It seems strange how much has transpired in the last 12 months in Dutch (men’s) football. This time last year, PSV were still playing in a European competition, Feyenoord were still trying to shrug off tags of perennial ‘also-rans’, and Ajax were getting off to a slow start under a new manager after a season in which they could have won the title on the last day. Oh wait.
But we look forward now, to a new season, full of up-and-coming talent, high-volume shooters and defending mishaps (hey, it makes the league more entertaining).
The Big Three
Straight off the bat, Feyenoord look by far, the strongest side in the league and are probably frontrunners in the bid to defend their title. This stems largely from the fact that they have managed to keep most of their starting XI together, from last season, where they won the title having never relinquished the #1 spot in the table.
The midfield of Karim El Ahmadi, Tonny Vilhena and Jens Toornstra is very well-balanced in most aspects. El Ahmadi sits deep, breaks up opponent play and is essential if Feyenoord choose to build from the back. The latter is probably an understated function, since in most Dutch teams *cough* PSV *cough*, the ball can very often just be circulated within the back four without any verticality. El Ahmadi enables that, and Tonny Vilhena goes one further. The 22-year-old functions slightly higher up and more significantly to the left, and pulls the strings on that side. Along with the leftback (Kongolo, last year, Haps this year), and the left winger (Elia last year, Boetius this year), Vilhena completes a very effective triangle of play that is crucial in transition for Feyenoord.
Toornstra is arguably Feyenoord’s most important player. He spent half of last season at right wing, before taking over Dirk Kuyt’s spot as the CAM in midfield, but very clearly is the attacking outlet through which anything good comes for Feyenoord. The former Utrecht midfielder has a good range of passing and is equally great in helping to switch play as he is carrying the ball forward himself. He also offers a great deal of mobility high up the pitch, and had his best scoring season in 2016-17. He’s over-performing xG on that (14 goals from an expectation of around nine), but it doesn’t take the sheen off his importance.
In fact, the only other player as important as the Dutchman is his partner in crime in attack, striker Nicolai Jorgensen. Seven of Toornstra’s 9 assists were to Jorgensen, while the Dane notched up 11 of his own (though only 2 to Toornstra). Martin van Geel’s masterstroke signing was the only player in the league to get to double figures for both goals and assists, and his goal tally matched his xG, which probably bodes well. Jorgensen is a lot more flexible in attack, having played as a second striker before, and this should prove useful for Feyenoord’s Champions League exploits (that sounds very weird to say...).
In terms of transfers, Feyenoord have done well given their budget. The midfield was already overperforming in terms of goals, so their ‘big-money’ signing of Steven Berghuis will be expected to take on more of that burden this time around. The ‘Comeback Kid’ Jean-Paul Boetius has already shown some good understanding with new signing Ridgeciano Haps, as well as Jorgensen up top, although his shooting is a bit suspect sometimes.
Haps, brought in to replace Kongolo at leftback, is a very attacking fullback, although he does not necessarily have the same playmaking-fullback qualities of Karsdorp or even Sinkgraven (both literally playmakers-turned-fullbacks). He is still a lot more of an attacking leftback than Kongolo was, averaging 2.8 dribbles p90 and 2.0 crosses p90 compared to Kongolo’s 1.0 and 1.4 respectively. The real question is whether defensively, Haps can do what Kongolo achieved in masking the absolute lack of pace in the central duo of Botteghin and Van der Heijden.
Sofyan Amrabat and Jeremiah St Juste are great young talents, and personally, I find both of them very elegant, aesthetically pleasing players. Amrabat in particular, is a joy to watch in midfield. It’s a bit hard to predict whether they will provide sufficient depth, because the drop-off in quality between the first XI and most of the subs last year was really big for Feyenoord, especially with European fixtures.
This might end up being crucial, because arguably, it was Ajax’s increased involvement in Europe that may have cost them the title in the final weeks last season. Either way, it promises to be an interesting season for Feyenoord, defending a league title for the first time in 18 years, and definitely a new challenge for Van Bronckhorst in his third season, as to how he and the team grow from here.
Another season, another new manager, another early elimination from the Champions League. *sigh*
Cynicism aside, I’d think Ajax are actually - at least on the pitch - in a better position at this stage than they were last season, because the transition from Bosz to Keizer’s playing style has not been as radical as De Boer to Bosz. Thus, even against Nice, Ajax looked like a pretty cohesive unit already. This is also due to the fact that barring Davy Klaassen’s departure, Ajax have also retained most of their main starters (as of 10/08/2017).
Joel Veltman has extended his contract, and he's not everyone's cup of tea. Kenny Tete, now at Lyon, was seen by some as the better tackler/option at rightback, despite the fact that Veltman attempted (134) and completed (108) the most tackles in the league, averaging 4.4 tackles won per game. It’s an odd situation, because even if the numbers are good and his anticipation of the game is good, Veltman’s tendency to go missing in big moments does not work in his favour. Ajax have signed according to Carl Worswick, the best rightback in the Colombian league in Luis Orejuela, so at least there is some competition / stylistic alternative.
