The Nigeria international has unfairly been scapegoated in what has been an underwhelming season for the Dutch giants
When it rains, it pours. Just when it seemed like Calvin Bassey was finally about to catch a break, a handball infraction in Ajax’s shock 3-1 Europa League loss to Union Berlin opened the floodgates, and brought barely concealed doubts bubbling up to the surface once again.
The Nigeria international has endured a difficult time since his move to Amsterdam, his reputation taking a beating and his competence called into question. It is a far cry from last season’s Europa League final, in which Bassey was superb for Rangers, earning rave reviews for his defending and athleticism. “Anyone watching that will be thinking: ‘That’s the kind of player I want in my team’,” former Manchester United and Bayern Munich midfielder Owen Hargreaves gushed in the wake of that showing in Seville.
For the majority of Bassey’s time in the Netherlands, though, fans of de Godenzonen have betrayed the opposite desire. Some of that is to do with expectation – Bassey was, ostensibly, signed as a replacement for Lisandro Martinez, whose blockbuster performances since moving to Manchester United have only served to make Ajax hearts grow fonder.
He also came in for big money, eliciting the third-highest transfer fee ever paid by the Dutch giants, and he has been appraised on that basis, expected to make a difference right away. The fact that, for all his precocity, he is a 23-year-old who, before this campaign, had only played two seasons of senior football in his career and is in need of development still, has been lost on many.
So, straight into the fire he went, an inexperienced but highly talented centre-back entrusted to an inexperienced manager in Alfred Schreuder who, by all accounts, was unable to provide even basic leadership to the Ajax dressing room. “Coach, be clear and decide for yourself what we are going to execute!” Daley Blind reportedly yelled at Schreuder during a bout of typical prevarication during a league game in October, an incident that summed up the state of affairs behind the scenes.
It has also not helped that Ajax seem incapable of deciding what position exactly Bassey should play. He has split his minutes between centre-back and left-back, and while he is capable of playing both positions, the vacillation has seemed to rest solely on indecision, rather than a desire to lean into positional versatility.
Is it any surprise then that things have gone as poorly for Bassey as they have? Or that, in the absence of either/both a challenging competitive level or/and technical competence, the former Rangers starlet has not only stalled, but actively regressed? In fact, considering these factors, it is not even as bad as it could have been – for all the negativity, Ajax still have the third-best defensive record in the Eredivisie.
It is precisely why the wisdom of electing to move to the Netherlands was questionable in the first place. Following the move, the player acknowledged a Premier League transfer would have been the easy path, often the simple answer is the correct one.
No use crying over spilt milk, though. His selection for both legs in Europe suggested the club had not altogether given up on him as a project. “He can defend,” Ajax boss Johnny Heitinga told ESPN on the eve of the visit to Berlin. “We have to help him and make sure he has plenty of opportunities, but we know how long the rest of the season is. We are going to need him.”
Heitinga would know, having been a defender himself during his playing career. However, the defeat to Union just served as a microcosm of Bassey’s struggles. On the night, given a hybrid role in a nominal back three, he was tasked with getting forward in possession, acting as a proper left-back when Ajax had the ball. It left him with a tremendous amount of ground to cover on turnovers, as well as a lot of space to defend in isolation.
The contrast between this and the organised structure within which he thrived under Giovanni van Bronckhorst at Rangers is stark. Again, this is a player clearly in need of guidance; if the fans, judgement clouded by the weight of his transfer fee, cannot see that, surely the club hierarchy must.
Form may be a transient thing, and potential may be deceptive in its promise, but Ajax owe it to the player, as well as to their own outlay, to give Bassey the best chance possible to succeed. That is the price you pay for betting on talent: some volatility but, ultimately, that sweet, sweet upside.
So far, ironically for a club with such a strong track record of bringing young players on, Ajax have set Bassey up to fail on almost every count.
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