Hyperbolising young talent is dangerous. However Teun Koopmeiners is worth every excited murmur.
Some argue that he is already among the games great minds. That he is only twenty two leaves the fan and analyst disbelieving, and baffled as to what his ceiling could be.
The young Dutchman has accumulated a cult following of appreciators, and this will only grow in years to come. Much like the AZ Alkmaar team he captains, Koopmeiners is making his mark in a unique, individual way.
This is the story of his development. A development that has been cast over the last twelve years at his boyhood club. Growth from a boy to a man with an unheralded football brain, and one that could define a generation of Dutch midfielders.
The start of a journey
‘He already understood the game and had good technique at a young age’ recalls Koen Stam to First Time Finish, who worked with Koopmeiners at Jong AZ.
The asset of “reading the game” can become either a midfielder’s best weapon, or regarded as a stick with which to beat them. There are midfielders bursting with talent, deemed to be untrained to the subtleties of anticipating the speed and wants of the match.
For Koopmeiners this has never been an issue, and already is an asset that stimulates his growth.
‘I was the coach of Teun in the Under 15. At the age of 14 he was already very intelligent and he had a beautiful left foot.’
Now working at Feyenoord, Koen’s recollections of the young player’s football brain holds true the sentiments many are saying about him.
It also raises questions of the extent to which this intuition is natural or nurtured. If a fourteen year old Teun Koopmeiners is already demonstrating this intelligence, then what hope is there for those still lacking, a decade older?
The technical and personal goals of Dutch academies is well known. The likes of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord and Heerenveen establish a clear identity in their youth. The result is a production line of intelligent, technical players for the footballing world to feast on.
“The aim is to let fifty percent of the squad consist of youth exponents of the club. This is now the case with players like Calvin Stengs, Guus Til, Thomas Ouwejan, Teun Koopmeiners and Myron Boadu.” says AZ’s academy descriptor.
He goes on to proclaim: “Innovative is a word that fits the Alkmaar breeding pond, which won the prestigious Rinus Michels Award for best youth academy of the Netherlands in 2015 and 2016.”
The development of Stengs, Koopmeiners and Boadu especially all occurred at a similar time to these awards. Koen Stam’s memories of coaching Koopmeiners in the years near this period reflect a glorious era for AZ’s youth.
‘In that year (2012/13) we became national champion with 13 points more than Ajax. I can still remember very well that he was already working on his development together with his teammates before every training.’
‘In the final of the national championship U15 against Feyenoord he had a brilliant free kick that allowed Ferdy Druyf to score.’
‘We won that day 4-1 and I think we will all never forget that day.’
Taking the initiative and creating pivotal moments seems to be Koopmeiners’ forte.
Transitioning to the top
He, Stengs and Boadu are all aged twenty to twenty two. AZ’s objective for half of their matchday squads to be academy graduates is fulfilled by the prominence of the likes of these names.
Koopmeiners would debut for the senior AZ team in 2016/17, Stengs and Boadu in 17/18. The transition into senior teams from Dutch academies is perhaps a plainer one than Premier League youth players face. There is an expectation for the most gifted and technically sound prospects to make that transition, and that there is a trodden path for them to tread. This is a world away from the bloated squads and grotesque money pumped into English teams that deny talented youth a fair chance.
The mere sight of a teenage prodigy in a league appearance, let alone any success, is novelty. In the Eredivisie it is a demand.
That these three names along with the countless other academy graduates in the Netherlands are allowed the freedom to play is an envious situation. And play they have.
At the time of the league’s suspension in March 2020, AZ sat level with Ajax at its summit. With no winner and no relegation awarded as a result, the club can claim it to be one of their highest placings in a league campaign aside from their 1981 and 2009 titles. The team to do so were on average nearly two years Ajax’s junior, and had nine fewer players to their squad.
