Arsenal are going all-out in the transfer market this summer and Jurriën Timber is the latest to join. So, what will he bring to Mikel Arteta’s side?
It’s a good time to be an Arsenal fan. They may not have held all-conquering Manchester City off in the Premier League last season, but the campaign on the whole saw them take a huge step and the early signs are positive with regards to building on their improvement.
Technical director Edu and head coach Mikel Arteta have built a team that’s already exciting, but the profiles of many of their key players suggest the team will only get better over the next few years.
The average age of Arsenal’s starting XI in 2022-23 was 25 years and 51 days, just 10 days older than the youngest team in the league, Southampton. This obviously makes their second-place finish last term even more impressive. One could argue they were way ahead of schedule with respect to pushing City for so long.
Kai Havertz, 24, has already joined; Declan Rice, who’s the same age, is expected to sign. Jurriën Timber jumped the queue ahead of the West Ham captain and was confirmed as Arsenal’s next arrival on Friday, with the 22-year-old defender adding more promise to their youthful core.
Arsenal’s transfer strategy is pretty clear. Arteta values young players, alluding to this in May last year: “I am so grateful for what [young players] have done, what they have brought to the team and to the club, especially in this moment. We are going to stick with them and give them exactly what they need because they deserve that. They are not going to be kids for the rest of their lives; next season they will be more mature than they are this season and you have to start somewhere with those kids.”
Then, Edu desires players who are hungry, engaged, and driven by the ‘project’ rather than salary. “‘Listen, I want to understand first if you engage with this, if you like this. If you like it, I can talk, but not the opposite side,'” he told reporters last summer on their tour of the United States, recounting talks with a Borussia Dortmund player. “‘Ah no, let’s talk about the money…’ No, no, no, no. And one day, I said to the agent: ‘Guys, thank you very much, it’s not what I want to do’. Boom.”
“Characters,” he added in the same sit-down. Youthful, hungry characters; by most measures, this would also seem to describe Timber, who has joined from Ajax in a deal reportedly worth up to £38million (€44m).
“He is another great leader that was trained at Ajax. Besides his football skills he has the personality to become a captain,” former manager Erik ten Hag said of Timber in his ‘final interview’ with Ajax before departing for Manchester United.
His interviewer sheepishly responded with a plea: “Please don’t take him with you.”
Ten Hag’s awkward grin won’t have provided much reassurance at the time, and United were keen on bringing the young defender to Old Trafford, but Ajax held firm. Man Utd’s loss is Arsenal’s gain.
Personality and leadership are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Timber should bring to Arsenal, however. The Netherlands international is a fine specimen of the modern interpretation of a centre-back.
He’s dynamic, brave, technically gifted and progressive.
Timber’s ability on the ball is a key feature of his makeup and arguably the trait that sets him apart the most from his peers and fellow centre-backs. Only teammate Edson Álvarez (798) recorded more carries among all players in the Eredivisie last season than Timber (780), who covered 8,475 metres with the ball over the course of the campaign. Again, only Álvarez (9,012m) ranked higher.
Of those carries, 487 were progressive, 76 more than any other player in the division. So not only is Timber at ease on the ball, he brings drive and positivity, capable of getting his team on the front foot even from defence. His progressive carries added up to 5,037m, by far the furthest of anyone in the Eredivisie.
But as you might expect from an Ajax product, Timber’s also a reliable asset in possession, which is arguably overlooked because of his ability to burst forward.
He tallied the most touches (3,129) in the Eredivisie in 2022-23 and still had an exceptional record with respect to ball retention; his (295) possession losses accounting for just 9.4%, the second-lowest proportion among all players to have at least 500 touches. This is even more impressive when you consider his forward-thinking, attack-minded nature.
That positivity also translated to him being involved in open-play sequences worth 22.2 xG, which saw him rank seventh, even ahead of champions Feyenoord’s chief playmaker Orkun Kökcü (21.7), highlighting how Timber contributed to the creation of chances and goals even if he wasn’t the one setting up the opportunity.
