Player Focus: Kahn and Van der Sar inspiring Cillessen's progression at Ajax
It's somewhat fitting that the loneliest position in football is identified with the number one. In some circles the role has transcended beyond traditional convention, but one contemporary exponent is following a well-trodden path. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and at this moment in time the Oranje's goalkeeper jersey belongs to Jasper Cillessen; it's been that way for the last 16 months. It’s a testament given the many challengers breathing down his neck and ready to pounce, but so far he's shown no signs of resting on his laurels. Competition after all breeds excellence.
If anything, usurping Kenneth Vermeer, who left Ajax for rivals Feyenoord at the start of this season, confirmed patience is his greatest strength. It must be said that playing the waiting game never diminished his talent. He was identified and signed from NEC in 2011 as a long-term custodian between the sticks; everything about him screamed a safe pair of hands for the future. All he needed was a sustained run of games and he got just that from September 2013 onwards. Regular playing time has consequently allowed him to make progress in his international career, with 20 caps and counting.
From an educational context he couldn't be in a better environment. Cillessen, after all, is plying his trade in a city with significance when it comes to the evolution of his specific role. It wouldn't be outlandish to suggest the description 'sweeper-keeper', which has partly come from the maverick Manuel Neuer, has received more coverage over the last few months than at any time before. However, it's long been part of the Dutch footballing landscape, so much so that it's what folks have come to expect of their number one. The individual responsible for shifting of attitudes is unquestionably Edwin van der Sar, whom Cillessen cites as a reference alongside legendary German Oliver Kahn. "When you combine those two you get the best goalkeeper in the world".
You can see the impact of both on his development. Goalkeepers need to show a degree of bravado and Kahn, who defended his penalty area like his own life depended on it, was the master. "There is also a bit of Kahn in me, just not as extreme as he was," Cillessen told Algemeen Dagblad last summer. The progression he has made has been substantial. He has come out of his shell, becoming more aggressive in terms of organising – keeping 7 clean sheets and conceding 22 goals in 23 games – plus adopting a take no prisoner mentality, not allowing himself to be intimidated, whether squaring up to attackers, embarrassing them with a well-timed (although risky) Cruyff turn or with his 17 crossed punched clear – the third most in the Eredivisie this season.
Speaking of influences, it's the man whose name bears that aforementioned piece of skill who has greatly shaped him, albeit indirectly. Long before Van der Sar – who is Cillessen's biggest advocate – made his professional debut, the foundations of what would become a long-term club policy were being laid by Cruyff. He took office at Ajax in 1985, when utilising the goalkeeper as an outfield player wasn't an entirely new concept, but like Steve Jobs, his real genius was taking what others had done and making it better. For long it had troubled him that all they did was stop shots, almost a waste of a player. Frans Hoek, arguably the most pre-eminent goalkeeping coach today, was hired and subsequently turned his vision into reality.
Hoek, whose method is UEFA approved, divides goalkeepers into two categories: Anticipation-type and Reaction-type. The former – preferred by Cruyff and Louis van Gaal – classifies Cillessen as he "could be easily used as field player, able to function as the eleventh player", whilst someone like Tim Krul – "strong, has quick reactions and great charisma" – is the latter. It went some way to explaining the pragmatic switch Van Gaal made ahead of the Oranje's penalty shootout against Costa Rica at the World Cup this summer. Incidentally, Cillessen has not saved a penalty (faced 24) in his senior career to date. That episode aside, time spent with Hoek mentoring him and passing on knowledge, has been rewarding and has left a mark on Cillessen.
Guardians of the Ajax school, and their many followers, have certain expectations of their goalkeepers, requirements if you will. The most important is passing at speed, recycling possession by playing the ball out instead of launching it to restart moves. In this season's Eredivisie Cillessen is averaging 33 passes per game with a success rate of 66.1%. If a mistake is made, the instruction is to continue as the benefits both in terms of creating moves and filling the space behind a high-pressing offside line far outweigh the problems face.
Ultimately what's elevated him are the attributes recognised as 'strengths' by WhoScored – shot stopping, concentration, and saving shots from close (as he demonstrated against Legia Warszawa in the Europa League last week) or long range – but as we know reaching the summit isn't the most difficult part; it's staying there.
Since taking his opportunity he hasn’t looked back. With every performance for club and country heavily scrutinised due to the level needed to keep goal for both, Cillessen knows from experience a drop in form will mean sitting on the bench. There's no bigger incentive than chasing greatness, and the challenge now as we head into the latter part of this decade, is to remain the Netherlands first choice, thus consolidating his position as Van der Sar's heir.