L’Ultimo Uomo (Angelo Ricciardi) Rick Karsdorp was born in 1995 and arrived in Rotterdam aged 9, signed from VV Schoonhoven – his local club – after being spotted by Feyenoord’s scouting network. He grew up as a midfielder, playing everywhere from central midfield to attacking midfield and also on the wing. Fred Rutten, the coach before van Bronckhorst, saw Karsdorp’s potential as a wide player and moved him to full back at the start of the 2014/15 season.
At 184cm tall and 80kg, his physique is compact, explosive and powerful. Karsdorp is also able to use his pace to great effect in open play: it’s almost impossible to find a player able to make him lose his balance and challenge him for pace in a one-on-one situation. The fact that he plays in his position with such originality is due to the fact he has only recently converted to full back and had to learn how to play there from scratch. Van Bronckhorst’s presence and Feyenoord’s tactical stability – and the easy level of the Dutch league in general – have definitely helped to contribute to the sophisticated conversion of Karsdorp into a full back: the continuous and systematic repetition of moves and movements helped him develop into a key player.
Karsdorp is often compared to a train, but it’s a comparison that fails to take account of all the dimensions of his game: Karsdorp isn’t just devastating when running in open space or in his choice of where he needs to run, but he is also able to pause and consider his options. He has the technical ability and the vision to play a more reflective, thoughtful game. He knows how to read the game and adapt his own actions as a result: when he is able to run directly (either with the ball or on the overlap) he lets himself be carried by the impetus of his driving runs, but when he comes inside the pitch or when he is forced to play in tighter spaces, or when he helps to build the play from a wider position, he plays more logically and thoughtfully. When he has the ball at his feet, he always plays with as few touches as possible, each touch has an essential purpose.
In this move he controls the ball, already preparing himself for a cross from midway inside the opposition half or a vertical pass. He reads the defence’s position and his team-mates’ positions, but doesn’t find either anyone in support ahead of him, nor anyone in a position for a cross, so he turns back and passes it to Strootman before making a run off the ball into space. He receives a pass from the Roma midfielder, controls the ball and beats Matuidi before putting the ball into the box.
At the same time as learning how to attack, Karsdorp has also been forced to adapt his defensive instincts to a full back’s over the last year and a half. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, self-sacrifice is crucial during the periods playing out of possession: it’s always necessary to try to maintain the defensive line, committing yourself when pressing or marking an opponent, studying the distance between you and your team-mates. His strength in the tackle and in one-on-ones is fundamental, particularly when playing alongside centre backs who aren’t very quick or when faced with wingers who play very high up, even when out of possession. The learning curve and the time spent analysing defensive choices is full of ups and downs, almost a rite of passage in the transformation, in order to ensure solid, reliable decision-making.
Karsdorp has shown himself to be a particularly effective player when he is able to study the opposition defence and create chances for his team-mates with crosses or other passes. In the last Eredivisie season he made 10 assists in all, the second highest in all with all other full backs in his wake, he made 1.4 key passes every 90 minutes (2nd among full backs) of which half were crosses, he was the full back who crossed the most with 5 crosses per 90 minutes of which 1.1 were accurate. This year he has been crossing less but with greater accuracy (3.7 crosses per 90 minutes of which 1 is accurate), creating the same number of chances (1.4 key passes per 90 minutes of which 0.5 are crosses). He prefers to use the inside of his foot for crosses with a technique that allows him to use precision without compromising spin or power. The trajectories of his crosses aren’t always the tidiest but they are still frequently dangerous, even from midway inside the opposition half. His able to read the play and his team-mates movements isn’t limited to crosses, however, but is linked to his tendency to bring the play forwards and his awareness of when to play a pass (he frequently uses the outside of his foot to speed up the play, with excellent, elegant results).
While he might seem to be an old-fashioned full back, what marks Karsdorp out as a modern player is the number of tactical options he provides: he can be used to provide directness down the right hand side (both through his runs and his passing), he can stretch teams that are overloading their left hand side by switching the play to create situations where his team have numerical superiority, he can be used to open up tight tactical contests with quick transitional play or pressing higher or lower up the pitch, he can be used in more varied tactical setups that require a change of shape midway through a game, or in a system that sees him start off in a 4-man defence before pushing up into what becomes a 5-man midfield during the periods his team has the ball.
At a time when there is such demand for versatile players in football, there is still (at least for now) a tactical requirement for specialists like Karsdorp, players who are fine-tuned and capable of taking key decisions at a precise moment in a game. That is why Karsdorp is one of the best young full backs in Europe at the moment.
This article originally published on L’Ultimo Uomo (in Italian) in January 2017.