This season’s Eredivisie resumes this week following a much-needed mid-season break for many of the participants.
A period of reflection, particularly in a league renowned for its hecticness, is always welcome. Several clubs across the month of December changed managers – none more extraordinarily than ADO Den Haag (see below) – meaning new faces on the sidelines. But how they get on at their respective clubs isn’t the only storyline worth keeping tabs on.
It’s well-documented Dutch football’s top division is one of the more competitive and unpredictable competitions across Europe. It also has the unique selling point of always being a hot-bed of flourishing young talents in an attack-minded league, where audiences can often enjoy watching a future Ballon d’Or nominee (see Frenkie de Jong last season) in action rich with drama and goals. Here are five things to watch from now until May.
1. Pardew’s mission
As teased in our intro, one of the clubs who appointed a head coach was Den Haag, though his identity took many by surprise.
It’s unfortunately rare to see an English coach working in another major league these days, so when the powers that be chose Alan Pardew (much-maligned in some parts) to steer their season around it understandably raised a few eyebrows.
He’s far from being the first Brit to oversee a Dutch club – how can anyone forget Steve McClaren guiding FC Twente to an unlikely championship? – but the appointment feels surreal nonetheless. Pardew, who has over 20 years of managerial experience, is up against it. Memories of his previous coaching spell at West Brom could be flooding back.
Den Haag presently sit in the relegation places; but the way it works in Holland, unlike in England, is that being in their current position of second-from-bottom will guarantee them a spot in this season’s relegation play-offs. If they were to finish rock bottom (where you’ll find RKC Waalwijk now) then it’s automatic demotion. With no fewer than 16 matches remaining, Den Haag are three points adrift of safety, but two points above the drop zone. Time is of the essence.
Pardew, who has appointed Chris Powell as his right-hand man, will need to hit the ground running, get to know those available to him, implement his ideas (while making sure they are understood) and establish a winning formula. As fate would have it, he starts a home fixture against RKC, the only side below Den Haag in the table. Given that English is widely spoken, the language barrier will not be a major issue, as long as he doesn’t create his own faux accent…
2. Hay liga!
For a while, it seemed like Ajax were running away with it (à la Liverpool in the Premier League), but they’ve been reeled back, not by traditional rivals Feyenoord or PSV. Nope, rather it’s AZ, who it must be said are playing equally spectacular football.
At one point the Amsterdammers lead was six points, before successive defeats to Willem II (at home) and AZ reduced that gap to zero. However, when the Alkmaar-based club fell to a 3-0 defeat at Sparta just before the winter break, Erik ten Hag’s men were able to establish a three-point head-start. The championship battle is about to really hot up.
Arne Slot, regardless of what happens, is doing a great job. Very few expected the 2009 champions to be where they are and given the limitations of their squad – plus upcoming European commitments – could ultimately decide their fate. Ajax only became vulnerable once being stung by injuries to key personnel, hence why they’ve dipped into the January transfer window and recruited homegrown forward Ryan Babel (albeit on a six-month loan from Galatasaray). It goes without saying the record 34-time Dutch league winners are a class above the competition (you’d think so when many outside the Netherlands have them as their Europa League favourites).
If we look at the run-in, on paper at least, Ajax just about have the more favourable fixtures, with the average position of their remaining opponents currently standing at 9.56 compared to AZ’s 9.88. Both sides are set to meet in Amsterdam on March 1 with Ajax welcoming PSV to the nation’s capital a month earlier. AZ, meanwhile, host Feyenoord in early February while PSV visit Alkmaar in late April. However, as we have already seen, it’s potentially coming unstuck when least expected that could swing the championship pendulum.
At the moment it’s a solid two-horse race with AZ sitting seven points ahead of an inconsistent PSV side, who parted company with manager Mark van Bommel just before the winter break, and behind them are five clubs – Willem II, Feyenoord, Vitesse, FC Utrecht and Heerenveen – separated by just five points. It would really be something if the bunch closes up, but given the quality and ruthlessness of the leaders, the likelihood is they will stretch their legs and be out of sight. That said, it’s up to them to prove the observers correct. If not, we are in for a ride.
