Kasper Dolberg: His trainer is Bergkamp and he finishes like Van Basten
Five Ajax players to watch out for in Wednesday night’s Europa League final
Ajax’ Danish forward Kasper Dolberg during his team’s training session at Friends Arena in Stockholm. Photograph: PA
Jens Steffensen, a former Denmark international who has been Dolberg’s agent for more than four years, recalls: “After one day of his trial, he said to me: ‘We want to sign him.’
We went inside to phone Kasper’s parents and discuss what to do – but it didn’t take long to decide because Ajax has such a long history of Danish players coming through the system; we chose them. It was a very good match. His personal trainer now is Dennis Bergkamp. ”
Little more than two years on, Ajax’s technical director has been proven right. Dolberg, a 19-year-old powerfully built forward from Silkeborg, has excelled in Peter Bosz’s thrilling young side, scoring 16 goals in the Eredivisie and another six from nine starts in the Europa League.
They are the same size, same speed and both have a good shot
An impudent finish in the 3-1 defeat by Lyon in the second leg of the semi-final, dinking the ball over the goalkeeper and top-spinning it into the net to elude the despairing defender’s lunge, proved vital as Ajax booked their place in Wednesday’s final against Manchester United with a 5-4 aggregate victory.
Not for the first time this season, comparisons were made to a strapping teenager who made his mark in the famous red and white shirt 35 years earlier. After Dolberg’s 18-minute hat-trick against NEC in November, consisting of two trademark strikes with his right foot and a clever angled header, even Dolberg’s father, Flemming Rasmussen – like Dolberg’s mother, Kirsten Dolberg, a former professional handball player in Denmark – could not resist.
“I see many similarities with Marco van Basten,” he said, noting his son had just broken the 1988 European Championship winner’s hat-trick record by four minutes. “If he goes like him that’s very good of course. They are the same size, same speed and both have a good shot.”
Dolberg was spotted playing for his local side GFG Voel when he was 12. Having alternated between handball and football as child, he settled on the latter and joined Silkeborg’s academy. Still painfully shy, however, he initially struggled to settle and returned to Voel. A year later he was persuaded to go back.
“We signed Kasper when he was a 15-year-old boy,” says Steffensen, who owns the Scandinavian Soccer agency. “I played for six years in the Bundesliga and in the same Denmark team as Allan Simonsen and John Sivebaek, so I know a bit about talented players.
“He already had nearly everything at that time. He had speed, a fantastic eye for the game, ability with both feet, free-kicks. His game in the air was not that good but when you have that speed you can learn how to jump properly.
“But with young players, it always depends on what is inside his head.”
In 2009 another young Danish striker also appeared to have the world at his feet. “Within five years I want to be the top scorer in the Premier League and I want to be known as a world-class striker,” Nicklas Bendtner, who now plays in Norway for Rosenborg, told the Guardian eight years ago. “And it will happen. Trust me, it will happen.”
There appears little chance of Dolberg making the same mistakes as the former Arsenal striker. In an interview with the Danish national broadcasters DR in October, the softly spoken teenager said his preference was “to remain in the background” – a trait his father believes his son has inherited from him.
Kasper is a very quiet person and his feet are always one metre in the ground
“He can come across as indifferent, nonchalant or even cold but that can be deceptive,” Rasmussen said. “When he is on the pitch and facing competition he will think, deep down, that he will get the better of that opponent.”
Steffensen says: “Kasper is a very quiet person and his feet are always one metre in the ground. It’s important to have that connection to earth.”
After Dolberg made his debut for Silkeborg in May 2015 and starred for Denmark’s Under-19s, Wolfsburg contacted Steffensen that summer and arranged for him to attend a trial.
John Steen Olsen, Ajax’s celebrated Scandinavian scout whose long list of discoveries includes Jan Molby, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Christian Eriksen, had also spotted something and asked the agent not to make hasty decisions. It was the prospect of working with Bergkamp, who has been entrusted with bringing through young players to the first-team squad, that was the most persuasive argument.
“Danish players have almost the same mentality as the Dutch people,” Steffensen says. “You can count on the fact that they are team players and also have very good technical ability when they are young. But because the domestic competition is not as strong as other countries you need to find the right place to step up to the next level.
At first, his progress was steady not spectacular
“When Kasper came to Ajax he was a left winger. But Marc Overmars told us that he thought he could be a fantastic No9. He put Bergkamp and Kasper together and we have seen the results ever since.”
Ajax paid €270,000 to sign Dolberg but, at first, his progress was steady not spectacular. After some promising appearances in the Uefa Youth League, he was invited to last summer’s pre-season training camp in Turkey by Bosz and forced his way into the first-team reckoning, signing a five-year contract before he had made his senior debut.
“We knew that he would get to this level … but to be there so quickly was a surprise for us,” Steffensen says. “In the last few years he has really started to develop physically and I think that is one of his strongest assets now. He’s also very calm; he believes so much in himself. Kasper has a natural instinct going forward but is not a selfish player.”
The cushioned backheel pass into the path of Davy Klaassen in the away leg of the last-16 tie against Copenhagen in March illustrated that. Bergkamp has been encouraging Dolberg to shoot more often in recent months, although the influence of the man who remains in the top five of the Premier League’s all-time list for assists is clear to see.
