Football Features

Donyell Malen: The Arsenal reject set to rival De Jong & Memphis for Netherlands spot

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 15:35, 4 September 2019

There are very few international matches that can rival Germany against the Netherlands when it comes to history and intensity.

Friday sees the 44th meeting between the fierce neighbours in Hamburg, the scene of Oranje’s most famous win at Euro 1988, when a Rinus Michels-led team were grateful to marksman Marco van Basten whose 89th-minute strike guided the Dutch to a first European Championship final which they duly won at the Soviet Union’s expense.

Since those halcyon days there have been many quality No 9s donning the fabled orange jersey – from Patrick Kluivert to Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie – though not all been regular starters given the nation’s embarrassment of riches (see Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar).

That is no longer the case. Whereas a decade ago folks were mourning the lack of quality centre-backs it seems now there’s a dearth of strikers who put the fear of god into opposition defenders.

Ronald Koeman, the latest man charged with returning Oranje to world football’s top stage, has been somewhat creative by turning winger extraordinaire Memphis Depay into a ‘false nine’ with spectacular results.

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The ex-Man Utd man has bagged 11 goals, whilst creating a further seven, across his last 17 international matches. He’s been good enough to keep orthodox centre-forward Luuk de Jong in a reserve role while forcing Bas Dost into retirement and keeping Wout Weghorst on the periphery.

But both Depay and De Jong, selected for Netherlands’ upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers, face renewed competition in the guise of PSV Eindhoven’s latest sensation Donyell Malen who at one point was on Arsenal’s books.

Opportunity knocks

Malen’s story is commonplace in football today. Having started at Ajax’s renowned youth set-up, he decided to sign his first professional contract with English giants Arsenal, who around that period hired fellow countryman Andries Jonker as head of their academy. Louis van Gaal’s former right-hand man would scathingly criticise the Wieringen-born footballer by labelling him “overweight” which still annoys him.

“I heard him say that I came in too fat. That surprised me,” Malen recently told Algemeen Dagblad. “They had been working at Arsenal for two months when I came. Then of course you are not immediately at the same level. I was not fit yet, but too fat? No.”

Malen would leave Arsenal in the summer of 2017, turning down a contract extension to move to PSV on a three-year deal.

Their loss has certainly been PSV’s gain. In a more opportunistic environment the 20-year-old would find himself regularly called upon by manager Mark van Bommel as de Boeren chased a successive Eredivisie crown last season having made sporadic appearances in their championship-winning campaign before. His versatility, as touched upon, was reason enough for Van Bommel to fast track him but more than being able to play in a multitude of roles, it’s his mentality and technical attributes that have really shone.

New but old

To start with Malen isn’t your typical centre-forward, he’s not a throwback, instead he meshes the classic and contemporary. His guile and electric footwork – getting the ball off him is no mean feat – has made him a centre-back’s nightmare. But he still embodies the traits of a quintessential ‘Dutch No 9’, where there is just as much demand in being a good playmaker as finding the back of the net.

Since turning professional in Eindhoven he’s played 57 times registering 15 goals and nine assists. Of those efforts, four have already come this season, in which he’s now cemented as Van Bommel’s choice to lead PSV’s forward line. His telepathic relationship with Steven Bergwijn, no longer on the flanks but rather deployed as a No 10, is the cornerstone behind their offensive verve.

Entering the big time

His performances haven’t gone unnoticed. Malen is fortunate to be playing in a period where he’s not facing a great degree of competition. For one reason or another Dutch No 9s today are either not ready or have fallen by the wayside. It’s telling that, aside from him, Koeman’s options are Depay and De Jong.

Someone like Weghorst, who has scored two goals in his opening three Bundesliga matches for Wolfsburg, is currently not being considered and it’s hard to see Vincent Janssen – now plying his trade at Mexican giants Monterrey – returning anytime soon following his disastrous spell with Tottenham Hotspur.

So, the stars have aligned in Malen’s favour and he can wait in anticipation of making his Oranje debut against nemesis Germany on Friday, or Estonia whom they meet in Tallinn a few days later. As impressive as he has been, Koeman is likely to retain Depay in the role and if Malen does come on chances are he will occupy a spot on the flanks than in his preferred No 9 role.

Given where he is in terms of development and career, logic dictates Malen will be eased in; the inaugural Uefa Nations League runners-up aren’t desperate to chuck him into the deep end. One thing’s for certain, he’ll take whatever may come in his stride. In such a short space of time Malen has shown to carry a mature head on young shoulders and that’ll hold him in good stead going forward.