After a bright debut performance against fierce rivals Feyenoord, young Ajax left-back Dico Koppers showed he was another Ajax youth system product with great potential. But it became evident that he didn’t suit coach Frank de Boer’s playing style and found it difficult to break into the first-team. Now, a year and three months after his first game for the Amsterdam giants and six months left on his contract, the future is getting dimmer as there has been no interest from any side to take the 20-year-old on loan for the remainder of the season.
Good fortune lead to Koppers making his debut for Ajax. With Eyong Enoh suspended, coach Frank de Boer moved Vurnon Anita from left-back into midfield – his natural position – and coach Frank de Boer gave Koppers the nod to start on the left side of the backline ahead of Daley Blind.
In his first appearance for the senior side, Koppers showed he was a bright prospect. Comfortable on the ball, intelligent and fast with good passing ability and technique, from the early stages of the game it was clear the youngster had the characteristics typical of an Ajax youth system graduate and the bright future that goes along with that. But there was one aspect to his game which stood out more than any other, one which has become a rarity for those playing in the same position in recent years: he is very strong defensively. This aspect is one which cannot be underrated and it is something which modern full-backs lack.
Although De Boer was happy with Koppers’ performance in a match in which overall the team were very poor, it would be two months before the defender returned to the first-team. There were glimpses in the match against Feyenoord that he wasn’t a perfect fit for the side due to his style of play. While he clearly had great talent as a defender, the issue was in his attacking potency, or lack thereof. The style of play De Boer has implemented at Ajax is one which demands a lot from full-backs. Whilst the team start out in a 4-3-3 formation, when in possession of the ball it usually alters to a 3-4-3 with the full-backs resembling wide midfielders more than they do defenders, allowing Ajax to commit more men forward and play the game in their opponents’ half, and it is here Koppers started to struggle.
The Harmelen-born defender benefited further from injuries to the Ajax squad and he was free to return to the first-team in February, meaning he was available to start in his side’s Europa League clash against Manchester United. It would be the biggest match he had featured in but it would also expose the weaknesses to his game in terms of suitability to De Boer’s Ajax.
As in the Klassieker, Koppers’ overall performance was solid. He made it very difficult for Nani to create chances down the right side with his strength and reading of the game. But every time he burst forward with the ball his lack of confidence was evident and he eventually ran out of ideas and either gave the ball away or slowed down the attack, allowing United to recover and deal with the threat.
With United there for the taking De Boer needed more attacking threat down the left-flank and substituted Koppers after 60 minutes, replacing him with Nicolai Boilesen, who, just days prior, had played for the Ajax reserves in his first match since September, having been kept out by a hamstring injury.
As Boilesen had picked up another injury in that match, Koppers was given the nod to start in the second-leg against United and he again kept Nani quiet on the right flank. However, he was replaced at half-time by Daley Blind, who, although poor defensively, offered much more going forward, allowing Ajax to increase the pressure as they beat the Premier League giants 2-1 at Old Trafford, coming within a goal of progressing to the next stage of the competition.
The Dutch youngster started Ajax’s next three Eredivisie games but he was eventually phased out of his position by Daley Blind, who became a crucial part of the Ajax starting XI and suited the style more than Koppers.
Since then, Koppers has not been able to return to the Ajax first-team as Blind’s importance to the squad has risen exponentially. The Godenzonen are looking to loan the out-of-favour youngster out in January, but it seems he will be stuck in Amsterdam for the remainder of the season as, unsurprisingly; there is no interest in the player third in the pecking order behind Blind and with NextGen Series finalist Mitchell Dijks.
Koppers is very unfortunate not to be able to find a way out of Ajax this month. His defensive solidity, although keeping him back at Ajax, would be a great service to most other teams.
Ajax may have one of the best youth systems in the world and the player has clearly benefited from the coaching he has received from the age of 11. But he hasn’t been able to blossom in the team due to a difference in playing styles and he is likely to spend at least another six months with a side which has no need for him throughout a crucial stage in his development. By the time the winter transfer window slams shut, Koppers will be 21-years-old, an age at which most players begin to cement their place in their respective sides. However, it could be argued that his ability as a defender and his potential would have seen him become a key player had he been at another side other than Ajax.
Many teams are crying out for a left-back with the defensive ability of young Koppers, but unfortunately a lack of playing time with Ajax has meant he hasn’t had the opportunity to showcase his talents and progress, making it almost impossible for clubs to notice him. Unless he manages to secure a move very soon, it looks like this young talent will peter out and the potential seen in him in October 2011 will go unfulfilled.