from an almost-flop to an elite ball-winner in the six position. And it is true that Mazraoui as a defender only works as part of a broader system emphasizing possession dominance and fluid play down the flanks. Yet every manager will tell you that, at the end of the day, it’s the twenty-two players on the pitch who dictate results. It’s Mazraoui who makes a defence more holistic in its approach to buildup play, and thus sets the tone for everyone else in the side. You need a defender confident enough to traverse forward to create a numerical overload, forcing the opposition to commit resources that would otherwise be kept in a more conservative, central area to prevent a chance at goal.
Mazraoui’s rise to the top of the game was a display of methodical growth and gut-wrenching persistence. That he was nearly an afterthought in my article highlighting Ajax’s youth players years back probably says very little, except to compliment his mentality even as a kid. Nous scraped by at every age level, despite his yet-to-be-fulfilled talent, because he showed those very intangibles that Cruijff felt are sometimes left behind today. Just like the Dutch invasion hundreds of years ago, luck certainly played a part in Mazraoui’s making it to Ajax I and, thus, Bayern. The hours of preparation, determination against all odds, and underlying talent probably didn’t hurt either.