Justin Kluivert's Steady Serie A Progress
Justin Kluivert’s move from Ajax to Roma during the summer of 2018 was a fascinating deal. On finances alone the transfer wasn’t anything extraordinary, though Ajax did fairly well in recouping just over €17 million considering Kluivert had only a year left on his contract. Two things made the move interesting: Kluivert was leaving at age 19 for a Champions League level club in Serie A after just over 3000+ minutes at Ajax across two seasons, and the club he was going to in Roma had a large squad so game time might’ve been an issue during his first season. Leaving so early in his development was risky.
Kluivert was a precocious young talent at Ajax. When isolated on the left wing he was consistently able to get a step on opponents, and he displayed some acumen for left footed crosses which hinted at the possibility of having added value as a two-footed winger. Kluivert was a high end prospect, and it wasn't hard to see his appeal. It was fair to say that he wasn't quite a generational talent, but certainly someone who was on the high end of 18-21 year-old prospects in European football.
As it stands now, Kluivert is on pace to play at least 1500 Serie A minutes, which isn’t an insignificant amount of playing time for a teenager and makes the bet he took on himself look smarter in retrospect. In an alternative world where his contract wasn’t running down, getting another full season at Ajax and producing large numbers in the Eredivisie would have been good for his development, but the situation he's currently in at Roma has not proven to be a hindrance when it comes to game time. With the jump up in competition, it comes as no surprise that Kluivert’s production to this point has not been eye popping.
Initially, one would look at Kluivert’s production and be disappointed given the hype that surrounded him at Ajax. He’s basically been the equivalent of a league average attacking midfielder or winger. But context is key. Given that Kluivert went from Ajax who have such a talent advantage over everyone in the Eredivisie not named PSV, to a top level, but not necessarily elite, Serie A club in Roma, his production was likely to take some dip. Also when accounting for age, and Roma's overall weirdness this season, it's not terribly hard to explain why Kluivert hasn't hit the ground running in Italy. This isn't to say that it's great that he's having the season he's had, but there shouldn't be any immediate worries.
You'll see flashes of what made Kluivert such a highly rated prospect with his ability to beat individuals off the dribble. The disparity between his completed dribbles and turnovers is a little bit worrying because that level of discrepancy as a wide player is when you're starting to take things off the table. Kluivert hasn't found it as easy to dart his way through the opposition as he did in the Netherlands, but the moments that Kluivert have conjured up are strong enough that I tend to believe he'll increase his dribble numbers to a rate that's more acceptable for his archetype of player. He's got a special level of acceleration that not a lot of wingers are blessed with.
Kluivert's decision making has not been much of a worry to this point. He's been able to use his athleticism in a functional manner to get a step on his marker and turn it into something positive for the team. His 2.14 open play key pass per 90 rate is second among Roma players who've played at least 600 minutes, and his open play expected goals assisted per 90 rate of 0.19 is tied for third. Certainly there have been instances where Kluivert cuts inside and instead of laying it off to a teammate and going for the safe option tries something else and it doesn't end up going well, but we're starting to see more instances of him doing productive things during semi-transition opportunities.
If there's one area in Kluivert's game to monitor moving forward, it would be his crossing and how much of a threat he is as a left footed crosser. If Kluivert turns out to be a sub-elite (or better) overall crosser as a wide player, it'll raises his ceiling even higher because you could utilize him in numerous ways. He could play as a more traditional winger on the right side where he could use his burst + crossing abilities to create chances for teammates in the box, or he could be an inverted winger and give the opposing fullback worries with being able to either cut inside with speed or deliver pinpoint crosses from closer to the touchline.
To this point, Kluivert has completed 1.35 crosses per 90 minutes and has a 48% success rate on crossing attempts this season, which is the highest completion rate among Roma players with 600 or more minutes. I don't expect that figure to last, if only because that's such a high success rate that the odds are more likely it goes down. I was a bit skeptical that he was this amazing left-footed crosser, but he did have confidence in attempting left-footed crosses in the Eredivisie and that's translated with Roma. Projecting confidence as a crosser overall is half the battle, and the sample size is growing that he's a quality deliverer from the wide areas.
Kluivert has also begun to use his speed and intellect to cause real danger to the opposition, whether it be for him individually or opening up a passing lane for a teammate. If there's one positive thing to take from Kluivert's season in Serie A so far, it's that going from the Eredivisie to a top 5 league has not made much of a difference with his off-ball athleticism. He was an elite athlete in Holland when it came to sprinting into open spaces, and that's translated fairly well in Italian football.
On some level, it is a bit weird to be so effusive of a player who has produced okay results in league play but doesn't have numbers that jumps off the screen. Justin Kluivert hasn't hit the ground running in the same way that Jadon Sancho has at Dortmund where he's been a sensation. You can certainly nitpick at Kluivert's game: he has taken some bad shots from the left halfspace. With the current squad that Roma have, it's hard to envision Kluivert becoming a high volume shot taker so that makes it a bit harder to achieve a noteworthy xG contribution. If Kluivert doesn't turn out to be a very good-great crosser, that also chips away a bit at his overall value as well. It'll also be curious to monitor whether Kluivert turns out to be an above average shooter once there's a greater sample size of shots in Serie A, because some of his finishes in the Eredivisie made you wonder if that was his destiny
But the moments Kluivert has had in Serie A play have been encouraging enough that those who were high on him coming into this season shouldn't be too worried about his progress, not to mention that he is averaging a 0.45 goals + assists per 90 rate as a 19 year old, which is nothing to sneeze at. The best thing that can be said about Justin Kluivert's season is that he hasn't look overwhelmed against Serie A competition to this point, and while he isn't light the world on fire in Italy, being a credible attacking player as a teenager is a positive sign for future stardom.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association