If precedent is anything to go by, the early signs suggest David Neres can become a true superstar in the Eredivisie.
Just like former PSV hero Mateja Kezman before him, Neres is now the most expensive foreign signing in Eredivisie history. He will certainly be hoping to match the Chelsea man’s astonishing goalscoring record in Netherlands, although he will also endeavour to be a success in a bigger league later in his career.
As a winger, topping the goalscoring charts will not be Neres’ top priority - although he has already shown in becoming the first Ajax player since Luis Suarez to score three goals in his first three Eredivisie starts that he can be a master marksman.
As a 20-year-old just a few months into his career in Amsterdam, comparisons with Suarez may seem excessive but he should be used to such talk by now.
He was highly rated as he rose through Sao Paulo’s youth system before the €12 million deal, rising to €15m, made him Ajax’s second most expensive signing and the Brazilian side’s third biggest sale behind Lucas Moura to Paris Saint-Germain and Denilson to Real Betis in 1998.
Ajax had identified him early and although he was unlucky to have his breakthrough in Sao Paulo’s first-team delayed through a shoulder injury, he made a huge impact upon his recovery. Within a month he had scored on his first start, got his second against Corinthians and made his debut for Brazil Under 20s. He had become so important that the club had to request the Brazilian Football Confederation release him from the youth national team to return to league duty. After more favourable scouting reports, Marc Overmars made the move in January. It is only the second time the sporting director has paid double figures for a player – the first being Ajax’s current star Hakim Ziyech.
He is already impressing in Amsterdam and arrived having been compared to Neymar. Though that assessment was not meant to infer that he will hit the same heights as the Barcelona star - or is even cut from the same cloth stylistically – it did make it clear that Neres is already at a very high level.
“He is a real winger,” Ajax’s chief scout Henk Veldmate said. “Not a classical right winger, but one that must play with freedom to make his actions. He can create something out nothing. Of course, he will need time to acclimatise.”
Just as he made his mark in Sao Paulo’s 4-0 win over Corinthians, he won over Ajax fans on his first Eredivisie start with what turned out to be the crucial goal in a 2-1 win over Feyenoord. It saw them cut the gap on the leaders to three points, and he showed his self-confidence afterwards when asked if they can win the league. “Definitely,” he snapped. “Being three points behind is better than six. Step by step. Game by game."
Though Ajax soon moved to within a point of Feyenoord, it was Peter Bosz’s side who collapsed when, exhausted from their two-hour clash against Schalke in the Europa League, they lost to PSV.
Fielding a starting XI full of players who had played in Gelsenkirchen led to a tame performance. That Neres, unused in the quarter-final, did not start seemed more perplexing when he ended the game as their most active attacker after being introduced in the second half for Amin Younes. His runs behind the defence and towards the box became the clearest avenue towards goal, but PSV’s numbers at the back cut Ajax out well enough.
He was a presence defensively, too. As Joshua Brenet charged from his own half towards Ajax’s goal late on, Neres chased him the entire time, catching him at the box and blocking his shot. Andre Onana stopped the follow up from the rebound.
“Neres gave everything to stop it from becoming 2-0 before the final whistle, I like that,” Bosz said. “We will need that mentality in the semi-final against Lyon.”
And looking further ahead, Neres and fellow young winger Justin Kluivert certainly provide Ajax with the flair and variety to take the team forwards.
Regular widemen Younes and Bertrand Traore are not particularly excelling currently. Younes is a good dribbler but lacks effectiveness, while Traore seems caught between being a wide player and a striker. Both have had trouble combining and supplying Hakim Ziyech, Davy Klaassen and Kasper Dolberg in the centre.
Neres and Kluivert both pick the right moments to drift inside and are otherwise available as an option to cross. Neither are too trigger happy or greedy either, making quick runs inside, finding a team-mate and moving into space further ahead as they help maintain the tempo of Ajax’s attack.
If Ajax are to progress, Kluivert will need to displace Younes once he can handle regular football, while Neres will come in for Traore once his loan from Chelsea ends.
Neres proved just how much talent and potential he has at the start of the recent 5-1 win over NEC. Ajax scored twice in the first eight minutes, with Neres involved in both goals. He forced an own goal with a low cross before using neat footwork to get one of his own after getting behind the defence.
“I had my hands full with him,” NEC left-back Lorenzo Burnet said. “Many attacks went through him and rightly so. He's unpredictable. Inside, outside, it does not matter to him.”
A week later, he helped assist Klaassen's goal against Heerenveen before rounding off the 5-1 win with a goal of his own. He made a diagonal sprint, got onto Younes’ pass, evaded the goalkeeper with his first touch and buried it with his second.
“He is increasingly taking note of how we want to press,” Bosz said. “It starts up front with the attackers. He has made a good impression lately. Neres has excellent technique, is a smart football guy and he picks things up quickly. He needs to learn a lot, also about how we want to play.
“He has a nice through ball. Even in sprints over a long distance he surprises me sometimes. That can be quite nice, huh?”
It can indeed, and Neres, just a few months old when Ajax last played in a European semi-final, can further enhance his growing reputation in Wednesday night’s clash with Lyon.