Sprinting past the last man, opening the body, slotting past the goalkeeper. A cool finger wag to the crowds. So many are churlishly compared to arguably the greatest striker to ever play the game, let alone for PSV Eindhoven.
This is largely because of the great number of assets possessed by O Fenômeno, and that his legend is such that many have inevitably moulded themselves upon it. Very few will ever realistically hold another forward to Ronaldo’s standing for this reason.
That they have both worn the red and white of PSV, and finish and celebrate in such a way, could stir similar comparisons to their current number nine. Twenty two year old Donyell Malen is certainly a forward to be excited by, and one to be enjoyed for his own unique skill rather than comparisons to the past.
A lethal finisher and fine technician, Malen has quickly carved himself into the club’s great alumni of forwards. Not to be compared with, but appreciated alongside. This is his story to date, from those that coached him and watch on proudly. No doubt as Ronaldo, Romário and Van Nistelrooy do too.
Another Ajax student
Part of the excitement that follows Donyell Malen is the history and legacies that precede him. In every club, and for his national team, he is the product of, or at least trod the line of greatness.
This started aged eight at Ajax. Malen had played for VV Succes and HV Hollandia at an even younger age, but the wide casting eye for talent from Amsterdam’s giants reigned in his embryonic talent.
Malen would remain at Ajax until he was sixteen. Again, history tells that Ajax waste little time in promoting talent of this age. The names that came before Malen, and indeed ones such as Ryan Gravenberch and Brian Brobbey that have followed, demonstrate this.
Ajax finished second in the Eredivisie in 2014/15, sixteen points adrift of PSV Eindhoven. Such a gulf is unacceptable for a club so accustomed to winning domestically. They would finish second again the following year (by just two points this time). However Malen would be out of the picture.
At the end of the 2014/15 season, Malen left Ajax and his homeland. Such was the poor performance of that 2014/15, a sixteen year old striker of Malen’s raw talent may well have been turned to as part of a knee jerk reaction to attack the next year. However, having not made a senior appearance, the teenager would make the huge leap of leaving the Netherlands.
The next chapter of his legacy hunting adventure would raise the stakes again.
Arsenal would welcome the ambitious Malen, fresh out of Amsterdam. Arsène Wenger had cultivated and sculpted the club in his image over the course of nearly two decades. Central to his vision was harbouring young academy talent that would embody his footballing ideals. Speed of thought, speed of play, and part of a collective fluent unit.
Malen of course had not yet made a senior appearance. However the club had identified him as part of a European scouting operation that would mix the continent’s brightest young sparks, with homegrown ones brought through the Hale End Academy.
In an interview with First Time Finish last month, former Head of Youth and First Team Coach Neil Banfield described the essence of talent Arsenal was searching for.
‘We always had a vision of the type of player we wanted to grow. A vision driven by the manager to play the way he wanted Arsenal to play. We then developed our young players to match the way Arsenal played, and it was never one type of player. They all had specific qualities and abilities to raise them above the level. The only hard and fast rule was to have a quality that rose them above the level of the pack.’
Again, Malen would be part of a remarkably strong talent pool. Serge Gnabry, Ismaël Bennacer, Jeff Reine-Adélaïde and Josh Dasilva were of similar age to the Dutchman, vying for senior attention.
Malen would play fifty seven times for the Arsenal youth teams in two seasons, scoring eighteen times and assisting a further six. Similarly to his situation at Ajax, the will of the senior team to push for success might have seen a phasing in of such a talent. He was getting close.
Impressions of Malen
Neil was caught by the rawness of Malen in his time with the player. It was already clear that Malen would one day play as a central forward. However at this stage he was used frequently as a left winger, cutting inside and bursting behind defences.
‘You could see Donyell was going to be a player. He was exceptionally quick and talented on the ball. Could run with the ball really quickly, so much that it would take your breath away. Would make you say “wow”. Technically, he was top, top class as an offensive player.’
Malen was impressing the Arsenal hierarchy. So much so that he was part of the club’s pre-season tour before the 2016/17 campaign, making his senior debut on the tour.
The weight of competition at Arsenal was ferocious. Gnabry departed in 2017 seeking gametime, with a forward quota of Olivier Giroud, Alex Iwobi, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez occupying senior slots. Alexandre Lacazette too would be added ahead of the 2017-18 season.
‘Being a seventeen, eighteen year old, he just might not have been able to get in the first team.’ remembers Neil, also stating that Malen was by no means the final product.
‘In English football there is another side to the game. You have to run, tackle, mark, and that was new to Donyell. He worked very hard at that, but in the end felt it was best to move to new pastures.’
Again Malen would take a brave turn in his development. He left Arsenal in the summer of 2017, for a fee of £650,000. This time though, he would return to more familiar ground.
In red and white…again
Eindhoven is a city considerably smaller than Amsterdam. Under a third of the capital’s population, the northern Dutch city is synonymous with technology as the birthplace of Philips electronics. It is of course employees of Philips that founded Philips Sport Vereniging Eindhoven; PSV Eindhoven.
Donyell Malen would relocate back to the Netherlands to Eindhoven in 2017, itching to make that senior breakthrough he could not manage at Ajax nor Arsenal. Again, his patience would be required and tested.