In midfield, Donny van de Beek has come in and fit into Klaassen’s role almost perfectly. Two goals in two games so far is reminiscent of the former captain, but Van de Beek arguably offers even more, in terms of his dynamism and wide range of passing. He has the potential to stamp his authority on longer periods during the game, which was not always an aspect of Klaassen’s game. As an aside, StatsBomb's passing ability model really likes van de Beek's passing albeit off a relatively small sample.
Frenkie de Jong has dazzled whenever given the chance, and (definitely an exaggeration) is kind of like a part-Iniesta, part-Seedorf midfielder. There might be a point in the season where Schøne becomes dispensable as opposed to suddenly indispensable, and we might see Van de Beek in the deepest role in midfield (likely the role he will develop into anyway), with De Jong shuttling ahead of him. While this might be a bit risky for Ajax, it would definitely be fun and fun obviously counts as a trophy.
Speaking of fun..
The fact that I am one of Ziyech’s biggest fans is not a secret.
Chances created/key passes is probably a bit of an archaic metric for some now, and it definitely has its drawbacks and can make certain players appear better especially when comparing across leagues. (So no, Ross Barkley is not as good as Toni Kroos and Ziyech at the moment is by no means a better player than Christian Eriksen or Kevin de Bruyne)
But for lack of better analytical skills, it’s the one I have to go with here. Looking at the more established/well-known company that Ziyech finds himself in at the top probably lends some credibility that with a large enough sample size, key passes can still help us with some conclusions. Namely the one here being Ziyech is a bloody good creator.
That’s in addition to / in spite of the fact that he has had to adapt to a new team, face deeper-set defences, and run a whole lot more under Bosz’s pressing system (which he actually grew to absolutely love).
The caveat, is obviously, the fact that Eredivisie defences don’t stack up anywhere near as good as say, Premier League ones, and that he is a set piece taker, but even taking confounders into account, Ziyech is good.
Is it worth excusing his ridiculous 4.4 shots p90, usually from not-ideal situations, so much so that he has probably single-handedly shifted Ajax’s profile of shots? Debatable, and likely one of the flaws that he must iron out of his game.
If the Neymar money eventually finds its way to Ziyech *touch wood* via Dembele/Dortmund or Coutinho/Liverpool, it will be Ajax’s biggest loss in recent years and this is not hyperbole. It took them 3 years to find a proper replacement for the void of creativity left by Christian Eriksen, and the tragic situation with Nouri means that Ajax neither have the ‘natural successor’ to Ziyech. He did seem set on staying, but so did Milik last year before he ended up getting pulled into the chain set off by Pogba to United, and Higuaín to Juventus. If anything around €40-ish million is thrown Ajax’s way by virtue of this ridiculous domino-dollar effect, it becomes a difficult situation for Marc Overmars to handle.
Under Bosz, there was a lot of emphasis on the wingers to dribble in from the byline and it’s no surprise that Younes and Traoré averaged 3.8 and 3.6 successful dribbles p90. Traoré’s departure opened a space at right wing for either Justin Kluivert or David Neres to fill. So far, the Dutchman has been the preferred choice (although I think he’d be a better fit on the left wing), and in the first half at home against Nice, he justified the choice, creating all kinds of chaos with his mazy runs and smart acceleration. Neres seems like the better finisher/goal threat, and produced a Messi-esque radar in his 5.8 90s in the tail end of last season, so the Ajax wings are definitely a space to watch (also especially if you are an opposition defender).
Jong Ajax scored 93 goals in the Eerste Divisie under Marcel Keizer last season, at least 15 goals more than any other team. Partly due to superior talent level among the players, but Keizer’s philosophy seems right for attacking football, so ideally, Ajax would be able to build upon Bosz’s work from last season.
This could be a one-meme-preview.
I did a small review of the Eredivisie season 12 games in last October, and found that PSV were actually doing really good in the underlying numbers, despite results being quite gloomy. I thought things would get better.
In the numbers, PSV’s season still does not look as terrible as it was. Their defence conceded the fewest shots in the league and the joint-least number of goals. Their attack were good in as much as getting into good shot locations and getting shots on target -- the best in the league in fact.
The issue - which is likely to be also reflected in relevant xG numbers - is that they really really really could not finish. Their Goal/SoT% in the league last year was 26.36% - only 3 teams (PEC Zwolle, NEC Nijmegen, Roda JC) had worse, and two of them got relegated.
One of the main factors has been the radical drop-off in form from Luuk de Jong. Almost a talismanic leader in his first two
seasons at the club, De Jong fell down a serious loss-of-form abyss and has never resurfaced. According to Opta’s model (which includes penalties), Luuk de Jong was underperforming his xG by around 8 goals, ie, he was put through and took shots in positions where he should have scored 50% more times than he did. Pereiro suffered a similar season too; his conversion rate was 20.5%, only marginally better than Luuk de Jong’s 17.8%, despite the both of them accounting for 89 shots on target.