He can do that too, however. In the 4-2 October win at Volendam, Timber’s proactivity and desire to get forward led to two chances, perfectly encapsulating what he’s capable of. The first saw him carry the ball forward and offload to Steven Berghuis out wide, before continuing his run forward to collect a return pass.
Timber then fed the ball back inside for Berghuis, who struck the left-hand post after bursting into the box.
Twelve minutes later he received the ball just inside the Volendam half and charged forward into the space that had opened up.
Then, without breaking stride, he fed a perfectly weighted through ball into the box for Brian Brobbey, who subsequently smashed home.
Of course, we have to acknowledge that Timber’s underlying numbers are also at least partly a product of the league and team he’s playing in; the Eredivisie clearly isn’t as strong as the Premier League, and although Ajax had a largely disappointing season by their own standards, they would expect to be in the ascendancy against most opponents. Then again, so would Arsenal, though perhaps to a slightly lesser extent.
Nevertheless, Timber was undoubtedly a very attractive proposition for clubs who want to play a certain way. He’s played centre-back in a four for Ajax, and then at international level he’s become accustomed to featuring in a back three. There have also been occasions he’s played at right-back, with his natural tendency to get forward obviously a useful asset in such a role.
With that versatility and his technical attributes, it’s no wonder Arsenal are likely to consider Timber the answer to their ‘inverted full-back’ conundrum on the right. Oleksandr Zinchenko fulfilled that duty on the left to great effect last term, coming inside to help them dominate the midfield yet still offering an overlap option. There’s much to suggest Timber could be a very good fit on the right, also allowing Ben White to revert to a more natural centre-back role.
Timber’s by no means the finished article, however. He’s brave, and that is a great trait, but his style of play can be risky, and adjusting that to the more intense Premier League will be a challenge that’s bound to test his decision-making and on-pitch maturity.
“I think I dribbled too long,” he said after the Netherland’s 1-1 draw with Ecuador at the 2022 World Cup, referencing how he was the one who was tackled inside the Oranje’s own half in the lead up to the goal they conceded. “We know they are aggressive and if you dribble they will follow you. That they took the ball there, it’s not allowed in that place.”
Similarly, former Ajax and Denmark attacker Kenneth Perez, now a pundit, criticised Timber’s defending on a couple of occasions this year alone. He displayed a complete lack of awareness when Feyenoord’s Santiago Giménez headed a cross home in the KNVB Cup semi-final in March, with Perez calling his decision to follow a different attacker “a stupid choice”.
A month earlier Timber was bullied out of the way at a corner by Danilho Doekhi in a 3-1 UEFA Europa League loss to Union Berlin, his opponent scoring to put the German side back in front on a night that saw Ajax dumped out of Europe.
“We always talk about Timber: ‘Great player. Oh, how good he is. Oh, how wonderful it all is’. I am also one of them; I also really like how he plays,” Perez said. “Then, you’re talking about wanting to play in the top European leagues, but then there’s a corner and Doekhi comes in… Well, then there’s a kid in front of him, isn’t there? Those are the moments when you have to be strong, that you have to think: ‘This is not going to happen to me’. No chance, Timber, no chance.”
That physical side of the game is another example of how Timber is likely to be tested in England. However, the flipside is that many of his weaknesses can be coached, worked on. Sure, he’s not the tallest and there’s not a huge amount that can be done about that, but there’s no reason he can’t bulk up. And as for any perceived immaturity on the pitch, he’s shown plenty of evidence of self-awareness in his reflections, which can only be a positive sign.
“I agree that I have played a few lesser games this season,” he told ESPN earlier this year. “It’s not very strange, I think. The most important thing is how you get out and that you keep getting better. That growth is going well again in recent weeks.”
Arteta has built up a very good track record of improving players and getting the best out of them over the past couple of years. In terms of raw minerals, Timber clearly has significant ability already and looks a really solid fit for Arsenal both stylistically and with respect to his personality.
Arsenal are building for the future, and Timber could provide the long-term foundations to a potentially great Premier League side if afforded patience.