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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Brian Brobbey, the in-form Ajax striker admired by Man Utd’s Erik ten Hag

An Ajax player being linked with Manchester United? Stop us if you’ve heard this before.

A disappointing season on and off the pitch for the Dutch club has not stopped transfer chatter over United manager Erik ten Hag and his previous employers’ squad. This week, Brian Brobbey popped up as possibly the next to follow Ten Hag from Amsterdam to Old Trafford, as Antony, Lisandro Martinez and Andre Onana (the latter via a season at Inter Milan) have done. 

“I don’t know anything, I’ve also seen it in the news. I’m staying in Amsterdam,” said the 21-year-old striker after scoring twice against bottom-half side RKC Waalwijk in a 4-1 win last weekend. He then jokily added, “Can they come back in the summer? Who knows.”

This is not the first time Brobbey has spoken in such a fashion about reuniting with Ten Hag. Nor is it the first time he has been named as a possible solution for United’s obvious needs at centre-forward. Still, the club’s complicated financial situation makes a move for him before the 11pm deadline next Thursday (which is also Brobbey’s birthday) close to impossible.

Ajax’s interim manager John van ’t Schip has said “insane amounts of money” would be needed to get them to do business in this window and, while the player has admitted that he “used to text” with Ten Hag in the past, communication between them has stopped. Or as he put it, “Erik has enough on his mind, and I have a new number.”

There might come a time when Brobbey will look to leave Ajax for a ‘bigger’ club. If/when that day arrives, fans of any prospective suitor may want a guide to what sort of player he is.  

So here’s a cheat sheet on a young Dutchman who is about to have a busy six months…

What the numbers say

A look at his smarterscout profile from last season provides a snapshot of Brobbey’s style of play.

Blessed with a low centre of gravity and powerful thighs, he is a potent physical threat in the penalty area. Strong and pacy (but not lightning quick), he can be a powerful ball of muscle when barrelling through on goal. When he was 14, he was found to have a higher vertical leap than Cristiano Ronaldo (who was terrorising defences for Real Madrid at the time.) 

Brobbey’s physical dominance over Eredivisie opposition can come at a price. He knows how much stronger he is than the defenders he faces every week, meaning he has a tendency to ‘cheat’ himself in more frantic moments, relying on that strength to bail him out of situations he wasn’t adequately focused on. It’s hard to know how well he will perform if he moves to a team in one of Europe’s top five leagues and starts facing off against more adept, tougher defenders.

That he doesn’t have blistering quick sprints, like Rasmus Hojlund or Marcus Rashford, means he would have to find more inventive ways to earn separation between himself and the best defenders in the Premier League if he moved to England. 

He is a useful focal point for his team’s attack, exchanging simple short passes with nearby team-mates (as indicated by his good scores for link-up play and ball retention). His back-to-goal game is impressive (again, when facing defenders in the Dutch league) and he has deceptively good hold-up play for his 5ft 10in (180cm) frame.

Statistically, Brobbey can look like a goalscoring marvel. He’s a volume shooter: taking many attempts and — eventually — scoring a decent number of goals. He likes to do most of his work inside the penalty area (look at the high scores for receptions in the opposition box and shot volume on the smarterscout chart above). 

His shot map for last season illustrates a clever penalty-area mover who can get into the six-yard box with pleasing regularity. How well he’ll do in front of goal when playing for a team who don’t dominate possession as well as Ajax remains to be seen. Even when Ajax are unconvincing, they tend to have the lion’s share of the ball in Eredivisie games. 

However, it is important to know that Brobbey is a very streaky finisher. When he’s in good form (he is at the time of writing), he can look like one of the best young strikers in the world. But he can be among the more frustrating/underwhelming when he is not. This goalscoring inconsistency — and his propensity for niggly muscular injuries — means several managers have preferred to use him as a substitute rather than trust him to be the team’s primary goalscorer. 

Additionally, there are questions about his defensive effort when out of possession. Brobbey can be a mediocre presser of the ball.  

Wait… aren’t Ajax rubbish now?

The record 36-time Dutch title winners and four-time European champions made a dreadful start to this season, marked by off-field chaos and a losing streak that briefly left them in the relegation zone.

Ajax planned to use a consistent stream of Champions League revenue to turn themselves into the Bayern Munich of Eredivisie. But a belief in institutional exceptionalism and massive dysfunction at the executive level has turned them into the (pre-INEOS?) Manchester United of the Dutch league.

They are in a fight to get into the Europa League places using what is a lop-sided squad, while a collection of their former players talk in the media of how things used to be better at the Amsterdam club back in the day.

Ajax hope the January signing of England midfielder and former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson will bring experience and leadership to a particularly young dressing room as Van ’t Schip, who was appointed in October after summer hire Maurice Steijn lasted just 11 games, looks to build on their current position of fifth. 

The club’s wider problems have led to Van ’t Schip trusting Brobbey to be his team’s lead striker, and he has repaid that faith with 15 goals from 26 games in all competitions (11 from 17 in the league). 

Good numbers, but again, treat them cautiously; Brobbey remains streaky in front of goal.

Seven of his goals this season have come in his last five games as he rides a hot streak against teams in the bottom half of the table. He has not yet displayed the numbers or performances of former Eredivisie stars Memphis Depay, Cody Gakpo or Mohammed Kudus. (Yet. He might end this season with an impressive body of work.) 

Brobbey has the talent to be an effective cog in an already well-oiled machine, capable of generating goalscoring chaos in a way few other players in the Netherlands can. It is harder to predict whether he can be a sparkplug in a malfunctioning engine, or whether it’s even reasonable to ask him to take on such a role.

Ajax will need him to finish the season strongly if they have any hopes of qualifying for Europe, be it through league position or winning the Europa Conference League — they meet Norway’s Bodo/Glimt next month in a two-leg play-off for a place in that competition’s last 16.

Expect him to feature in national-team coach Ronald Koeman’s plans for Euro 2024 as well, having made his senior Netherlands debut off the bench against Greece in October.

Didn’t Brobbey leave Ajax before?

Yes. Brobbey had a brief, disappointing spell with RB Leipzig, who he joined as a 19-year-old free agent in the summer of 2021 after letting his Ajax contract expire.

He lasted six months in Germany, failing to score in 14 appearances, just two of them starts, which totalled a mere 252 minutes. Mino Raiola, his agent at the time, admitted he felt some responsibility for the move not going to plan, and felt it best that Brobbey returned to Ajax. He rejoined them the following January in a loan deal that was made permanent at the end of that 2021-22 season. 

Brobbey’s talent means there may well come a time when Ajax attempt to sell him for, as we quoted Van ’t Schip earlier, “insane amounts of money”.

Given the difficulty many Eredivisie exports have experienced when moving to England’s top flight, the onus will fall on him to show suitors he is more Kudus than Antony, and that he possesses the consistency to make it in a stronger competition.

Physically and technically, Brobbey is capable of the jump to a Premier League club.

The question is whether he is emotionally prepared for the challenges ahead.

(Top photo: Maurice van Steen/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

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