In the land of the Blind, Daley is King
Mikel Arteta isn't as good as he used to be. Whether it's due to age, injuries or his midfield partners, the Spaniard seems to be becoming less positively influential. Most notably losing pace over the last year, it's time to think about a replacement for the Barça youth product. Mikel looks most comfortable when partnered with Aaron Ramsey, but his play under pressure when isolated and his lack of engine could become a problem for an Arsenal side that wants to challenge for trophies in years to come. Borussia Dortmund's İlkay Gündoğan has been mentioned in the past, but his injuries and links to Real Madrid plus an undoubtedly huge price tag make him a seemingly unattainable target.
A player that hasn't been mentioned as Arteta's heir and Aaron Ramsey's future other half in the centre of midfield, is Daley Blind.
An introduction to the young Dutchman:
It's the 2010-2011 season. Once seen as one of the biggest talents at the club, Daley Blind is now greeted by a chorus of boos from his own club's fans after another inconsistent performance at left back. It doesn't help that his father – an Ajax legend - is at the centre of the power struggle between the 'Cruijff camp' and the establishment. Blind senior is deemed untrustworthy by Ajax' former #14 and with the popularity of El Salvador with the Amsterdam faithful, young Blind junior is bound to carry some of that burden.
Fast-forward to the end of the 2012-2013 season. The young left back lifts the Eredivisie title trophy in front of a packed crowd at the square in front of the Amsterdam ArenA. It has been a great season for him. After hitting form halfway through the season before, Daley Blind has just been crowned Ajax' Player of the Season, beating ever-consistent captain Siem de Jong and influential Christian Eriksen.
Another six months later, there's no doubting Blind's influence on the way Ajax play. Frank de Boer has moved him back to the midfield position he played in the youth teams, and the way Daley fulfils the "number 6 role" is reminiscent of Ajax teams of old. Think modernised Frank Rijkaard, think of the undervalued importance of Sergio Busquets to the way FC Barcelona play.
Blind has all the organizational and defensive attributes of a classic "number 6" – the player that plays in front of the back four in a 4-3-3 formation – but with the added mobility that the modern game demands. Daley is the cornerstone of Ajax' defensive setup; his great positional sense enabling the Godenzonen's high press as well as their 4-1-4-1 shape when the opponent manages to play past their aggressive pressing.
Ajax' defensive 4-1-4-1 shape
Being as selfless as his position demands, Daley Blind always makes himself available for a pass when Ajax are in possession, orchestrating Ajax' play in their defensive and middle third as they go along. Playing as a third centre back one moment to improve Ajax' options when building from the back, Blind's great engine allows him to move up the pitch as attacks go on, redistributing the ball all over the pitch as the team patiently tries to find an opening, allowing the full backs to push up at the same time, because they know Blind won't let them down in transitions.
Daley's understanding of the game is vital to the way Ajax play. As mentioned, he enables Ajax' 4-1-4-1 shape in defence. Furthermore, his aforementioned selflessness and awareness in the build up allow Ajax to effortlessly switch between 4-3-3 and 3-4-3, depending on the phase of play. In Ajax' system that means that the centre backs always have a passing option and/or the freedom to – characteristically- dribble into midfield. Besides it being a very intelligent way to build attacks, it tires opposition forwards who have to decide whether or not to press the dribbler and try to intercept passes.
Ajax base formation 4-3-3 and the 3-4-3 with Blind as the 3rd centre back
Daley Blind's Ajax education is very obvious in his technique. His ability to shield the ball with intelligent body positioning is ever so important to the role he plays; the way he manages to hit passes accurately and powerfully enough when in awkward positions under pressure is another strength. Another plus is Daley's awareness: he often manages to avoid those awkward situations by looking over his shoulder before receiving the ball and positioning himself accordingly. Blind is not someone who sprays eye-of-the-needle through passes, but he's more than able to find his man with passes long and short, especially his midfield partners and overlapping full backs.
Ajax' number 17 has also improved himself in the physical department. Spending a lot of time in the gym, he has become a lot stronger in recent years. In the most complimentary way possible, Blind is very much a workhorse. The midfielder averages more tackles and interceptions per game than any of his teammates. Daley isn't quite Patrick Vieira yet, but he is more than capable of putting opposition dribblers to a halt by positioning himself between them and the ball or barging in with well-timed standing and sliding tackles. Despite not being overly tall (5'11"), Blind's strength and timing make him hard to beat in aerial duels.
Translating the way Blind plays to Arsenal's system, the most logical solution would be to play a slight variation of the current 4-2-3-1. Daley isn't as effective going forward as Ramsey is, so it would make sense to have Blind sit while Ramsey plays his box-to-box role. It would allow Ramsey slightly more freedom and it would aid Özil massively due to the passing options both Blind and Ramsey offer him.
Only 23, Blind has all the talent and attitude to be one of the best midfielders in the world. With him developing the way he is and under De Boer's guidance, it's not beyond him to play for one of the top clubs in Europe. Daley Blind's contract runs until 2016. Frank De Boer 'expects him to leave in the summer', and with Louis van Gaal's claims that he wants Oranje to play like Ajax do, it's not unimaginable that Blind will play his number 6 role in orange as well as in red and white. If that were to happen, it's inevitable that a great World Cup would make him one of the most wanted players in Europe.
If that happens, Arsenal need to be all over that. A midfield partnership of Ramsey and Blind would be very solid and tactically astute, without sacrificing penetration in attack.
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