It has been a significant season for AFC Ajax’s 2000-born academy players. As they transition out of their teens, many have taken their first steps into senior football. A couple have made the step up to Ajax’s first-team squad, like Sergiño Dest and Jurgen Ekkelenkamp.
The former is an impressive starter at right-back and a poster boy of the United States’ new generation, while the latter is a frequent feature of Erik ten Hag’s matchday groups. Others have left the club to develop their senior careers. Mitchel Bakker joined Paris Saint-Germain a year ago, making his Ligue 1 debut last February. Szabolcs Schön returned to his native Hungary, where he is now a starter at MTK Budapest.
Sven Botman was another who left Ajax to kickstart his career. He joined SC Heerenveen – a mid-table club, with a strong history of providing a platform for players to find their feet in the Eredivisie – on a season-long loan last summer. At 19 years old, Botman entered his first season of top-flight football. At 20, amid the pandemic-induced cancellation of the Eredivisie campaign, he was one of only four outfield players to play every possible minute of the truncated Eredivisie season, racking up 2,340 at the heart of Heerenveen’s defence.
The 20-year-old impressed so much that he will not return to Ajax, the club which he joined as a nine-year-old. He has joined LOSC Lille in a reported €8 million deal, a club spearheaded by sporting director Luís Campos who have found incredible success at turning undervalued players into huge profits. Botman enters Campos’ impressive sign-sell-replace-repeat system as Gabriel Magalhães’ replacement, and yet another intelligent acquisition.
Sven Botman's style of play
Sven Botman spent 11 years – over half his life – in Ajax’s De Toekomst academy; that much is evident in his comfort in possession. His technical level is of the standard expected for an Ajax-educated player. He receives and distributes possession adeptly with either foot, expanding his options in build-up. He steps into midfield to create overloads, both as a passer and receiver. His pass selection is positive, and seeks to break lines with crisp passes to access advanced team-mates.
The 20-year-old is an easy player to distinguish on any pitch; his size is striking and catches the eye immediately. Broad shoulders and long limbs are two of the prominent features of a hulking, 6’3” frame which towered over almost every other Eredivisie player. Unsurprisingly, his size defines his skillset, providing its advantages and presenting some problems.
Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of his size and subsequent strength is the exceptional superiority it establishes in aerial duels – Botman consistently dominates in the air. When defending high balls, opponents of all shapes and sizes find it extremely difficult to compete with him. He tracks the ball flight adeptly, plants his big body beneath it, and deals with the dropping ball to good effect. His ability to win first balls is impressive, and his consistency enables team-mates to position themselves appropriately to control the knockdown. Botman won 73.4 percent of his 184 aerial duels last season, which ranks him among the most commanding players in such situations in the Eredivisie. It also compares similarly to Gabriel, the centre-back back he is supposedly set to replace.
Botman’s dominance in the air from open play is not wholly rooted in his size, but highlights effective anticipation and a solid positional sense as well – skills that are more prominent when he defends within Heerenveen’s mid-block defensive structure.
Alert to his surroundings through regular scanning, he reads the game with depth and reacts to subtle details quickly, and is proactive in his positional adjustments. He has a good understanding of when to drop off to cover a potential runner or step up to pressure a receiver, and that enables Botman to control defensive situations and deal with whatever comes his way.
His process and positioning – he is rarely disconnected from his team-mates or direct opponent, and often is the commanding presence in Heerenveen’s defensive unit – when defending in a mid-block is impressive. It is his comfort zone.
Sven Botman has won 72.7% of the 275 aerial duels he's contested in league competitions since the start of the 2019/20 season:— Scouted Football (@ScoutedFtbl) January 1, 2021
◉ 200 won of 275 aerial duels in total
◉ 135 won of 184 in Eredivisie
◉ 65 won of 91 in Ligue 1
Big, strong and dominant in physical duels. pic.twitter.com/AeWeHwcGqL
When pushed out of that comfort zone, Botman’s limitations come to the fore. He struggles most when defending wide channels, something which he is discernibly reluctant to do but is forced into occasionally.
Ultimately, he does not have the athleticism to contain quicker attackers. His mobility is limited by his size: he lacks the agility and acceleration to match quick changes of direction and speed, and subsequently struggles to control the ball-carrier and prevent a cross or pass. As a result, Botman loses the composure that underpins his defending in other situations and becomes ragged in technique and posture.
He also has room to improve as a defender in his own box. He has some trouble picking up late runners from deep, often covering the wrong spaces and tracking the wrong runs, which creates space for others to exploit elsewhere. Nevertheless, his solid basics provide a solid platform to build upon: decent posture, frequent scanning and good anticipation all often put him in positions to cut out and clear the ball. As such, he should improve with more top-level minutes and coaching.
Forecasting Sven Botman's Future Prospects
With his move to LOSC Lille sealed, the focus will shift to whether his skillset and profile will translate from a mid-table Eredivisie team to a European-level Ligue 1 team – and fill Gabriel Magalhães’ void.
Botman’s ability in possession should transfer to the higher level, and his profile as a naturally left-sided player will have been a significant factor in LOSC identifying him as Gabriel’s alternative. It is difficult to project how his defensive skillset will translate, though. His size will present similar upsides and downsides, the extents of which will be crucial to the success of the signing.
The fact that Luís Campos and his recruitment team have identified the 20-year-old speaks for itself. They get more transfers right than they do wrong, and Botman has the makings of a very solid central defender.
Sven Botman is a tall, strong, left-footed centre-back that can dominate in straight-forward aerial duels and control opponents in physical contact. He’s also comfortable on the ball, like almost every product of the Ajax academy.
Sven Botman’s size has its advantages and disadvantages. While he can dominate in duels, he struggles against fast runners on the turn and when defending wide areas against tricky attackers.