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Jesper Karlsson: Standing Out Amongst A Crowd of Diamonds

AZ Alkmaar are a billboard for everything good about Eredivisie football, playing an attractive attacking style with a crop of some of the most exciting young talents in Europe.

Though their manager has now left, Alkmaar still have the potential to compete with the Eredivisie’s historically dominant sides. They enter the winter break just 5 points off Ajax, if they win their game in hand.

AZ consistently line up with the majority of their starting XI under 23 years of age. This includes 22 year old club captain Teun Koopmeiners and the newly capped Dutch internationals Calvin Stengs (22 yrs) and Myron Boadu (19 yrs). All come through the Dutch club’s esteemed academy.

Though the most promising talents have come directly from the youth setups, Alkmaar has in more recent years used transfers to bolster the club’s talent pool.

Twenty two year old Jesper Karlsson has set the Dutch topflight alight since arriving from IF Elfsborg in September. Having arrived in general obscurity as , Karlsson has now acquainted everyone in Dutch Football with his extraordinary talent.

Flash forward three months and Karlsson has established himself as a starter in Pascal Jansen’s side. Five goals and five assists in eleven Eredivisie fixtures, Karlsson has impeccably slotted into what is the second most prolific attacking side in the Netherlands.

Although primarily brought in as another winger to rotate with Alkmaar’s host of talented attackers, Karlsson has started every match in the league, and all but one in the clubs European campaign. With a combination of attacking flair, and an incessant hunger for goals, Karlsson has many of the abilities to rise all the way to the top.

A Reincarnation of Manchester CR7

There is inevitably a comparison that may be coming a bit too soon for a player who has played just over ten matches in the Dutch topflight. Karlsson nevertheless plays in a similar manner to the raw Cristiano Ronaldo seen in his first two and a half seasons at United.

Perhaps most obvious is the dribbling technique. Possessing an upright and long-strided approach that is strikingly comparable to the five time Ballon d’Or winner. Though Karlsson is almost seven inches shorter than the Portuguese striker, the Alkmaar winger has found great success in approaching defenders in this manner.

This allows him to control the pace at which he engages the opposition and quickly accelerate off. Simultaneously he is aware of where the goal and better placed teammates are. Many players prefer to make their frame smaller, in order to give the opponent less of an opportunity to knock them off balance and poke away possession. However, Karlsson’s approach forces defenders into making the first decision which he can capitalize on.

A visual comparison to Cristiano Ronaldo is one thing. Producing in a similar fashion to the esteemed striker is another. Karlsson’s 4.83 dribbles completed per 90 minutes only amounts to the 18th most in the Eredivisie. However his 84% success rate is the true indicator of his immense talent in 1v1 situations.

Of all the players in the league completing four dribbles per 90, only Ajax’s Mohammed Kudus is more successful than Karlsson. The Ghanaian forward beats his man on 87% of the occasions he chooses to go into an 1v1 situation.

This shows that Karlsson is not just capable of beating his man, but also chooses his moments to go into offensive duels well. Rather than aimlessly looking to beat an opposition fullback every time he gets possession, Karlsson’s first instinct is to look around to see what the best option to goal is. If it is to go into a dribble against an opponent, the odds stack well in his favour.

Scorer from the Left, Provider from the Right

4-3-3 has long been the formation synonymous with Dutch Total Football. It allows for both lateral and horizontal channels to be occupied all across the pitch. AZ Alkmaar, like many sides in modern football, line up in this manner.

Their system is unique however. Very few who use a 4-3-3 have as fluid of an attacking trio as Karlsson, Boadu, and Stengs. Though Karlsson has been the most effective this season, directly contributing to 30% of Alkmaar’s domestic goals, the two academy graduates Boadu and Stengs have impressed in more inconsistent fashion. The pair have combined for seven goals in eleven matches.

What has made this trio such a resounding success is their movement in the final third, with each player constantly popping up in different positions. Arne Slot and now Pascal Jansen have given this front three the license to roam in almost complete freedom. This has particularly contributed to Karlsson’s resounding success as a multifaceted weapon in attack for AZ.

Although capable of wreaking havoc from either flank, Karlsson is predominantly right footed, something that is apparent when the winger gets into shooting positions. Just 2 of Karlsson’s 34 goals since making his professional debut in 2016 have come with his left foot.

Thus, Karlsson has often been deployed on the left in the past, giving him the license to cut in onto his stronger foot and produce a thunderous shot into the net.

Karlsson picks up possession on the left-hand side of Heerenven’s box, a position where he is almost impossible to defend against.

A quick step over allows him to create enough space to unleash an unsaveable shot that gives AZ Alkmaar a commanding 3:0 lead.

Since coming to the Netherlands however, Karlsson has added much more to his game, particularly becoming a creative threat from the right of midfield.

Three of Karlsson’s four assists from open play have come from the right side, showing an all-roundedness to his game with an exceptional through ball, cut back, and cross creating the goals. In Sweden Karlsson was predominantly a goal threat. Yet through AZ’s determination to see their front three consistently swap positions Karlsson has added creativity and assists to his game.

When deployed on the right side of Alkmaar’s attacking trident, Karlsson will often drop deep into central areas to take over a more creative role. This is what led to Yukinari Sugawara’s goal versus Twente on Matchday 12, when the Japanese fullback was able to exploit the wide channel as Karlsson drifted into midfield to pick up possession.

A True Weak Foot and Unproven at the Top Level

As mentioned previously, Karlsson is heavily right foot dependent. The ability to play from either wing and bring different attributes has allowed Karlsson to become a more complete player over the last 3 months. However working on his left foot will enable him to pose both a creative and goal scoring threat from either flank.

As we see currently, Karlsson’s goal scoring and assisting numbers from open play are almost perfectly split between the two wings, with one goal and four assists coming from the right side, and three goals and zero assists coming from the left.

If Karlsson can more routinely contribute assists from the left flank and goals from the right, it will make him an even harder prospect for opposition defenders. Karlsson’s style of cutting in from the left flank will begin to be found out by defenders the higher his value and notoriety rises. For Karlsson to make the step beyond the Eredivisie, adding an ability to get to the byline and create with his left foot will be critical.

AZ endured a brief an largely uninspiring Europa League campaign. Drawn into a group with Napoli, Real Sociedad, and HNK Rijeka, qualification for the knockout stages would have provided Karlsson a spotlight to massive European clubs that are competing for a place in the final in May.

However, an early exit with Karlsson contributing to just one goal in six appearances means that few were able to observe his ability on the bigger stage. He mustered one shot on target against Real Sociedad and Napoli, and received a red card versus Rijeka.

Karlsson will be frustrated at having been unable to translate his Eredivisie form into the much bigger stage internationally.

A Talent for the Future

It has been a largely successful start for Karlsson since leaving the Swedish top flight. With the second most goal contributions for AZ and a first international cap at the beginning of the year, Karlsson is set for a big future for both club and country.

Alongside Juventus’ Dejan Kulusevski, Sweden have two of the most exciting wingers in modern football, with Karlsson already standing out in an AZ side littered with future world beaters.

Though he has made just the sole friendly appearance for his national team, it is hard to imagine that he will be ignored much longer. His increasingly consistent contributions giving him a fighting chance of representing Sweden this summer.

Even if ultimately his performances aren’t enough to mandate a spot in Janne Andersson’s Euro squad, if Karlsson continues to work on his weak foot and begins to produce against bigger sides, it is unlikely that we will be seeing him in the Eredivisie much longer.

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