Dutch academies have long been centres of footballing excellence. Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, Heerenveen and PSV Eindhoven all lay claim to prestigious youth ranks.
The nation’s domestic league has been a hotbed of talent, yet the current crop in the league appear to be elevating the standard.
Ajax’s golden generation of 2018 saw Frenkie de Jong, Mathjis de Ligt and Donny van de Beek ascend into European elites. AZ Alkmaar and Heerenveen have a strong and exciting group headed by Teun Koopmeiners and Calvin Stengs of the former and Joey Veerman of the latter.
The PSV Eindhoven of 2020/21 however boast not only the Netherland’s most exciting squad, but potentially one of Europe’s. A fascinating mix of young, raw potential with smartly acquired experience. And a coach to match their ambition and philosophy.
Building from a solid platform
The nature of the Dutch Eredivisie means that Eindhoven will never be far from the summit. A select group hold a monopoly over the league’s title, with PSV firmly amongst that group. Since 2000 they have qualified for Europe every season, with only seven of these appearances coming in the Europa League. One such year however is 2020/21 after finishing fourth the previous year.
19/20 would be a tumultuous year for the club. Coach and former player Mark van Bommel was sacked midway through the year after winning only two games in twelve. Holding such power in the league as they do, it was inexcusable for PSV to suffer such a barren run. Ernest Faber would take temporary charge and guide them to fourth spot by the time the league was suspended in April.
Come the new season, the Rood-Witten turned to German Roger Schmidt. Schmidt came through in the same raft as Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel. The German managerial model had swung towards aggressive, high energy pressing. Schmidt was very much part of this revolution in his iterations as RB Salzburg and Bayer Leverkusen coach.
PSV’s objective each year is to win the league, and failing that, qualify for the Champions League. That those seven Europa League finishes have occurred with the last twelve years showed that the club’s dominance, or claim to it, was retreating rather than strengthening.
A manager of Schmidt’s philosophy and style sought to not only make PSV a more successful team, but also more entertaining. Thus far, this promise has delivered.
Transfer activity involving Dutch clubs more often than not involves a home grown talent being sold away to a top club. Yet in the final weeks of the summer 2020 transfer window, it was the incomings at Eindhoven that set pulses racing.
The club overhauled the squad in making over ten signings, combining loan moves with low value acquisitions. Among those loan moves were that of goalkeeper Yvon Mvogo from RB Leipzig, Marco van Ginkel from Chelsea for a second spell, and Adrian Fein from Bayern Munich.
Mvogo leads the league with four clean sheets at the time of writing, and has demonstrated ecxcellent shot stopping. Fein is a reliable passer from dfeensive midfield, with his parent club hoping he will use the season to develop into a useful squad player for them.
Philipp Max was acquired from Augsburg for £7 million, and is currently completing 0.62 assists per ninety minutes from left back. His fifty nine crosses also lead the league, and we will explore later how integral this is to Schmidt’s system.
World Cup and Bundesliga winner Mario Götze also arrived with the end of his contract at Borussia Dortmund. Recent seasons have been cruel to Götze, with injury and chronic sickness disrupting his development. An environment such as PSV’s, with pacey and energetic forwards ahead of him, could prove perfect for his career rehabilitation.
The most impressive signing of all however was Ibrahim Sangaré. Toulouse finished bottom of Ligue 1 in 19/20, however defensive midfielder Sangaré was among the league’s best for his position. HIs sixty eight successful tackles (79.1% success) was a league high, and at twenty two had most of Europe sniffing round. Southampton wree heavily linked, yet it was Eindhoven that acquired the Ivorian for just £8 million (fbref.com). In years to come this could prove one of the great signings of the year.
A Strong Dutch Core
Adding the likes of Götze and Sangaré has undoubtedly elevated the Eindhoven squad. It was already one bulging with rich domestic talent however.
Amongst a squad as young as PSV’s it is easy to think of right back Denzel Dumfries as a veteran. At twenty four he is older than the squad’s mean age of 23.8, and captains and leads the team as such. A strong and physical right back, capable of bombing beyond the forwards or alternatively holding the defensive line.
Jordan Teze is growing into an interesting centre back prospect alongside Frenchman Olivier Boscagli. The latter in particular has looked mightily impressive in the Europa League as a reliable passer, and Teze too is becoming a permanent fixture at centre back alongside him.
The midfield sees further Dutch talent deployment. Cody Gakpo is a fast dribbling winger, but also a highly instinctive and astute player. Quick feet and an eye for the spectacular, Gakpo is another Dutch name added to their fleet of exciting wingers.
Pablo Rosario patrols the defensive midfield position alongside Sangaré. Without having the elite defensive numbers of the Ivorian (as we shall describe later) Rosario still completes over sixty passes per game with nearly four tackles and interceptions. He fulfils the role expected of such a midfielder in Schmidt’s system.
Then there is Mohamed Ihattaren. An attacking midfielder also comfortable playing on either wing, the eighteen year old is a tantalisng prospect. He plays in the mould of the modern ‘ten’; dynamic and busy rather than languid. He possesses a rocket of left foot and quick feet to dance through challenges. In time he may become the complete modern creator, such is his range of attacking ability at such a raw age.
