After signing Kai Havertz, Arsenal raced back into the transfer market to complete a deal for Ajax defender Jürrien Timber.
But who is the Dutchman, what will he bring to the side and why is he costing £35 million? Phil Costa reports.
When it comes to developing and providing opportunities for young talent, few can match Ajax and their unique track record. The likes of Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Clarence Seedorf are just three of several high-profile names to have broken through in Amsterdam but more impressively, the club are approaching 2,000 consecutive matches with at least one academy graduate in the starting lineup – a streak that began in 1982. Jürrien Timber also falls into that category who, despite starting out with Feyenoord, is De Toekomst through and through.
After making his senior breakthrough in 2020, the 22-year-old has risen in prominence with each passing season and is now a key figure in Ajax’s starting eleven. But things could have been different when Erik ten Hag – the manager who handed him his debut – made Timber his primary defensive target when taking over at Manchester United last year, before pursuing Lisandro Martínez instead when internal talks persuaded the Dutch international to stay and help them through transition.
Still here tho ❌❌❌ pic.twitter.com/CuHy54RO3R
— Jurrien Timber (@JurrienTimber) July 6, 2022
Unfortunately it was a turbulent campaign for the club who surrendered their Eredivisie title to Feyenoord and missed out on Champions League qualification altogether, although the defender demonstrated his value with more appearances and minutes than any other player.
What makes Timber such an exciting prospect is his comfort in possession. Following the departure of Lisandro, the 22-year-old was effectively tasked with replacing his elite ball progression alongside the more conventional Calvin Bassey and adapted well in doing so. He currently sits in the 98th percentile for pass completion (93%), progressive passes (6.3) and passes into the final third (6.8) per 90 among positional peers – FBRef data – excelling in systems which maximise his Ajax education. His passing is not always adventurous but reliable over short and mid-range distances, with a strong appreciation for knowing when to play safe and when to be bold. One area that needs refinement is his long passing; too often they are faded with backspin and hang in the air which makes them easy to defend.
Despite those impressive numbers, his true superpower lies in ball carrying. Standing at 5ft 11in (182cm) tall, Timber is not your typical centre back and that shows in his sharpness of movement, where he can burst away from pressure with smart turns and body swivels. The Dutchman is extremely quick over the first five or ten yards, matching speed with soft feet in congested areas to keep the ball under control before driving into space. He often swaps positions with Edson Álvarez – a taller, more traditional defensive midfielder – during games and feels natural in central areas which adds weight to him playing at full back for this Arsenal side. The 22-year-old currently sits in the 99th percentile for progressive carries (2.3) and in the 96th percentile for shot-creating actions (1.7) per 90, highlighting his willingness to break lines and make meaningful contributions further forward.
But those attributes should not detract from his defensive quality which is just as eye-catching. Naturally, Ajax dominate possession in the Eredivisie and Timber plays a crucial role in allowing that to happen. He is tasked with staying touch-tight on strikers, nudging them in the back, wrapping his limbs around them – essentially being allowed to follow danger all over the pitch. The opposition have to earn every inch against him and when they do escape, expect to be hunted down within seconds. Often left as the last man, Timber is also comfortable defending space thanks to his strong recovery pace and treads the line between aggressive play and fouling well to avoid conceding fouls.
Following the club’s long-standing interest in Brighton midfielder Moises Caicedo, could this signing be a workaround in recruiting proximal qualities but for half the price? Both players are aggressive, proactive ball-winners with great physical capacity and versatility across multiple different positions. Naturally there will be a gap in quality but stylistically, they play in similar areas of the pitch which Mikel Arteta could explore.
— RL (@RL_Comps) July 3, 2023
Something which will have been noted by scouts is his aerial prowess. Timber is already an unorthodox centre back, playing in a more technical league and won just 47% of his aerial duels last term. This could prove problematic in English football against bigger, more direct centre forwards with surprisingly poor technique and timing considering how cleanly he competes on the ground. However, Arsenal already have strong aerial options at the club (especially along the backline) so this could trivialise his flaws.
Another habit he will have to curb is blind chasing and vacating his position. Ushering strikers back towards their own right back might work in the Eredivisie, but space is exploited and punished more regularly in the Premier League which calls for more consideration without losing his all-action nature. This can also apply to his dribbling, where he is guilty of overplaying or releasing the ball too late.
“He is another great leader that was trained here at Ajax,” Ten Hag told club media of Timber ahead of his own departure to Manchester United in June 2022.
“Besides his skills, his versatility, he has the personality to become a captain. A great player and a true professional.”
And those buzzwords appear again. At risk of repeating myself, the club continues to target clear profiles in their recruitment since Arteta and Edu took over: young players with experience, leadership qualities and versatility. Timber, like Kai Havertz, like Declan Rice, like Martin Odegaard, like Aaron Ramsdale, arrive with their wits about them in senior football but more importantly – malleability and potential to improve under this coach.
It remains unclear where the 22-year-old will feature in this side but brings a single-minded, tenacious approach to ball-winning; which this group has lacked occasionally at crucial moments. He also looks an immediate fit for the ‘Ben White role’ in our current setup and moving forward, allows us to swap the way we invert our full backs (from left to right) and an alternative in how we progress the ball, through ball carrying instead of distribution.
It’s no secret that Eredivisie talent hasn’t always thrived in England, but Arsenal have done their homework and invested significantly in a player who has the raw ingredients to be more Jaap Stam than Jozy Altidore – the rest is up to him.