Boadu, Stengs and Koopmeiners scored thirty of AZ’s fifty four league goals, second only to Ajax. All had made their professional debuts within the last three seasons, yet were challenging the league’s dominant force.
Stengs and Boadu were mightily impressive, as was left back Owen Wijndal; another young Dutch talent. Yet it was Koopmeiners’ role as the young tearaways’ orchestrator that began to set tongues wagging.
Painting a picture
Having set Koopmeiners up as a generational talent, now seems prescient to fill in the lines.
On paper, the twenty two year old is a defensive midfielder, but equally capable of playing as more of a progressive central midfielder. At six foot he is a tall presence centrally, and this especially shows in the Eredivsie. A league not renowned for physically imposing ball players, Koopmeiners has an auhtorative aura that few can touch domestically.
AZ Alkmaar mostly use a 4-3-3 that in reality is closer to a 4-2-3-1. Koopmeiners starts as one of the three midfielders, usually the central or left sided player with Fredrik Midtsjø opposite. He will sit deep, retract between the centre backs and collect the ball from the goalkeeper in possession, whilst the third midfielder will venture and create further forward. Usually one of Dani de Wit, or Calvin Stengs should he not be played as a winger.
The first sign of his versatility is in his distribution. In that retracted position, Koopmeiners’ head never leaves the opposition goal. Whatever degree of pressure he is under, his priority is to move the ball forwards. This makes him incredibly difficult to press as he refuses to be hemmed in. This of course is helped by the speediness of the Alkmaar forwards and Stengs, but Koopmeiners enables this. Without being quick, his barrel chest makes him even harder to get a hand on, and allows him to swivel from the weight applied by a presser.
The calm with which he passes is exquisite. A cushioned touch, opening of the body and a seamless left footed push through the ball rockets it vertically. Rarely is this touch too heavy or miscued, it plumps the ball ready for its dismissal.
And dismissed it is. Raking diagonals arrowed for the wingers. Aggressive line breakers to set Stengs free centrally. Deft ‘give and goes’ to rotate play and pull defensive banks out of shape. These occur all over the pitch, not just from the comfort of his own half. There are debatably fewer purer left feet in Europe.
Ground shaking metrics
Regardless of the influence of penalties, Koopmeiners has dominated numerous metrics since his debut campaign.
At the surface level, fifty five goals and assists in 136 domestic appearances is frightening for a defensive midfielder. That fourteen goals and two assists have come from centre back is remarkable, and puts him in the realms of Sergio Ramos.
The unarguable fact is that twenty five of these goals have been penalties. The unerring quality of a Koopmeiners penalty is a fantastic sight. Unfussy run up of a matter of steps before striking cleanly. It is a huge number to have scored, and whilst many may say this boosts his numbers astronomically, the purpose of Teun Koopmeiners is not to score goals. Any at all are a bonus from the positions he occupies. That he has contributed as many as he has only furthers his appreciation.
Beneath the ice sheet of his goal contributions, the Dutchman unsurprsingly hoards statistical passing acumen. Only two players have played more passes this season in the league, and only three have played more through balls (including Stengs). He sits fourth for passes played to the final third, and has the highest smart pass accuracy of 55%. This refers to passes that break opposition lines, and create attacking scenarios.
The quantity of his output his huge; sixty three passes a game is a hefty volume. Similarly attempting over nine long passes (completing 4.9) a game puts him nineteenth in the Eredivisie. Of the eighteen players attempting more, all are centre backs and goalkeepers. Yet his quality is unwavering, shown by his smart pass and basic pass accuracy of 86%. Attempting dangerous, progressive actions without compromising or endangering his team.
The Koopmeiners Speciaal
Koopmeiners has built up a significant portfolio of performances since his debut in 2016/17.
The most notable was in a 2-0 win over Ajax at the Amsterdam ArenA in March 2020. In a closely fought encounter with AZ’s Myron Boadu squandering numerous chances, Ajax pushed for an equaliser.