PSV’s Star Assets
There are two talents that stand out in this side beyond the pack. One is Donyell Malen. The Dutch striker is already a frightening centre forward. Direct, fast, strong and competitive, Malen is the type of striker every club wish they had.
Malen is another escapee of the Arsenal academy, part of the select group of Serge Gnabry and Ismael Bennacer to name but two that slipped between the cracks. He is PSV’s vice captain at only twenty one, and will surely be the subject of monstrous European bids in the near future.
PSV’s striking heritage is illustrious. Romario. Ronaldo. Ruud van Nistelrooy. Donyell Malen may join these names in levaing at a tender age to forge outstanding careers elsewhere. Such is his talent that it is unlikely he would be begrudged that. For now though, he continues to grow, as a finisher of right and left foot, and also underrated creator and finder of space.
The other forward of tantalising ability is Chukwunonso ‘Noni’ Madueke. Madueke is one of the recent generation of English attackers to depart the academy in search of first team football, leaving Tottenham’s youth ranks in 2018. The move has more than been vindicated.
Madueke is a phenomenal forward player, capable of playing in a strike pairing or off either wing. The eighteen year old remains very slight and nimble owing to his age, affording him devastating pace from a standing start. Schmidt has used him cleverly, often as an impact substitute to run at tired legs. His 423 league minutes have been spread across all nine league games, producing six goal involvements.
England’s national team have shown no fear in blooding youth, including those even younger than Madueke such as Jude Bellingham. However stacked their forward talent remains, it may not be long before he too pulls on the white of the Three Lions.
Schmidt thus far has favoured variations of a 4-2-2-2. This system allows two sitting midfielders (usually Rosario and Sangaré) to remain deep and protect the defence should they lose possession.
Sangaré is currently making 6.4 tackles and interceptions per game (whoscored.com). It shows however that as the first layer of two in the 4-2-2-2, he and Rosario sit deep and sweep up danger. In Sangaré, Schmidt has the perfect midfielder for this role, and he is executing masterfully.
The two more advanced midfielder play as inverted wingers, cutting inside and creating between the lines. Whilst Gakpo is a more traditional winger, Ihattarren and Götze are creative midfielders playing these roles. They have license to roam and rotate in knowlegde that they have cover behind.
The strikers again are integral to the machine. Malen is first and foremost an explosive finisher. PSV are not huge shot takers, ranking seventh in the Eredivisie for both shots and shot on target per ninety minutes. They instead rely on high quality chances to be finished by their lethal talisman.
Then there is Eran Zahavi. The thirty three year old is far and away the oldest player in the PSV squad. Signed from Guangzhou R&F this summer, the Israeli might not hit the goal scoring heights he did in China of ninety one goals in 108 games, but he is a wily operator. He often retracts deeper than Malen in possession, creating more of a 4-2-3-1 and acting as a link man. Zahavi’s movement creates space for the younger and quicker forwards, and only Malen attempts more than his 4.06 shots per ninety minutes.
Combination play is key. The centre backs hold the ball comfortably and exchange passes with the defensive midfielders. However rather than the midfield being tasked with breaking the lines, it is Teze or Boscagli who advance the ball. This often comes as the opposition press the ball being played back to the defence, and allows the centre back pass to bypass it.
Not quite there… yet
For as much as the youthfulness and energy of PSV is impressive, they nevertheless require improvement. They currently sit fourth in the league and third in their Europa League group.
Götze and Ihattaren have only combined for 5.9 out of a potential nine league games. Schmidt’s use of inverted creators should be perfect for the young Dutchman to thrive as a right sided midfielder. However he simply hasn’t played the minutes to make an impact.
The side’s lack of shooting can be attributed to the lack of an ever present or elite creator. Again, in time, this will fall to Ihattaren. But at present the clever and intricate combinations around the box are seldom resulting in shot creation.
These are not problems so much as they are understandable missing links. Schmidt’s style is one that must be invested in, and for a young squad they will need time to learn his philosophies.
This was evident in the Europa League defeat to Granada. After leading through a Götze volley, little more was created. Malen missed a gilt edged opportunity, a rarity, and it showed that when he misfires there is an alarming lack of scoring potential. Granada scored through a clever set piece routine and a terrific curling effort in the second half. PSV offered little to assert attacking dominance, andultimately lacked cutting edge.
For a side that build up so intricately, and thrive on high quality chances, this may need to see higher shot volume to break down more stubborn sides.
The Price of Potential
The Eredivisie is not accustomed to such vibrant young sides as PSV. It has long been a breeding ground for fledgling talent before the rest of Europe hone their gaze.
The names decsribed will likely depart the Netherlands in the near future. Malen, Ihattaren, Sangaré, Madueke. As will the likes of Stengs, Koopmeiners and Veerman when the time comes. This is not what defines these clubs however.
In Roger Schmidt, these young players have a tutor to mould and shape their abilities for years to come. Pressing energy, combination play and awareness of structure will be ingrained, and make them all the more tantalising to sign.
In the mean time, this young side have a window to hit accelerate. Ajax will always be favourites, and currently sit just four points ahead of them. The core of this Eindhoven team however more than rival their Amsterdam rivals, and arguably stand up against any of such age across Europe.
PSV has a stored history of supporting and boosting youth. These players may not be in red and white for long, but have the tools to not only elevate themselves as players, but the club that has placed faith in them. That is football synergy at its finest.