Seasons scouted: 1994–95 to 1997–98 (Age 18-21 seasons according to FBref)
Ajax’s 1994–95 campaign has rightfully been remembered as one of the best single seasons that a European side has ever had, going undefeated in both the Eredivisie and Champions League. While there have been a few instances of teams going undefeated in league play (Arsenal in 2003–04 and Juventus in 2011–12 spring to mind as modern examples), what Ajax did stands an exceedingly high chance of never being replicated given the incredible slog that European football has become in its current incarnation. This wasn’t just a case of them being a one hit wonder either, as they won three straight Eredivisie titles from 1994–1996 and nearly repeated as CL winners in 1996, but 1994–95 was undoubtedly their peak.
What amplified Ajax’s historic achievement was that it was accomplished while playing aesthetically pleasing football during this era under Louis van Gaal, prioritizing control through stretching the pitch in attack. It certainly helped that at Van Gaal’s disposal was an amazing group of youngsters, a level of collective talent which ranks favorably with any young core within European football over the past 30 years. Reeling off the names was a squad full of prospects who ended up becoming very good-elite at their individual peaks: Clarence Seedorf, Nwankwo Kanu, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars. Alongside them were early prime age standouts such as Jari Litmanen, Frank & Ronald de Boer, and Edwin van der Sar.
Another key member who wasn’t mentioned was Patrick Kluivert, who at age 18, was arguably the most promising of Ajax’s young starlets at the time as he lead the line for their vaunted attack. Although he later on had some success (at least individually) at Barcelona during his mid 20’s, one could argue that his peak actually occurred as a teenager in Holland. He remains the youngest goal scorer ever in a European Cup final, and had sparkling individual production as a youngster in an era where it was tough to do so for attackers of any age. Though he didn’t shatter the mold of what being a striker entailed at the time, he did help modernize the position ever so slightly. So what was it that made Kluivert stand out in a squad full of stars, and how much impact did that have at the team level?
For a player who was listed at roughly 6'2, Patrick Kluivert had very good consistency with his first touch which helped him be productive with his back to goal. He was able to evade defenders on the turn (occasionally using his off arm as leverage) and combined with his size, it made him a dual threat to both receive between the lines and also be an outlet for aerial passes launched his way when occupying the opposition center-backs. While his above average mobility did allow him to get out of crowded areas in the interior and get past defenders who tried to quickly close down his air space, he wasn’t an explosive straight-line athlete like Kaká or Ronaldo who could quickly get to their top speed and turn these opportunities into long solo carries which generated value higher up the pitch. Rather, his actions post-turn tended to be a quick pass forward.
To help compensate for some athletic deficiencies, Kluivert was a good passer whose on-ball coordination seemingly translated onto his passing. He was particularly strong in reactive situations where he would position himself before giving the return pass into dangerous areas during give-and-go exchanges, all the while having similar comfort executing from either foot. That type of quick hitting passing was amplified by having teammates constantly make runs ahead of him, and it was the type of playmaking which could help grease the wheels for an attack to jump to a greater level. Lay-off passes were another strength of Kluivert’s, as he was strong enough to execute hold-up play like a conventional forward. He was less in his element when given more time on the ball to probe the opposition’s defense, so it did put a ceiling on the amount of playmaking value that he could generate.
Arguably the biggest strength with Kluivert was his off-ball movement, particularly creating space for others near the penalty box. A regular occurrence would see him dragging his marker to one side and create an open lane for a teammate to exploit. He would constantly be on his toe trying to linger on the blindside of the CB utilizing little hops and sidesteps, although his overall constant movement within the final third on occasion would lead to him being within an opponent’s cover shadow and be taken out as a viable receiver. When marked tightly, he would sometimes try to immediately spin and dart into the box, albeit he didn’t have nuclear north -> south athleticism to cleanly get to every potential pass. Lacking the elite straight line speed alongside occasional choppy footwork was what arguably kept him from having absurd off-ball gravity that some of the all-time strikers had.
Despite playing in an era where shot locations weren’t a point of emphasis, Kluivert wasn’t prone to taking too many inefficient shots from long-range. Part of the reason was undoubtedly due to playing with as many talented teammates as he did in Holland which made life easier for him. Some of it was also the end result of having a skillset that naturally lent itself to not having to take lots of long shots. He had some comfort taking shots with his weaker left foot, albeit I wouldn’t go as far to say that he was a genuine two-footed shooter. He was also capable of doing traditional target-man work by utilizing his size to generate headed opportunities. There would even be brief moments where he’d execute the same type of hand jostling similar to someone like Adriano who used to gain leverage inside the box.