At the end of the second leg against Lyon the average age of Ajax’s side was 20. Inevitable comparisons have been made to Louis van Gaal’s 1995 European Cup winners for a team also containing the Chelsea loanee Bertrand Traoré, the German winger Amin Younes and the 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt, plus others including Patrick Kluivert’s 18-year-old son Justin.
“It’s a really fantastic job they are doing,” Steffensen says. “They take the young players and give them a chance to come into the first team. Of course, the level in Holland is not like in England but still it is a good level of football. It’s important that they are given a chance, not only for one or two matches but for a long period of time, so they have a proper chance to adapt.”
Dolberg, who is renting a flat on his own in Amsterdam after staying with a host family during his first year in the Netherlands, remains very close to his parents. They have been in touch even more regularly in recent weeks as speculation over his future spirals, although his assertion last week that he will stay put this summer will have been music to the ears of Overmars and co.
“We’ve had interest from all over Europe, especially from England,” Steffensen says. “All of the top clubs in England have been in touch – and in Spain as well. Everything depends on Ajax. He has a contract with them until 2021 but I don’t know what they want to do. They have not given me any indication how much it would cost to buy him.”
Anything north of £30m, if the latest speculation is to be believed. Manchester City have been scouting Dolberg since last season and appear to be the most keen. Steffensen may not earn a penny from any transfer. He says he has an exclusive contract to represent Dolberg, which expires next summer, with the Dutch agents SEG International ready to step in.
He will do what he can and hopefully it will go well – but he’s not nervous at all. He never is
“With such a player there will always be competition from other agents but that is actually the name of the game,” Steffensen says. “I was the same when I was a young player because I got into the first team as a 17-year-old, so I know how it works. If Kasper decides to stay with us in Scandinavian Soccer or if he decides to go with another big agency then we will wish him all the best in the world.
“We found him and put him into the way that he as to go. He has kept focused all the way, so he deserves to be a success.”
As for whether Dolberg will suffer from nerves when he runs out to face José Mourinho’s United at Stockholm’s Friends Arena, you can probably guess the answer.
“No, no, no,” Steffensen says. “It is like any other match. He will do what he can and hopefully it will go well – but he’s not nervous at all. He never is.”
Five to watch
Goalkeeper Born: 2/4/1996
Cameroon is producing a number of promising goalkeepers and the emergence of Onana is a credit to the Samuel Eto’o Foundation in Douala, where he played until the age of 13.
A five-year spell at Barcelona ended when he decided he “had to leave to grow as a player” and his rise in stature since arriving at Ajax in January 2015 has been rapid. At 6ft 3in Onana is a commanding presence with excellent reflexes. His cousin Fabrice Ondoa, also a goalkeeper, is four months his senior and was one of the stars in Cameroon’s Africa Cup of Nations triumph in February.
Centre-back Born: 12/6/1996
The scouts have been out in force for Sánchez, a Colombian centre-back who had been coveted by Barcelona before choosing to join Ajax from Atlético Nacional last summer. His reason for moving to the Netherlands was that first-team football would be easier to come by; sure enough, he fitted into Peter Bosz’s side immediately and has been a cornerstone of this Europa League run.
Sánchez is powerful and composed in possession; his captain, Davy Klaassen, says he is a “beast” and he is likely to be dominating attackers in one of the continent’s biggest leagues soon. Barça remain keen.
Attacking midfielder Born: 21/2/1993
It says plenty for the youthfulness of Ajax’s lineup that, at 24, Klaassen seems like its elder statesman. His leadership skills are not in doubt but the Ajax captain is himself a work in progress and one that a number of top clubs around Europe would like to see improve on their watch.
Klaassen, who is Ajax through and through, having emerged from the club’s academy, is a dynamic attacking midfielder who is perfect for driving the tempo Bosz demands. His goalscoring record reflects a well-honed sense of timing and his vision on the ball stands up to most, too. He would appear well suited to the Premier League.
Attacking midfielder Born: 19 March 1993
Ziyech is perhaps the most vaunted of Ajax’s creative forces and had been linked with a number of European clubs before moving to Amsterdam from Twente a year ago.
A technically outstanding playmaker who is at his best in the area behind the striker, the Moroccan international – who was born in the Netherlands and came through at Heerenveen – makes the attack tick through his dribbling and his ability to pick the right pass. Ziyech, 24, also takes an excellent left-footed set piece but the assists come from all over the pitch and stopping him may be key to Manchester United’s hopes of victory.
Winger Born: 6/8/1993
Younes, who will start on the left side of attack, has been named in Germany’s Confederations Cup squad and that is ample reward for the progress he has made since joining from Borussia Mönchengladbach in July 2015. The 23-year-old had not quite made the grade there, despite a number of Bundesliga appearances, but has pushed on at Ajax and boasted the best take-on figures in this season’s Eredivisie.
He has been decisive in the Europa League, scoring twice past Celta Vigo and at the death against Schalke before netting the third of Ajax’s four semi-final first-leg goals against Lyon. Nick Ames