“If you ever saw an Ajax game, everybody was talking about Appie because his skills were so different to all the others. He was so creative but also entertaining the fans and that was what people liked. For him, it was second nature to act like that, because he was just playing like he was playing on the street.” – Wim Jonk
Last month, for the first time in Dutch footballing history, a youth team finished top of a professional division. For years, Jong Ajax had been knocking on the door of this phenomenal achievement. With a conglomeration of long-time academy players and young introductions from across the world, Ajax’s B Team finally won the Eerste Divisie this season. Amidst the festivities – after the final whistle, before the boys held a celebratory pool party – the players made sure to represent the man who put Jong Ajax on the map. His name is Abdelhak Nouri: the wonderkind whose career was terminated over a decade early.
If Appie hadn’t fallen victim to a heart malfunction less than one year ago, one that put him in a coma and changed his life forever, Appie would have made this list. No questions asked. Ajax’s boy wonder is that talented. Academy talents have come and gone for years on end, but there was always something special about the youth international. The way he coasted across the grass pitch of De Toekomst. His cordiality when conversing with Ajax legend Sjaak Swart. His not-so-cordial laughing when Donny van de Beek splashed a pedestrian with a stray football.
Appie Nouri’s footballing career may be over, but his footballing abilities will never be forgotten. Gracefullness resembling Messi, dribbling like Ronaldinho, and a love for Ajax that would make a certain Johan Cruijff very proud. Therefore, when Nouri scored a wonderful free-kick on his first team debut, very few were surprised.
Abdelhak Nouri never got too many chances to perform in the Ajax first team. Even though much of the hype built around him was constructed on his youth team performances, everyone could tell the kid would shine one day. Having developed his on-the-ball technique from an early age on the streets of Amsterdam, Nouri is great at working in tight spaces on the pitch. This is the essence of an ideal Dutch footballer – technical, intelligent, quick, and a gentleman on and off the pitch.
As a versatile midfielder, Appie has experience with slicing apart opposition defenses from left, right, and centre. Typically deployed as an attacking midfielder, the 21-year-old is often found dropping deep to receive the ball. Not only does this allow Nouri to work with space, but it can also draw out the other teams’ midfielders, opening up space for teammates to run in behind.
The Dutch school of thought trains players to utilize space effectively and efficiently. Nouri epitomizes Cruijff’s ideal match tactics: when on the ball, make the pitch large; off the ball, make it small. Appie’s movement when receiving the ball creates space in key areas of the pitch (overlapping wide players, “Zone 14” atop the penalty box), while his focus after dishing off a pass is to run into areas to make life easier for his teammates. Some players pass for the sake of passing. Nouri passes to advance the ball and create space.
But that’s only one half of the game. Intelligently, Nouri uses his spatial awareness when Ajax are out of possession as well. One of the key indicators of a player’s abilities are his or her reaction to losing the ball. Does he run back into a defensive position? Or does he attack the ball-player, usually uncomfortable in possession having just won the ball? Appie Nouri elects option number two and can be seen vigorously and consistently running after ball-handling midfielders and defenders, even after Ajax’s pressing unit falls back. Nouri would find himself out of depth in a team concerned with conservative defending, but Ajax allows him to thrive in an aggressive defensive role.
Abdelhak Nouri’s strength in versatility is at least two-faced. Not only is he fluid in his positioning, but his actual importance in a side can vary as well. On one hand, Appie has been deployed as a left or right-winger, attacking-midfielder, and holding midfielder over his years at Ajax. His chances in the first team were often snuffed because of Ajax’s midfield depth; Davy Klaassen and Hakim Ziyech were restricting access to his natural midfield role. Many saw his opportunity to break through as a winger, but the signing of David Neres and emergence of Justin Kluivert only pushed Nouri further down the pecking order.
As will be expanded upon later, Nouri’s mental, physical, and technical attributes all play a role in his versatility. Quick acceleration and daring dribbling make him a somewhat ideal winger who would often look to cut inside. His intelligent movement and passing are prototypical of an Ajax attacking midfielder. Finally, Nouri’s defensive tenacity and team-oriented positioning allow him to play up to par in a deeper holding midfield role.
It isn’t just his versatility on the pitch that makes Nouri unique. It’s his versatility within the team’s ecosystem that truly allows Appie to thrive across all playing levels. As a youth player, the Dutchman dominated kids who were often one or two years his senior. Nouri’s role in these squads was large – he received the ball and made something happen, often by himself. In the first team, his touches were harder to come by. Appie had to work with his limited opportunities, playing first-touch passes and dropping deep to aid link-up play. However, it is important to approach these differing roles with a bit of nuance, as Nouri has never been a selfish player nor will he ever be fully phased out of a senior-level match.
Nouri’s major strength on the pitch, the one he’s most often been lauded for, is his technique on the ball. It is what helped the scrawny boy of Moroccan descent climb up the youth ranks at Ajax and within the Dutch national team setup. Standing at only 5’6”, or 1.7 metres, Appie was never a physical specimen. Thankfully football is not a sport in which a reliance on pure strength will get you far. The Ajax youth scouts recognized Nouri’s footballing technique for its true value and he was rewarded repeatedly by promotions from the under-up to the first team.
One of Appie’s brilliant moments that facilitated a rise in his popularity across the footballing spectrum was in 2015. In a UEFA Youth League match in Amsterdam, Nouri performed a fake cross so well that his opponent was left on the ground. It was a rare glimpse of pure one-on-one domination in a sport with so little individual focus. Nouri had become the Kyrie Irving of De Toekomst, but the play was just a culmination of his phenomenal skill and glowing confidence.
Appie Nouri has all of the attributes found in some of the greatest dribblers of our time. His low center of gravity allows his body to move quickly and agilely when executing a dribble move. The ball very rarely strays from his tight control, making it extremely difficult to pry it from those dazzling football boots. Sometimes Nouri would get himself into trouble by dribbling a bit too much, but when a player is so high up the pitch he is rarely putting his team at risk by losing the ball.
Abdelhak Nouri’s passing is phenomenal. His set-pieces? Accurate. But his dribbling? Nouri’s dribbling is a sight to behold.
“It’s football, man. It’s never done. It always continues.”
– Abdelhak Nouri
The personality of a player is all too often disregarded in favor of some of the attributes I’ve listed above. If a player doesn’t have the proper motivation or diligence, their success will pale in comparison to their abilities. The same goes for players who exceed the normal threshold for kindness, work-ethic, and overall conscientiousness. Ask anyone at the Ajax academy; Abdelhak Nouri is the player who exceeds expectations in a personal sense.
His dedication to the betterment of his game, the discipline of his faith, and above all his devotion to family is unparalleled across the football world. A young kid growing up in Amsterdam found his passion in voetbal and ran with it. Nothing within his sphere of control was going to slow him down. Young footballers today should look up to Appie Nouri as both a peer and a superior. We must use him as an example to always make the most of life, but we must also abide by his vision and dedication.
The football community may never witness your dazzling dribbles, silky runs, or side-footed passes any more, but we will always love you. #StayStrongAppie
Written by Alex Dieker