It would be fair to argue that at this point of his career, Patrick Kluivert was considerably more well-rounded than the typical U21 forward, but he perhaps didn’t having one particular standout trait. He was solid with his back to goal, and could leverage his mobility to turn from opponents and maneuver out of traffic somewhat, though he didn’t have the explosion to constantly create separation afterwards to singlehandedly drive attacking sequences. His frame also made him capable of executing different types of lay-offs, and along with his instinctive passing, allowed him to have some value as an on-ball playmaker, but only up to a certain point. He also carried strong gravity off the ball, particularly by attracting defenders away from their zone to set up potential runs into the box for his teammates. However, he didn’t have the speed to always turn runs in behind the defense into scoring chances. In some ways, Kluivert’s success was down to him being a low-usage striker who could pass and move at a good to very good level.
From the start, Kluivert was incredibly productive during his first two seasons in the Eredivisie where his non-penalty goals & assists per 90 minutes output was at a rate that would look more in line with some of the best in today’s era. In both league play and the Champions League, Kluivert registered 1.00 NPG+A per 90 in 1994–95, and 0.897 in 1995–96. His early peak corresponded with Ajax’s attack operating at levels considerably above where the rest of Europe’s elite were at, scoring 3.12 goals per game and 2.86 goals per game in the Eredivisie during those two seasons. Their talent advantage domestically over the rest of the league certainly played a notable part in their high octane offense, as even for the best attacks within the big leagues in Europe, they were hovering at around ~2 goals per game. Though Ajax never came close to replicating that same level of goal scoring in the CL, they were still among the best in the competition on a per game basis during those two seasons.
At first glance, comparing Kluivert and Ronaldo might seem confusing given their differing strengths and weaknesses as players. However, there’s a bit more that links the two together when you dig further. For starters, both began their European careers in the Eredivisie. Ajax were rumored to sign Ronaldo before he eventually went to their rivals at PSV. Each were producing at ludicrous levels right away during their teenage seasons and were among the best young talents in Europe at the time. While Ronaldo was the more impactful player during those three teenage seasons from 1995–97, Kluivert’s age 18 & 19 seasons weren’t too far behind.
As the graph shows, Kluivert experienced a steep decline in production in 1997 & 1998 that potentially hints at the biggest demerit he had as a prospect. The Bosman ruling of 1995 played a pivotal part in Ajax’s core splitting up, and with more players leaving the club, he couldn’t produce the same level of impact as he did previously. This was highlighted even more during his lone season with AC Milan in 1997–98. Where he looked like a fish out of water in Italy, Ronaldo adjusted quickly to having to shoulder a large burden of Inter’s attack and still managed to thrive in Serie A when healthy, though that’s not a surprise since he might be football’s greatest floor-raiser. In comparison, Kluivert was almost entirely a ceiling-raiser or dependent talent who needed to play alongside multiple high caliber attackers and midfielders. In that type of environment was where he could impact a team’s attack the most. This shouldn’t be seen as a full explanation for why Kluivert’s numbers took a major dip in those two seasons, but it might shed some light.
With that said, there’s something to be said for playing a notable part in raising an offense to very high levels while generating elite individual numbers in their own right, which was the case with Patrick Kluivert. His combination of strong off-ball movement and capable on-ball playmaking was advanced for what would normally be expected out of a teenager, and that made him scale well into Van Gaal’s system in the mid 1990’s alongside others who were also prolific in those departments. Having that type of synergy across the board helped Ajax reach such staggering heights, sitting atop in Elo Rating among European clubs by the end of the 1995–96 season, a testament to their massive success in this period. Sure, I do think it’s fair to question his ability in his early years to positively impact an attack if he didn’t play alongside a good number of high-end teammates, but helping an attack go from good -> very good/great is immensely valuable and Kluivert’s scalability is what sets him apart when compared to other under-21 attackers in the modern era.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the names of Louis van Gaal and Edwin van der Sar. It also mentioned Ajax rejecting the opportunity to sign Ronaldo from a Mundial interview with Aad de Mos, but further information wasn’t found to fully confirm this.