Why is this significant? While PSV's defence were not too bad, at times between 2014-16, they also looked like a team who, if they could not contain you, would just outscore you with the likes of De Jong, Memphis, Wijnaldum, Van Ginkel and Pereiro, etc. In the absence of prolific, or even average, levels of finishing, they seemed to end up drawing a lot of the games that they would have found a way to score a winner in previously.
There are structural issues with PSV’s play that can essentially be repeated from the diagnosis last October:
a) PSV’s Plan A is a very static, defensive-possession based game, dependent on delivery from wide
b) PSV do little to break out of and try something different when their Plan A fails
c) PSV continue even more enthusiastically as the game goes on, hoping that doing the same thing over and over again will somehow yield a different result
This apparently gets worse, because in their first two games this season in the Europa League qualifying vs FC Ojisek, PSV mustered all of 3 shots on target, from 39 attempts. For the first time in their entire history, they’ve been knocked out of Europe before September.
PSV have already lost key players in Hector Moreno and Andres Guardado this summer, and with the lack of money from European participation, now have to sell Davy Propper (who is off to Brighton) and Luuk de Jong (who Hannover 96 seem to be interested in).
This could go either way for Cocu. Propper was not happy with being benched in the first game, and De Jong had just decided to give up captaincy to Van Ginkel; in terms of a dressing room environment, this might help PSV with a ‘fresh’-ish start with a young squad. Jurgen Locadia will likely be the first-choice striker and this is his chance to prove himself, after a very hot-and-cold career til date. Propper and Guardado leaving might potentially open up a door for Dante Rigo (who holds a lot of promise) to compete with Hendrix for the #6 role, although Cocu’s track record with youth has not been ideal so far.
On paper, PSV still look a very decent outfit. Van Ginkel returns having been very productive on previous loan stints (15 goals, 4 assists in 28 Eredivisie games for PSV), while the purchases of Derrick Luckassen and in particular, Chucky Lozano might be effective if properly allowed to integrate.
This season promises to be quite the crucible for Phillip Cocu. With the level of uncertainty currently around PSV, they do seem the weakest of the ‘big three’.
Other fun stuff
If PSV do not pick up the pace, it is not too far-fetched to think one of AZ Alkmaar or FC Utrecht could potentially overtake them and move into 3rd.
AZ have had to sell both Luckassen and Haps, but remain reasonably strong. Marko Vejinovic returns after nearly a decade, and if both him and Joris van Overeem can produce consistent displays as a midfield duo, things may get interesting. I’m a big fan of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, but also very much looking forward to seeing more of 18-year-old Calvin Stengs, who glided past opponents in the Europa League play-offs and made a big, decisive impression. His footwork is great and he seems like Robben, but delivering with key passes/assists after cutting in, instead of taking a shot. Floats on the pitch like a butterfly, Stengs like a bee.
FC Utrecht under Erik ten Hag finally seem like gaining some sort of consistency. You can’t necessarily try to play like Barcelona or Bayern Munich with a fraction of their budget, but credit to Ten Hag for still trying? In Dessers and Kerk, Utrecht seem to have replaced Haller and Zivkovic without too much hassle. The former was involved in 40 goals (29 goals, 11 assists) in 40 games for NAC in all competitions last season, and really powered them through the pro/rel playoffs. They lost Amrabat, but can hopefully still keep Ayoub; his multi-functionality in midfield and ability to make things happen might prove invaluable with European fixtures looming.
The issue for most of the high-mid to mid-table sides has been to do with replacing outgoing strikers, and especially, strikers who carried a lot of the team’s goal burden: Ricky van Wolfswinkel scored 38% of Vitesse’s league goals, Enes Ünal, 37% of FC Twente’s.
Twente have looked to the second division, buying 33-goal-striker Tom Boere from FC Oss as their main man. Boere will be looking to do something a la Vincent Janssen in 2015-16 in adapting as soon as possible to the Eredivisie, trying to translate his goal-every-101-minutes-record from last season.
Incidentally, the other two with the least min/goal (15+ goals) in the Eerste Divisie have also earned moves to the Eredivisie; Sander van de Streek (who has already been good for FC Utrecht in Europa League qualifying) and Piotr Parzysek, who will lead the line at PEC Zwolle and might also be interesting tactically, with John van’t Schip at the helm.
On the other hand, Vitesse have brought in Tim Matavz, who had a couple of good seasons with FC Groningen once upon a time, and Luc Castaignos, who played all of 91 minutes for Sporting in the league last season and contributed one off-target shot. These do not seem like particularly inspired transfers, although of course, for their part, they’ll look to have a renaissance a la Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
Others to potentially keep an eye on include Martin Odegaard in his first full season in the Netherlands, as well as FC Groningen's new Japanese talent, Ritsu Doan.
Any analysis is to emphasise the importance of an event or thing, that inherently the said event is worth enough to be researched and reflected and ruminated upon. But there are things more important than numbers and football. Thoughts and prayers with Appie Nouri, and his family.
Thanks for reading!
Article by Priya Ramesh