Best Young Right-Back
Gregory Van Der Wiel
A graduate of the famed Ajax youth academy system, Gregory Van Der Wiel made his debut for Ajax in March 2007, but was forced to wait a little longer to demonstrate his full potential in the first team, as injury struck him down for the majority of the 2007/08 season.
He began his career as a right-sided centre back, until former coach, Marco Van Basten elected to switch him to an attacking right full-back role to fully utilise his speed. During the 2008/09 season, Van Der Wiel thrived in his new role at full-back and established himself as first choice at Ajax. His breakthrough year was completed when he earned his first international cap in February 2009, in a friendly against Tunisia and was named his club’s ‘Young Talent of the Year’.
Netherlands coach, Bert van Marwijk slowly nurtured Van Der Wiel into the national side, selecting him to start in three of their eight World Cup qualifiers. After a successful 2009/10 season with Ajax, helping them to lift the Dutch Cup and receiving the Johann Cruyff ‘Young Player of the Year’ award in the process, Van Der Wiel soon established himself as the number one right-back in the national team.
He had clearly caught the eye of coach van Marwijk during the early stages of his career, with the national coach cementing Van Der Wiel as his right-back ahead of regular holder John Heitinga, instead adopting him in a central defensive role at the expense of the experienced duo, Andre Ooijer and Khalid Boulahrouz.
Van Der Wiel has all the characteristics of the modern day full-back, he’s lightning fast and is very attack-minded, he overlaps well and can cross effectively. He has also chipped in with his fair share of goals at club level, scoring nine over the last two seasons. A high level of stamina and a strong tackling ability enable him to prosper in his position at the highest levels of football at such a young age.
The Dutch national side has struggled for an adequate replacement in the right-back slot since the retirement of Michael Reiziger in 2004, with Van Der Wiel displaying much promise; they may have found a resolution.
Comparisons have been made with Barcelona’s right-back Daniel Alves, a player Van Der Wiel looks up to. When asked about the likeness in their playing styles, he explained, ‘We do have the same style, we both play the whole right flank – creating combinations, taking a man on, crossing the ball in and scoring’.
He was selected for the first two group stage matches at the World Cup against Denmark and Japan, with Holland winning both games without conceding a goal. He enjoyed more freedom to get forward during the clash with the Danes and produced a string of enterprising attacking forays. Conversely, he displayed his defensive qualities against Japan, when forced to sit deeper to track the lively Yoshito Okube, his athleticism and tackling assisted him in dealing with the threat the Japanese wide-man offered.
The return to the side of winger Arjen Robben forced him to limit his forward runs during the second round tie against Slovakia, with the Bayern Munich man far less defensive-minded than Dirk Kuyt. He performed solidly and wasn’t greatly troubled by the Slovakian’s left-side of attack, unfortunately a late penalty concession by goalkeeper Martin Stekelenberg wiped out another Dutch clean sheet.
Playing in a standardised back four, Van Der Wiel has been a part of an organised and well-drilled defensive unit. Testament to this defensive unity, Holland only conceded two goals in qualifying en route to South Africa and are currently unbeaten in 23 matches.
Admittedly there are not many candidates to compete with Van Der Wiel for the title of best young right-back at this World Cup, perhaps the most evident being Spain’s 24 year-old Sergio Ramos. Van Der Wiel had only 16 months and 10 caps behind him before participating at the World Cup, but has displayed a level of maturity and composure in his performances way ahead of his years.
While many nations have called upon their experienced performers in this position, such as Brazil’s Maicon and Germany’s Philip Lahm, it is a delight to see Dutch coach van Marwijk instilling great confidence in his young protégé. The level of consistency to his international performances thus far suggest a bright future for the young Ajax man.
His displays at the World Cup will have further enhanced his glowing reputation, as many top European sides have been linked with showing an interest in the 22 year-old. It would be a surprise if a big move does not materialise for him within the next couple of years as his talent is showcased further.
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