When Daley Blind followed Louis van Gaal to Manchester United, he seemed set to forge a career at the very top. Six years on, he may not have reached the heights some expected, but we wouldn’t change him for the world.
In an era when football is more physical and fast-paced than ever, logic suggests that Blind, a defender with a slender frame and pedestrian pace, should be a liability. How many defenders aren’t a physical specimen in some way or another these days?
Using solely his technical skills and footballing brain, however, he defies such logic. Sure, it can cause him issues and may have deprived him of succeeding in one of Europe’s major leagues, but, on his day, it’s quite something to behold.
The formative years
On face value alone it’s easy to think that, like most successful Ajax graduates, Blind stepped off the conveyor belt of talent at a young age to slot seamlessly into the first team, but that wasn’t the case.
Perhaps it was the lofty expectations that came with being the son of one of the club’s greats, or perhaps it was his nonchalant demeanour, but either way, Ajax fans didn’t like him.
After returning from a loan spell at Groningen in 2010, the 20-year-old was often booed by his own fans as they pounced on his admittedly rather regular mistakes. This continued for the next two seasons, with his father Danny dubbing it a “weekly character assassination”.
Mercifully, he found his feet at the start of 2012-13. An injury crisis meant Frank de Boer had little choice but to start Blind and, playing at left-back, he took his chance and never looked back.
By the end of the season, he had played every single minute of the side’s title-winning campaign, had made his international debut and was even voted Player of the Year by those in the stands who had initially derided him. Football fans, eh? A fickle bunch.
Seeing his quality on the ball and excellent reading of the game, De Boer elected to move Blind to defensive midfield the following season, and it proved to be a masterstroke. Channelling his inner Pirlo – he even had the hair – the Dutchman ran the show on a weekly basis, dictating games, kick-starting Ajax attacks and breaking up the oppositions.
When he was named Eredivisie Player of the Season, there were few that disagreed.
Breaking through in Brazil
He may have made the midfield position his own for his club, but with shithouse specialist Nigel de Jong occupying that role for his country, Blind headed to Brazil for the World Cup set to start at left wing-back.
In case you didn’t know, he did alright there.
The Netherlands’ game against Spain needs no introduction. In the 5-1 demolition, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben received the most praise for their goals, but Blind, who provided a stunning assist for each of them, was arguably the star man.
Van Persie’s header was of course unbelievably good, but how about the pass to set him up for it?
That gif of Hakim Ziyech’s cross-field ball for Ajax is the craze these days, but we think this is infinitely better. We wouldn’t blame you if you just stay watching it and don’t scroll down to read the rest of this piece.
What’s even more impressive is, soon after the half-time break, Blind did the same again to set up Robben.
He continued to excel as his side reached the semi-finals, starting and finishing every game and even scoring his first international goal in the third-place play-off against Brazil, controlling the ball expertly with his weaker foot before switching it onto his left and firing it into the back of the net.
He was named in many teams of the tournaments, and Van Gaal had been so impressed with him during their time together with the national team that he was determined to take him with him to Old Trafford.
Just over a month later, a £14million deal was complete. Two years on from being his club’s least popular player, Blind was off to the biggest league in the world.
A victim of versatility
A player as versatile as Blind can be a blessing for a club. They can single-handedly provide cover for various positions, saving the need for more money to be spent on transfers. But it can also be a curse for a player, meaning they rarely get to stay in their preferred position.
It had become clear at Ajax that Blind was best suited to play in midfield, and in a league where centre-backs without much muscle and full-backs without much pace are targeted far more, this was even more so the case. He did initially play there, putting in an excellent performance at the base of a midfield diamond in his debut against QPR.
As players behind him struggled with fitness and form though, Blind’s purpose soon became to plug holes in the backline. He did the job well enough but rarely got the chance to display his more creative abilities from left-back, although he did still manage two goals and three assists, including a crucial late equaliser against West Ham.
By the start of his second season, he was now the club’s first-choice centre-back and defied all logic by actually being really bloody good there, standing up to those bigger and stronger than him, with his pocketing of Romelu Lukaku a highlight.
Glimpses of his class such as his goal against Liverpool showed that he belonged further forward, but he was beginning to make the new role his own.
Daley Blind vs Liverpool. 12 Septembre 2015. pic.twitter.com/J279VG7dpi
— Manchester Devils 🇫🇷 (@ManDevilsUtd) October 15, 2016
After being crucial in his side’s FA Cup triumph, Blind even maintained his place in the starting XI when Jose Mourinho first took over the following season, forming a solid partnership with Chris Smalling. His journey from a silky playmaker to a seasoned centre-back came full circle when he faced his boyhood club Ajax in the Europa League final, and he was imperious in his side’s 2-0 victory.
Nevertheless, he was at times exposed for his physical weaknesses, and there was a sense that Mourinho was longing for a more traditional stopper. This proved to be the case as the club snapped up Victor Lindelof who, along with Phil Jones, surpassed Blind in the pecking order.
By the end of the season it was his clear that, after 141 appearances, his time at the club was over. He had impressed enough to attract interest from a number of clubs, but again, he went against the general trend of modern football by choosing sentiment over a big salary and returning home.
‘Een echte Ajacied’
Despite the lower quality of football in the Eredivisie, Blind is undoubtedly a better player now than he has ever been. The move has allowed him to find the perfect role, something he has searched for his entire career.
While he does still play in the centre of defence, he now has as much creative freedom as he could ever want. Nothing proves this quite like the fact that he scored a hat-trick a few months into his second stint at the club. A hat-trick from centre-back for FFS; he’s living the dream.
Yesterday: Manchester United lost to Liverpool.
Also yesterday: Daley Blind smashed home a hat-trick for Ajax. pic.twitter.com/LEZNRpj1p9
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 17, 2018
It’s not like he’s only excelling because he’s at a lower level either. He was a key figure in Ajax’s fairytale run to the Champions League semi-final and has been a stalwart for the Dutch side as they’ve rebuilt. He’s also the vice-captain of both, embracing a leadership role in young squads.
He’s slowly but surely becoming as big a legend as his father at Ajax, with chants of “Blind is een echte Ajacied” (Blind is a real Ajax man) being sung almost every game. When he was recently diagnosed with a heart condition, a huge “get well soon banner” could be seen in the stands during his absence. All of this would have seemed unthinkable at the start of the decade.
His development into a mature, composed ball-playing defender has paved a way back to the very top for him, with Arsenal reportedly considering a move for him in the summer.
Most footballers these days would jump at the chance to play in a better division and get a bigger pay-check, but, on and off the pitch, Blind isn’t like most players.