In the seventy third minute, Koopmeiners receives the ball from his goalkeeper. Inches outside of his penalty area, his hawkeye catches a run from Oussama Idrissi off the back of the right back. Ajax’s high line is caught out, as Koopmeiners launches the ball upfield. It bounces twice and Idrissi lobs Andre Onana to put AZ 2-0 up. The pass, mesmerising from centre back.
Yet a 1-3 away win over PSV Eindhoven in January 2021 is arguably the cream of Koopmeiner’s exquisite crop. By half time, AZ were 2-0 away at third placed PSV. Their captain had scored both. The first was a penalty, crunched past Yann M’Vogo’s feet. The second was a volleyed backheel, facing away from goal, from an outswinging corner. It is hard to doubt its intentions considering the foot that actioned it.
PSV surged late, with AZ camping inside their own half. AZ normally play wide and spread the opposition, yet out of possession they congested the centre. PSV’s narrow attacking formation did little to disrupt this, but AZ’s defensive approach saw them possess only 39% of the ball. Their average this season has been 54.3%.
Despite giving up their share of the ball, Koopmeiners still completed fifty three of his sixty six passes. This included an assist for Calvin Stengs’ late deflected strike. The composure shown, but also the impressive leadership to steady this youthful ship was integral. This is the league’s youngest squad, and the youngest captain. Not that anyone would know it.
There is a youthful exuberance to AZ. The pace and unpredictability of Boadu and Jesper Karlsson, and the flair of Stengs. Koopmeiners has a gnarly, strengthened air however with an experienced aura.
Koen Stam notes that it is that balance between technical proficiency and mental toughness that sets the twenty two year old apart. It is he that bellows when things go astray, or consoles when an opportunity is missed.
In that recent win at PSV, Phillip Max curled in a free kick to make it 2-1, a sniff of comeback permeating the air. Koopmeiners was beaten on the goalpost for the goal, the ball shaving his head and beating the goalkeeper. The captain bowed his head and kicked the post, before rousing his troops.
One would think the AZ and junior Dutch jerseys had a permanent yellow band emblazoned on the arm, such is the permanency of it on Koopmeiners’. It will likely remain that way until he hangs his boots up.
‘He always wanted to think along about the way of playing and he also got that freedom to think along. As he grew older he became more dominant and by always setting a good example himself he became a leader.’ says Koen.
With that comes responsibility to self improve both as a player, but also as the team’s cornerstone. This level of development is something Koopmeiners is accustomed to.
‘I can still remember very well that we as a staff tried to improve his speed of actions and ability to move. But also that our coach Bart Heuvingh spoke to him a lot about his personal development. I also remember how driven he was to improve himself. He was always well supported in this by his parents.’
Like the AZ prodigies he developed alongside, Koopmeiners’ international career is evergreen. His senior bow arrived in October 2020 in a desperately drab 1-0 defeat to Mexico.
Central midfield is an area brimming with talent for the Oranje. Among the recently capped in this position are Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek, Georginio Wijnaldum and Ryan Gravenberch.
Similarly the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Sven Botman, Stefan de Vrij and Daley Blind mean that centre back is fairly healthy too.
Koopmeiners quality in both roles will make him a necessity for future international tournaments. To field an extra progressive passer in defence against weaker opposition could elevate their trophy potential.
Beyond being a tactical enabler, Koopmeiners could be the leader this young Dutch side look to. As the older heads of Wijnaldum, van Dijk and Depay eventually phase out, left behind will be an extremely talented squad. Koopmeiners’ influence as that rugged, composed head will see him integral to their development.
The tangible abilities of Teun Koopmeiners are already imprinting themselves on football’s conscience. His leadership and mentality sit and work in congruence with these facets too. Whether it is as a lifelong AZ icon, or in a newer foreign pasture, the career of Teun Koopmeiners will be a privilege to observe.
One piercing left footed drive at a time.