Even during a sweeping match against Cambuur, emotional football player Neres shows his two faces

It’s the 38th minute. Ajax is already ahead 3-0 against Cambuur thanks to goals from Jurriën Timber, Steven Berghuis and Noussair Mazraoui. The visiting team has traveled to the Arena just a little too offensively to avoid a sweeping match, that much is clear then.

Dusan Tadic puts a high cross from the left flank, in his characteristic way: immediately looking up from the hood movement, explosive, but with an overview. On the right side of the penalty area, David Neres shakes free from his guard Alex Bangura. Although he loses his balance, Neres hits the ball with a volley. Via a hard bounce on the ground and a kiss against the bottom of the bar, the ball lands behind keeper Sonny Stevens. A world goal – and that for the only Ajax player who had a hard time up to that point.

It turns out to be the prelude to a monster score, in which Neres would also play a leading role in the further course of the match. After his first goal, the Amsterdam crowd shouts ‘ten, ten, ten’. With the current balance of power in the Eredivisie between top and bottom, that wish also seems feasible: in the end, the visitors from Leeuwarden must stretch time to avoid a double-digit defeat.

One-sided steamroller spot or not, Neres receives a reminder just before his brilliant goal that the standard is eerily high in Amsterdam at the moment. After a weak first half hour, the Brazilian pinball player is still whistled by some in the audience. Until his volley, Neres barely succeeds: twice a heel fails, guard Bangura wins most of the duels, his first crosses sail high over and he clumsily gets stuck in the crowds a few times.

Status change

The impatience that the home crowd now has with Neres is a sign of his situation. He no longer has a star status in Amsterdam. In January 2019, Ajax turned down an offer of 43 million euros from Guangzhou Evergrande. With his swinging individual actions, the attacker was bluntly too important as an attacking joker in the European success team of trainer Erik ten Hag.

This summer, the Brazilian was in the window for not even half of that top prize, but the wealthy clubs from larger competitions did not allow it. Somewhat logical, when considering the fact that since that monster offer in January 2019, Neres has missed considerably more minutes at Ajax (more than 6400) than he came into action (about 4800), due to persistent injuries.

Where Neres continued to take his goals and assists between the injuries, the swinging was a bit off in his game due to the many absences. This is also apparent from the statistics. Where Neres in 2017/18, his first full season in Amsterdam service, still had an average of 6.3 dribbling actions per 90 minutes, last season that average was only 3.3 dribbling attempts per full game. In short, only half as adventurous as before.

That is why the star player of yesteryear now has to fight for minutes. And they are not up for grabs on the Amsterdam flanks. With attack leader Tadic on the left and the unleashed Antony on the right, the starting spots in the most important duels are forgiven. But with summer signings Steven Berghuis and Mohammed Daramy on the way, Neres even has to be careful not to become the fifth winger in the hierarchy.

Emotional footballer

In the duel with Cambuur, Neres once again proves to be an emotional footballer. Whimsical, like the old football cliché about wingers.

Before his volley goal he plays colorless, after his goal he looks liberated. After a break, the pinball from a few years ago is visible again. The speed is still there, so is the technology. And the silent effectiveness. With newfound confidence, he leads Tadic into 5-0 by sending Timber deep with a through ball, gives a tight assist to substitute Danilo’s 8-0 and taps himself, at the suggestion of new competitor Daramy, the last of the evening inside.

Ten Hag is full of praise afterwards. ‘I thought he was excellent tonight. He had to deal with a big disappointment this summer: he had counted on a transfer, but when it didn’t go through, he left the situation very mature.’

The Ajax trainer believes that Neres can still be of great value to his team, even in a smaller role. “He still has the motivation, which is clearly noticeable in the training. And we need a good Neres. Mutual competition must push the vanguard to a higher level.’

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