Another delightful Ajax prospect in terms of technique, vision and cognitive abilities, how high is the ceiling of 16-year-old Kian Fitz-Jim, and could he be fitted to play at Barça one day? This tactical analysis will expose why you should keep an eye on him.
Sometimes a player catches your eye from the very first time you watch them play. Personally, there have been a few such instances, namely Carles Aleñá, Maxence Caquaret, Yacine Adli, and numerous players from La Masía.
Around a year ago, the elegance, awareness and technique of AZ Alkmaar immediately caught my eye. Since then, this player named Kian Fitz-Jim has gone on to make his debut for Ajax’s U19 at 16 years of age. In this article, we will take a look at what makes him a player to keep an eye on.
Kian Fitz-Jim is a 16-year-old Dutch central midfielder who can also play in attacking positions. He has represented the Netherlands at the U15, U16 and U17 levels. At AZ Alkmaar, he played predominantly as a central midfielder or as a wide playmaker on the left. Though very attack-minded, Fitz-Jim isn’t a goalscoring type of midfielder, rather more of an orchestrator.
At Ajax, however, some changes were made to his play. He was played on the right side of midfield more frequently and he was also instructed to drop back to receive the ball from the center-backs of the defensive midfielder. This added a new dimension to his style of play. In the preliminary round of the U17 Eredivisie he just had one assist in 11 matches. Nevertheless, in the U17 Eredivisie, he has managed three goals and three assists in six matches.
Though he has made his U19 debut, he still plays majorly for the U17 side. Next season should see him play for the U19 more often and in a year more he could even join Ajax for preseason if he continues at this rate. Kian has a contract for three years signed in 2019, so he has enough time to make sure he gets a renewal.
Good physical attributes, even better mental attributes
Kian Fitz-Jim is, particularly, a very fun player to watch. His attributes in attack bring out the best of his winger-like traits.
One of the most impressive things about Kian is his excellent decision making. When we talk about the attacking aspect of footballers, of course, their technique, ball control and such are important. No doubt that this young Dutchman has a good grasp on those skills. Yet his awareness, vision and understanding of the game shine brighter. Above all, arguably his best quality may be his quick thinking. He always is two steps faster than almost anyone on the field with a clear vision of what he is going to do before he does it.
Many times, Fitz-Jim just drifts into space in between the opposition’s midfielders in the half-spaces. Regardless of how quick he is pressed, he already knows what to do next. It may be a simple pass back to his teammate or he may let it run past and dribble followed by a pass to take out the defence. Whatever he does, Kian does with a lot of confidence. Naturally, this only amplifies his already great passing, dribbling and vision.
Ajax’s Kian Fitz-Jim stands out for his technique, vision and intelligence | Photo by Imago
At AZ Alkmaar, Kian played on the left and this helped him cut inside or receive the ball in front of the defence and thread a ball through. At Ajax, though he still dribbles well, his passes are more often lay-offs and impressive line-breaking passes, and not the killer passes as earlier. At the age of 16, he is nowhere near the finished product that he will eventually be, and such changes in his position are normal. Besides, his quick lobs and chips are an excellent asset to finish off his runs with. His great accuracy and always promising excellent vision makes Kian a delight to the eye.
Furthermore, the Dutchman has great dribbling skills. With very quick feet, he darts past players with the ball often and this, combined with his close control, makes him a huge threat in transitioning from attack to defence. These talents of his allow the manager to instruct him to receive the ball in the middle of the field. From here, his passing and dribbling help the team progress and his awareness helps him to not be dispossessed easily.
Kian’s passing and ball control are close to perfect at times, which helps him in the build-up and offensive aspects both.
The first touch when receiving a pass is very important and even more so for a midfielder. Kian Fitz-Jim excels in this aspect and his first touch, along with his technical ability, is particularly impressive. His ball control, passing range and utilisation of space all complement each other, making him such an outstanding player at a young age. Fitz-Jim’s first touch is such that it sets up his next move, in yet another example of how he uses his quick thinking to stay a step ahead of the opposition all the time.
While still just a boy, Kian’s future looks very promising | Photo by Imago
Kian’s passing has always excelled. His technique is good, sure. But his passing range is excellent. With pinpoint long balls, killer through passes and quick chips over the defence, this is one of his strongest virtues. As he has been instructed to drop back to receive the ball this season, the Dutchman has got a chance to showcase this. This is just another way he contributes to the transitions. The 16-year-old’s superb vision allows him to use his technique to thread through great passes.
Along with this, Fitz-Jim’s increase in comfort with respect to his left foot has been a revelation this season. Predominantly right-footed, Kian has done very well in terms of using his left foot more often this term. Playing on the right has made this somewhat of a necessity. He has been very confident in passing between the lines. His line-breaking deliveries are excellent and are one of the reasons why he has contributed to Ajax‘s U17 this campaign regardless of his lesser goal-contribution involvement.
