After a spell of four years in the Netherlands, Edson Álvarez is set to leave Ajax for a new challenge in a bigger league. Chelsea offered a hefty €50 million (£43m) for the Mexican towards the end of the January transfer window, but Ajax rejected the bid as they felt they didn’t have enough time to replace such an important player.

Now, he is bound for West Ham, who are reported to have completed a deal worth around £35m (€40m), giving Álvarez his long-awaited crack at the big time.

But what makes him so popular?

After being signed as Matthijs de Ligt’s replacement in defence, his first 18 months at Ajax were tough. Across that time period, Álvarez played just 27% of the available minutes in the league. However, after impressing in midfield, he soon became one of the first players on the teamsheet. Over the past two and a half seasons, only Dušan Tadić (7,479) and Jurriën Timber (6,905) played more minutes for Ajax in the Eredivisie than Álvarez (6,090), who was on the pitch 77% of the time in his club’s league games.

Álvarez was one of the better players in a very disappointing 2022-23 campaign for Ajax, and he proved irreplaceable for the team. He missed three games in the entire Eredivisie campaign, and Ajax won one, drew one and lost one of those games, conceding seven goals in the process. On Matchday 17 against Feyenoord, the Mexican played at centre-back for the first time in the season with Alfred Schreuder looking for more steel in that position. What Álvarez added in defence, however, was hugely missed in midfield.

Edson Alvarez played positions

In whatever position he played, the Mexican had an impact on the game.

Last season, only FC Twente’s Ramiz Zerrouki (209) and Heerenveen’s Thom Haye (164) started more open-play possessions than Álvarez (155) – defined as a player making the first action for their team to turn over possession and retain the ball. And when possession came to him, he wasn’t shy to progress play, either. Álvarez made the most carries of all players in the Eredivisie 2022-23 (798), where a carry is defined as a player is moving the ball five metres or more. On top of that, only teammate Timber made more 10+ metre progressive carries (208) than Álvarez (202). Timber (2,500) and Álvarez (2,129) were also the players with the most successful passes in the Eredivisie 2022-23.

open play possession starts, Eredivisie 2022-23

But there are more stats to show Álvarez was the backbone of the team.

Out of possession, he was a dominant force. There were only three players in the Eredivisie last season who won possession more often than the Mexican (264). In January this year he equalled the record for the highest number of recoveries in a single Eredivisie game (since data on this stat began in 2010-11), with 21 against FC Volendam.

most carries, Eredivisie, 2022-23

Álvarez also made more successful tackles – where possession is retained after a tackle – than any other Ajax player (40), ranking 15th overall in the league, which is very high for a player in a team with an average possession share of 67%. He demonstrated his strength by winning 200 duels, the third highest in the league after Sparta Rotterdam’s Tobias Lauritsen (359) and PSV’s Xavi Simons (237).

However, there is a flip side to that aggression. Last season, Álvarez accumulated 10 yellow cards, which was the highest tally by anyone in the league alongside FC Twente’s Robin Pröpper. It is also the highest number ever for an Ajax player, surpassing Luis Suárez’s nine in 2008-09.

Luis Suarez, Ajax

Apart from his defensive capabilities, the 6-foot-1 Álvarez is a weapon at set-pieces, too.

Last season, only four players won more aerial duels in the Dutch top flight than he did (97). And since 2021-22, the Mexican international has scored more Eredivisie goals from corners and free-kicks with his head than any other player (six). Because Ajax have a lack of aerial threat, Álvarez is usually the target when they put high balls into the box. He even had the most headed attempts of all players last season (44), followed by centre-forwards Tobias Lauritsen (43), Santiago Giménez (29), Luuk de Jong (29) and Brian Brobbey (25). Only 25 players had more shots over the course of last season than the Mexican, who ranked fifth for shots by an Ajax player, ahead of more offensive-minded players such as Tadić (48) and Davy Klaassen (38).

table of the most headed goals in the Eredivise

To give an even better view of what kind of player Álvarez is, we can make use of Opta’s new player radars. Based on his statistics last season in the Eredivisie, we can show the players from the top five European that he is most similar to.

When comparing Álvarez’s stats with midfielders from those competitions, Rodri comes out as the player with the highest similarity rate (81%). It’s not bad being mentioned in the same breath with the scorer of the winning goal in the Champions League final.

Edson Alvarez compared to Rodri with the player radar tool

Álvarez emerged as a target for West Ham as they looked to replace Declan Rice. Replicating what he offered probably won’t be possible with a single player, but Álvarez will offer them a combative, physical and versatile option in midfield, who could slot in at centre-back if needed.

Rice’s ability to carry to ball forwards from the base of midfield was one of his biggest assets, and Álvarez has demonstrated that’s something he’s clearly able to do, as well as replacing Rice’s steel in the heart of the side.

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