Ah, the Eredivisie. Also known as the weirdest place in the European leagues to scour for talent.
One the one hand, last year the magical Champions League run of Ajax demonstrated the Dutch tradition of throwing young talent immediately in the mix can produce some of the most scintillating forms of football possible.
On the other hand, the all-attack, no-defense, super young Eredivisie provides us with a long list of (semi-) failed players whose sky-high production in Holland was more down to an utter lack of defensive solidity from Eredivisie clubs than a player’s unique talent; at least, not one that would warrant a big transfer sum.
But given this is the international break and not much else is going on, the stoppage of (most) league play is an opportunity to run through the latest batch of young talent that’s currently lighting up the Dutch domestic league.
The Dutch national team is finding its groove under the guidance of Ronald Koeman, but is lacking decent options at right back. Many fans hoped that this 19-year-old fullback would prefer to don his national team caps for the Oranje, but Sergiño Dest, who grew up in the very Dutch suburb of Almere with an American father, chose to represent the United States. This means the U.S. national team can finally switch things up by giving minutes to a legitimately good player in defense.
Dest wasn’t a regular at Ajax last season, when the club from Amsterdam surprised friend and foe with their Champions League run, but the teenage fullback has broken through in a major way since the summer. That’s a feat in and of itself. It’s much harder for a youth system talent to make the leap to the senior squad at Ajax now than it was five years ago, because the average talent level in the senior team has risen dramatically.
When you look at Dest’s game, the first thing that jumps out is his agility. The 19-year-old has lightning-quick footwork, and a lot of skill on the ball. It’s too early to judge if Dest is capable of similar offensive output, but his skillset is reminiscent of that of Borussia Dortmund’s Achraf Hakimi. Ajax manager Erik ten Hag uses Dest as a very offensive-minded fullback on the right wing, who can overlap almost constantly, as the right-wingers in the squad, Hakim Ziyech and David Neres, are lefties who excel when they cut to the inside zones. Dest’s attacking role means he does a lot of his defending in the opposing half. As soon as the young USMNT player is forced into more ‘traditional’ defensive work around his own penalty area, he is at his most vulnerable.
Everyone knows about Ajax’s extremely potent attack (43 goals in 13 league games). Yet, beyond the young USMNT fullback, there’s another defensive talent worth highlighting, one having a standout season. Twenty-one-year old Lisandro Martínez was originally brought in as a left-footed centreback / leftback, but has rapidly developed into the team’s crucial defensive counterweight in midfield. The feistiness of the small Argentinian has already made him one of the fan favorites in the Johan Cruijff Arena this year.
While Ajax and their star players receive most of the international attention, the most exciting individual player development is happening elsewhere in the Eredivisie. PSV striker Donyell Malen (20)—who signed for Eindhoven last year after a few years in the Arsenal academy – hit the ten goal mark on October 6th (!), which is ridiculous early even by Eredivisie standards. But while the hype around Malen, who made his international debut during the last break, has cooled off since he picked up an injury, the other monster striking talent of Dutch football has exploded.
Myron Boadu, who plays up top in AZ Alkmaar’s exciting young squad, has already scored 14 goals in all competitions this season. Which is incredible, considering he just returned from his second year-long injury. Oh, and . . . Boadu is still 18 years old. Like Malen, he combines elite acceleration with smart positioning and intuitive off-ball runs, and already seems fully aware of what smart shot selection entails. Which says a lot about him, but also about the analytically-driven playing style that his club AZ currently excels at.
Both Malen and Boadu also profit from playing together with an extremely promising playmaking talent. Boadu has an excellent rapport with twenty-year-old left-footed right-winger Calvin Stengs. Just like his teammate, Stengs also returned from a gruesome injury, and just like Boadu, the young playmaker was recently called up to the Dutch national team for the first time. Stengs, donning a Leroy Sané-like fro’, is not a natural goal-scorer or Speedy Gonzales-type winger, but his ball control, positional feel and in-game vision make him an intriguing prospect.
With PSV not winning their last six games—translation: they’re in full-on crisis mode—Eredivisie fans are taking the rise of Mohammed ‘Mo’ Ihattaren for granted. Ihattaren is 17 years old, but his recent decision to commit to the Dutch national team instead of representing Morocco was greeted as a big win for the footballing future of Holland. With reason: in the first league meeting between powerhouses Ajax and PSV, the diminutive teen playmaker was the best individual on the field. His team collapsing result-wise in recent weeks might be a blessing in disguise for Ihattaren. The young leftie was surrounded with almost Pulisic-esque hype—with the first of critical newspaper columns about him ‘losing the ball too much’ already being drafted—but now the focus has shifted more to his team’s situation. Ihattaren is a silky-smooth dribbler who’s good for two to three ‘wait, what?’ touch-passes per game. It will be interesting to see if over the next twenty to thirty games he can to keep transforming his immense on-ball talent into tangible productive output in the final third.
While the skillsets of Malen, Boadu, Stengs and Ihattaren cause mouths to drop open, the most solid young star attracts national attention for his prowess as a penalty-taker. And while, yeah, it is impressive that Teun Koopmeiners has dispatched all ten of his spot-kicks for AZ this season, the 21-year-old midfielder should warrant much more attention due to his impressive development as an all-around player. The left-footed defensive midfielder is crucial to the build-up phase of AZ’s pretty ball-playing style; his solid distribution as a passer is evident and his ability as a ball-winner in defense is just as crucial. While the four offensive talents mentioned above are going to compete for the two attacking spots in the national team alongside Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum, Koopmeiners might be able to silently slide in as the number one choice to accompany Frenkie de Jong in holding midfield.
Brentford completed the signing of Halil Dervisoglu before the 2019-20 season began, but the agreement states the Dutch-Turkish striker from Sparta Rotterdam will join the Championship side in January 2020. But even Brentford, who paid three million Euros for the 19-year-old attacker, might be surprised at the season Dervisoglu is having. The young striker clearly excels at two things: dribbling and pressing. It’ll be fun to see if these qualities translate from the mid-tier Eredivisie to the upper-mid-tier of the Championship. Which is, in all honesty, quite the leap in the level of competition.