At 16 years of age, Kian has impressed anyone who has seen him play. His elegance, awareness and technique are undoubtedly excellent. The fact that he plays for Ajax and his general style of play makes him a player who Barcelona could look at in the future. The excellent relationship between both clubs could definitely help this in case Barça were to be interested in him one day. His utilisation of space, passing skills and attack-minded style should be something that will help him settle in with the Catalans.
For now, Kian has to prove himself at a higher level and impress the Ajax administration. Looking at his progress, he may be playing more centrally and less advanced soon, which should suit his skills as well. Regardless of how this young prospect develops, Kian Fitz-Jim is surely a player to enjoy watching. Definitely keep an eye on this one.
Using data to construct alternative Barcelona lineups
If you had to build a team that matched the style of Barça’s first eleven, what would it look like? Who are the Lionel Messi’s and Sergio Busquets’s of other clubs around the world? Let us dive into these questions using statistics.
The ability to identify similar players can be very beneficial in football. That knowledge can be applied to pinpoint transfer targets as potential replacements for an outgoing star, to gain a deeper understanding of how an unfamiliar opposition plays and who their main threats are, and more.
In the modern age, data plays a massive role in this. Here, the concept will not be as serious as crunching numbers to analyze an opponent or maximize efficiency in the transfer market, rather it will be more of a fun look at the Barça squad.
Essentially, we will be using player statistics to answer the question: What if you had to replace each member of the Barcelona lineup with another player from world football? Not in a fantasy way of building a dream eleven, but identifying players who best match the tendencies of the current team.
Background and methodology
To find the next best thing to Lionel Messi, Frenkie de Jong, and company, data from Wyscout for the 2019/20 league season will be used. Each position group – centre backs, full backs, centre midfielders, and attackers – starts off with a sizeable group of metrics relating to their style of play, before a factor analysis is performed.
The factor analysis looks at how all the players in the position group performed across the variety of individual metrics, before attempting to reduce the number of data points by creating factors that reflect relationships between those metrics.
For example, it picks up on the fact that attackers like Messi, Neymar, and Bernardo Silva tend to drop deep and be very active in buildup. This is reflected by their high tallies of actions like passes and passes into the attacking third.
So, it can use those trends to create one factor representative of that style, allowing the 25-30 metrics for each position group to be reduced to five or six numbers, which is much easier to interpret. After that, cosine similarity can be used to find a player’s closest match.
In terms of the players involved, this is the Barça eleven that will be used based on a mix of who has played the most over the course of the season and Ronald Koeman’s recent choices.
Because of his injury issues, Ousmane Dembélé did not play enough in the 2019/20 season to generate even a decent sample size, so his 2018/19 statistics were used instead.
Finally, for Marc-André ter Stegen in goal, factor analysis will not be used. There are not enough useful metrics available for the goalkeeper position, so a more simple search will be performed. His matches will be found by looking for players who are similarly active in possession, accurate passers, and possibly have a similar physical build. With that in mind, time to get into the results.
To present the outcomes of this analysis, we will have multiple alternative lineups based on certain criteria. First up are players with a Transfermarkt market value of €25 million or higher. Here is each Barça player’s closest match:
- Marc-André ter Stegen: Ederson (Manchester City)
- Jordi Alba: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
- Clément Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Gerard Piqué: Edmond Tapsoba (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Sergiño Dest: Héctor Bellerín (Arsenal)
- Sergio Busquets: Jorginho (Chelsea)
- Pedri: Florian Neuhaus (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Frenkie de Jong: Arthur (Barcelona, now at Juventus)
- Antoine Griezmann: Mason Mount (Chelsea)
- Lionel Messi: Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Ousmane Dembélé: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
Two young Bundesliga centre backs anchor the backline. At left-back, Robertson’s delivery style may differ from Alba’s, but the Scotsman offers a similar end to end stamina. On the right, Bellerín slots in as a La Masia product himself.
This midfield sees Jorginho take the reigns from Busquets as the metronome, while Pedri is replaced by a fellow wonderkid in the emerging Neuhaus. Seeing Frenkie de Jong matched with Arthur may be a bit surprising. The Dutchman has certainly improved this season and contributed in a wider variety of areas, but this goes to show that he needed time to gain confidence, just like Arthur was.
The wings are occupied by big names who have commanded massive transfer fees. Dembélé matching with 2019/20 Hazard can also be seen as a bit eerie given both of their injury struggles. Neymar, the former protégé, slots in for Messi, giving the side another former Barcelona connection.
Probably the biggest surprise comes with Mason Mount taking over for Griezmann. The Chelsea midfielder’s place here is certainly reflective of the unique, often unsuitable role the Frenchman played in 2019/20, where he had to perform quite a bit of “midfielder” work and was not as involved in the goals as he would have liked.