3. Battle for the Crown
One reason behind Ajax’s supremacy is the brilliance of their two playmakers. Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic, without disparaging the Eredivisie, don’t belong here. It’s a testament to the Amsterdammers’ vision and aspiration that they want to be part of this journey. Since joining, Ziyech has played a significant role in De Godenzonen re-establishing their relevance in Europe, and there’s every chance of another strong run in this season’s Europa League. At home, very few operate at his level.
One player who does, however, is teammate Tadic. Both currently share the league’s ‘assist king’ crown, having each created 13 goals across their memorable 2018/19 campaign. If we look at the 2019/20 assist chart, it seems a new player has entered the game. PSV’s very own winger-cum-false nine Steven Bergwijn, that is.
This trio are the only players to have created at least 10 goals this season of far. Tadic has incredibly matched his total from last season (13) with Ziyech one behind on 12 and Bergwijn a further two back.
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Three of those goals set up by Ziyech were converted by Quincy Promes, with whom he seems both to have established a telepathic connection. So much so the goals are near identical; Ziyech drifts in from the right, Promes ghosts in behind the opposition right-back, and a scrumdiddlyumptious pass is then crowned by a neat finish. “I know where Quincy is going, and I try to put in crosses that are impossible to defend against,” the Moroccan international recently said.
These upcoming matches will be interesting to watch; in four of the last five seasons, Ziyech has finished as the division’s leading assist-maker. In the one campaign (2015/16) that saw ADO Den Haag forward Édouard Duplan steal his crown, he missed out by one goal. It’s also worth pointing out that if there is an internal contest between Tadic and Ziyech, the real winner is Ajax, who have already notched up 58 goals across their opening 18 games.
4. Golden Boot up for grabs
The race for this season’s top-scorer is also warming up nicely. Cyriel Dessers of Heracles just about leads, having scored 12 times across 18 appearances. Behind him are four players on 11 goals, which includes youngsters Donyell Malen (PSV) and Myron Boadu (AZ) as well as Bryan Linssen (Vitesse) and Steven Berghuis (Feyenoord), the latter two are so important for the respective clubs.
Malen, who sustained a serious knee injury last month subsequently putting his Euro 2020 participant under serious jeopardy, bagged those efforts across 14 matches. However, it should be noted that five came in a single 5-0 win over Vitesse.
Promes, back for Ajax after a recent spell in the physio room, sits on 10 goals with a group behind him in touching distance of Dessers making predicting this season’s Golden Boot winner too close to call. As mentioned earlier in this piece, given the league’s frugal defending, expect goals aplenty.
Dessers is in the driving seat but that could no longer be the case after matchday 19. Whoever does come out on top will join an illustrious group of previous winners, a who’s who of (mostly) Dutch football icons: Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Romario, Dennis Bergkamp, Jari Litmanen, Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Afonso Alves, Luis Suárez, Memphis Depay and Dušan Tadić to name but a few…
5. Who’s impressing Koeman?
Malen, even prior to his season-defining performance vs Vitesse, was a shoo-in to be named in Ronald Koeman’s squad for this summers pan-European championship. In the last 22-man strong selection, all but 12 ply their trade at home. The likes of Daley Blind, Joël Veltman, Donny van de Beek and Promes – all just happening to play for the league leaders – are known quantities and barring any injury should be part of the Dutch challenge at Euro 2020.
It’s those emerging stars, like Malen, that we should be focussing on and whether they’ve done enough to claim a place. This present Oranje team is rich with quality, but equally full of incredible potential, having Europe’s best defender (Virgil van Dijk) and midfielder (Frenkie de Jong) helps.
The pair are playing for a Champions League favourite, the former alongside Georginio Wijnaldum with the actual defending champions, Matthijs de Ligt – at the start of his Juventus adventure – is another. They will all be Koeman’s leaders, but who do we expect them to put an arm around and guide?
Well, at the moment, there are Boadu and Calvin Stengs, who have greatly impressed wearing an AZ jersey. Boadu’s chances increased following Malen’s injury and Memphis Depay, arguably Oranje’s most important player, both falling to a serious knee injury. Stengs is another option on the flanks, which the Netherlands can do with, but the onus is on them to maintain (or rise above) the level they’re playing at.