The Ajax keeper is hotly tipped to replace David de Gea at Old Trafford this summer, but should he? Priya Ramesh provides the lowdown...
The 60-second story
- Date of birth: April 22, 1989
- Place of birth: Nijmegen, Netherlands
- Height: 6ft 1in
- Position: Goalkeeper
- Club: Ajax (93 apps, 42 clean sheets)
- Former club(s): NEC
- International: Netherlands (21 caps)
Jasper Cillessen rose to prominence last summer when he broke the internet twice during the World Cup – but neither occasion for his goalkeeping abilities. Hence, most non-Eredivisie watchers vaguely remember the 26-year-old as the unfortunate foil for Tim Krul’s penalty-saving prowess that saw the Dutch go through on penalties against Costa Rica. Or as the comic figure that was casually squatting near his goal post in the third-place play-off against a battered Brazil side, consequently causing Twitter to put its collective creative skills to use and trend #JasperCillessenSitsOnThings.
However, Cillessen’s ‘reputation’ from the World Cup doesn't reflect the entire story of him as a goalkeeper. The Dutchman has been the best keeper in the Eredevisie for two seasons now. He's only 26 but can be considered a late bloomer in today’s context when most players start peaking at 23. A youth product of NEC Nijmegen, he played in Gelderland for 10 years before leaving for the capital, voted the region’s best player in the 2010/11 season.
At Ajax, Cillessen had a baptism of fire, making his league debut for the Amsterdam club in De Klassieker against fierce rivals Feyenoord in September 2011. He came on as a substitute when Kenneth Vermeer had been sent off only five minutes after Feyenoord opened the scoring. Cillessen characteristically kept calm and held fort to help Ajax secure a 1-1 draw.
However, it would be 24 more months before he really broke through. With Vermeer’s form dropping by each game at the start of the 2013/14 season, Frank de Boer finally displaced the now-Feyenoord man with Cillessen. One immaculate season as Ajax’s No.1 was enough to not only catch Louis van Gaal’s eye and seal a place in the World Cup squad, but even be made first choice for his country.
To say the 2014/15 season was bad for Ajax side is an understatement – they finished a whopping 17 points behind champions PSV – but on a personal level, Cillessen proved his skill. He was undoubtedly their most important player, keeping them in many games and regularly preventing further humiliation.
Why you need to know him
Last season, Cillessen’s importance to Ajax was almost identical to that of De Gea's at Manchester United
As David de Gea flirts with Real Madrid, Manchester United seem to be looking for a goalkeeper either to directly replace the Spaniard or to fight with Victor Valdes. According to reports, Van Gaal asked his goalkeeping coach Frans Hoek to write a list of goalkeepers that United should be interested in. Hoek named Cillessen as one of his top choices. Of course, this is hardly surprising given that it was Hoek who, weeks before the 2014 World Cup, suggested to Van Gaal that Cillessen should be the No.1 ahead of Michel Vorm and Krul.
Last season, Cillessen’s importance to Ajax was almost identical to that of De Gea's at United. Both clubs ended their season trophyless yet both qualified for the Champions League play-off round with less-than-impressive defences. Both keepers were named their club’s Player of the Year – and were extremely easy choices. Even if United choose to overlook Cillessen this summer, it's inevitable a club from one of Europe’s top leagues will try to prise the Dutchman away from Amsterdam sooner rather than later.
Cillessen is an all-round goalkeeper who is very comfortable with the ball at his feet and has fine reflexes. The 26-year-old is also extremely vocal in his box, and being a senior figure in this fledgling Ajax squad, he commands his defence well. Although he is relatively short for a keeper at 6ft 1in, Cillessen is rather comfortable with aerial balls and has quite a presence in set-piece situations.
Against Vitesse last season, the speedy Bertrand Traore was racing towards goal and Cillessen was drawn out from his goal-line. Instead of retreating back, he closed in on the Chelsea loanee and recovered the ball from the attacker's feet with a tackle that even the very best defenders would be proud of.
Cillessen fancies himself as an 11th outfielder, which fits in perfectly with Van Gaal’s desires for a goalkeeper. He sometimes makes fans’ hearts jump to their mouths with risky manoeuvres and feints at the back, but rest assured, he has composure on the ball, as Gonzalo Higuain found out last summer.
Cillessen’s shot-stopping has been extremely consistent for the last two seasons. He seems to like the biggest fixtures too, and put in a sensational performance in De Klassieker early on last season. It was probably Ajax’s worst performance against Feyenoord in many years, but for their goalkeeper. Most notably, Mitchell te Vrede’s 92nd-minute header seemed destined to hit the back of the net but Cillessen was having none of it, pulling off a phenomenal point-blank punch to ensure Ajax got all three points.
That was anything but an anomalous display, as Ajax were kept in games time and again by their over-worked net-minder. A triple save in a man-of-the-match performance against Legia Warsaw, and one-on-one blocks from Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez efforts all featured in Cillessen’s highlights reel.
The glaring one is already well-documented: Cillessen and penalties are not good friends. He's still never saved a spot-kick in his career and the only video on YouTube of him doing so is for a Dutch TV show. This reputation will unfortunately precede him until he actually makes a save, and he will be hoping it’s not too far off from now. In addition, although Cillessen is good at handling crosses, he does have a propensity to punch the ball away from danger. While this may go unpunished in the Eredivisie, against better attackers and instinctive finishers, that will not be the case.
Edwin van der Sar: "I hope United aren't getting him. Luckily I have some influence on that part, being on the board of Ajax. But, of course, Jasper is a fantastic goalkeeper. In the winter break I went to Qatar for a week and trained with the goalkeepers there. He has improved immensely. He played great for the Dutch national team in the World Cup and is, like David [de Gea], a very reliable goalkeeper for us in Amsterdam. We would like to keep him for a while." Frank de Boer: "He’s one of the few who has run a very good and consistent season… he is actually the only one. Conceding the fewest goals (in the league) means something. Of course he doesn't do it alone, but Cillessen is not only a goalkeeper, he is also a leader of the backline. Can he reach the level of Edwin van der Sar and Manuel Neuer? I think he can get very close."
Did you know?
After the World Cup, Cillessen’s hometown of Groesbeek held a special ceremony for him being the first player from the town to represent Oranje at the World Cup. His full name is Jacobus Antonius Peter Cillessen, and if you think that sounds Roman, it's because Groesbeek was once part of the Roman Empire.
What happens next?
The Manchester United interest was first reported in May by the reliable De Telegraaf, and it does seem logical for the Reds to be interested in him. Of course, there are and will always be sceptics about players coming from the Eredivisie, and people wondering whether he is good enough for Manchester United. It's rarely an easy call with goalkeepers.
"I didn't sign a new contract with Ajax for nothing"
In Valdes, United already have a solid replacement for De Gea and a lot might come down to how much Van Gaal is convinced that the Spaniard can ably step up to fill De Gea’s boots should he leave. Ultimately, though, Cillessen would be a relatively cheap buy, has experience working with Van Gaal and Hoek, and is used to playing higher up from his line having been moulded in the Ajax system.
This transfer would be a more significant step up for him in his career than Hugo Lloris or Petr Cech, for example. Current United No.2 Valdes is already 33 and Cillessen, potentially given a season to adjust to England, could offer a more long-term solution.
However, the 26-year-old himself has said he "didn't sign a new contract with Ajax for nothing" and expects to focus on his current club. But as Daley Blind proved last summer and Frank de Boer admitted recently, if there is a sum of money on the table that tempts Ajax, circumstances could easily change.