Now, let us move to the next market value range – between €15 and €25 million.
- ter Stegen: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
- Alba: Oleksandr Zinchenko (Manchester City)
- Lenglet: Jonathan Tah (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Nikola Maksimović (Napoli)
- Dest: Dodô (Shakhtar Donetsk)
- Busquets: Leandro Paredes (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Pedri: Todd Cantwell (Norwich City)
- de Jong: Boubakary Soumaré (Lille)
- Griezmann: Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Manor Solomon (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Jonathan Tah joins Edmond Tapsoba from that first lineup as Bayer Leverkusen centre-backs highlighted here. At right-back, Dest is replaced by another one of the position’s brightest young talents in the Brazilian Dodô.
Manor Solomon, another Shakhtar Donetsk youngster, comes up on the right-wing. Given the Ukrainian club’s history of smart recruitment and the number of talented players they have who seem to fit Barça moulds (attacking full-backs, possession-based midfielders, inverted wingers), it definitely looks like a good place to scout.
The Camp Nou was recently home to a great performance from Leandro Paredes, albeit for the opposition. Fellow Ligue 1 midfielder Soumaré has been attracting lots of interest from the big Premier League sides for his recent play.
Filling Messi’s spot here is PSV’s Mohammed Ihattaren. He may be unknown to some, but the teenager’s top-flight experience at a big club and callups to the Dutch national team back his ability.
Onto the next squad, which brings up some under the radar players, with the market value ranging between €5 to €15 million.
- ter Stegen: Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Alba: Marcelo (Real Madrid)
- Lenglet: Aleksandar Dragović (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Rick van Drongelen (Hamburger)
- Dest: Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Maximiliano Meza (Monterrey)
- de Jong: Wendel (Zenit)
- Griezmann: Lars Stindl (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Messi: Josip Iličić (Atalanta)
- Dembélé: Ryan Kent (Rangers)
In goal, Yann Sommer played a big role in getting Borussia Mönchengladbach, ter Stegen’s former club, to Champions League football. On the attacking side, he is joined by his teammate, the well-rounded Lars Stindl.
Dragović becomes the third Bayer Leverkusen centre back to feature here. To his left, another big club alternative comes in for Alba and this time from Barça’s arch-rivals.
Moro (22), Wendel (23), and Kent (24) bring some younger legs to the side. Kent, in particular, has looked very impressive under the management of Steven Gerrard and is now looking to secure a league title while advancing in the Europa League.
Covering for Messi this time is another one of football’s ageing stars. While he may not have reached his peak until later in his career, Josip Iličić is making the most of it. He has put up excellent numbers across the board over the last few seasons, propelling Atalanta into Italy’s top three and the knockout stages of the Champions League.
To finish off, how about we look at a lineup of only young players? Here is the U-23 alternative eleven:
- ter Stegen: Florian Müller (Freiburg)
- Alba: Emir Karic (Rheindorf Altach)
- Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Piqué: Flavius Daniliuc (Bayern Munich II, now at OGC Nice)
- Dest: Henry Uzochokwu (FC Midtjylland)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Delio Ramírez (Deportivo Pereira)
- de Jong: Claudio Gomes (Jong PSV, now at Manchester City U-23)
- Griezmann: Michel Vlap (Anderlecht, now at Bielefeld)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Some familiar names present, but with no market value range, there are a few relatively unknown footballers here. Sancho, the new star on the wings at Dembélé’s former club, would undoubtedly have to shoulder a lot of responsibility if this were a serious side. However, there is some real talent here.
Flavius Daniliuc is certainly one to watch for the future. A former member of both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s academies, the Austrian teenager, is now getting his first taste of top-flight football with Nice.
Frenchman in midfield Claudio Gomes is another solid prospect. He came through the Paris Saint-Germain academy and has represented France at each youth age group from U-16 to U-20. Gomes has made a short appearance for the Manchester City first team in the FA Cup this season, but at 20 years old, he could be on the move soon in search of first-team football.
The potential for forward Michel Vlap to become world-class may have run out, but he is definitely a serviceable player. After reaching double figures for goals in the Eredivisie in 2018/19, then the Belgian first division in 2019/20, the Dutchman earned his move to the big five leagues.
Of course, not much deeper insight can be drawn from this. The analysis here is done almost purely on a hypothetical level, as opposed to trying to prove anything. It does reveal some interesting trends, though.
We were able to highlight how Neymar has evolved to become more Messi-like, how Bayer Leverkusen use ball-playing centre backs similar to Barça, how Shakhtar Donetsk has some intriguing talents that Barça could monitor (several others were not mentioned), and more.
It does also make fans think about having to actually replace the likes of Messi and Busquets when they move on. Who will slot in for them for real when it is time?