Malen would predominantly play for Jong PSV in the Eerste Divisie in his first campaign back in his birth country. PSV finished fifth, some way adrift of Jong Ajax who topped the second division. Malen would score thirteen goals in twenty two appearances for the reserve side, enough to catch the attention of senior coach Philip Cocu.
Jong PSV’s top scorer that season was promoted to the first team, where he made his competitive senior debut for versus PEC Zwolle in February 2018. Four league appearances over the campaign was slim pickings for nineteen year old Malen. Yet PSV’s twenty fourth league title that year brought him his first taste of silverware.
A forward line of Luuk de Jong, Jurgen Locadia, Hirving Lozano and Steven Bergwijn was a tough ask to break. However the sale of Locadia before the next campaign represented an opportunity to Malen, as well as youth product Cody Gakpo.
Six starts and twenty four sub appearances in the league was a far greater return in 2018/19. Malen scored ten and assisted one in only 962 league minutes as a lethal rotation weapon for coach Mark van Bommel.
Interestingly, Malen would play only three times as the central striker. Fifteen appearances off the left wing allowed him to hone a trait we will touch on later, and even featured four times in attacking midfield. His career was taking hold.
The breakout to breakdown season
2019/20. For clubs, players and fans, this season was a rollercoaster of emotion. Many leagues paused for the pandemic, others terminated their campaigns altogether.
For Donyell Malen, the highs and lows were even more extreme. With de Jong and Lozano gone, Malen started the season as PSV’s primary striker. Only scoring once in the opening four fixtures, Malen bounced back by scoring all five in a 5-0 pummelling of Vitesse. Three goals and two assists in his next five would follow before an ankle knock would keep him out for three games,
Malen would return with another three goal contributions in the four games after his injury. Eleven goals and five assists in fourteen Eredvisie games by mid December was pushing him on a record breaking season trajectory.
Then came a horrific set back. A knee injury in a defeat to Feyenoord ruled Malen out for the season, and wouldn’t return to fitness until August 2020. The early curtailment of the domestic season in March meant Malen missed less football than was first imagined. That said, an injury of this magnitude for a twenty year old, and the damage it could do to his explosive pace, was a huge worry.
The theme of following in great striking footsteps is recurrent in Malen’s career. The early Ajax legacies, then that of Wright, Henry, Anelka and Van Persie at Arsenal. At PSV he had inherited the number nine jersey, that of Romário and of course Ronaldo. It was in the 1995/96 season, that Ronaldo too suffered the first of many knee injuries.
Whilst such afflictions plagued Ronaldo’s career beyond the Netherlands, he is still lauded as one of the game’s greatest forwards. Knee injuries can be returned from, and now was the time to see if Donyell Malen could.
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Make way for Malen
If there were doubts coming into the 2020/21 season if PSV’s talisman was ready and fit to go, he wasted little time in quashing those doubts. Seven goals and two assists in the opening thirteen league games, followed by nine goals and four assists in the next fifteen. Made PSV’s vice captain, Malen has featured in all but one league game for the club his term.
Four goals and an assist in PSV’s underwhelming Europa League campaign was also an impressive return. New manager Roger Schmidt has hit upon a formula to maximise Malen’s output, as well as his overall team play.
Schmidt has instilled a 4-2-2-2 formation, honed during his days at RB Salzburg, with Malen featuring in the front two. Eran Zahavi, Cody Gakpo and Noni Madueke have all rotated in partnering him, with each bringing different link qualities to feed and provide for Malen.
His twenty one goals and assist have come from an xG/A of 19.01. This puts him in the realms of Mohamed Salah, Karim Benzema and Lautaro Martinez across Europe. He is in fine form yes, but not running so hot that it is unsustainable long term. 3.93 shots per ninety, at a 52% accuracy are predtaory numbers, and those of a striker who knows his game.
When drifting out to the left, Malen calls back on his days trading as a left winger at Arsenal. A fascinating trait of his is to receive the ball to feet, with the defender expecting him to cut inside and shoot or cross. Yet Malen’s specialty is to explode down and round the outside of the defender, before straightening and shooting at the near post. Very few forwards playing on their inverted side demonstrate this ability to this extent, and make him a nightmare to guard against.
The international spotlight
As he had at club level, Malen bode his time in the youth international ranks, accumulating nearly sixty junior caps.
He made him senior debut in a thrilling 4-2 win over Germany in Euro 2020 qualifying. Coming off the bench, Malen poked home the Netherland’s third goal to open his international account.
His form and underlying quality make him a certainty for the tournament squad later this year. The Netherlands are an intriguing mix of exceptional young talent, fused with some perhaps questionably included seniors. Their form has been poor, and a 3-0 defeat to Turkey in late March highlighted the squad deficiencies that make a serious tournament run unlikely.
That said, it will be an opportunity for their bright young things to make their case, and nudge the older, more chastened personnel away. Teun Koopmeiners, Calvin Stengs and Myron Boadu of AZ Alkmaar are a frightening trio to turn to. As are Frenkie De Jong and Mathijs de Ligt, and of course the experience of Memphis Depay and potentially Virgil van Dijk.
Malen too will be integral to this side. With Depay, Luuk de Jong and Wout Weghorst contending for the centre forward berth, Malen will likely feature from the left wing. His experience, and natural tendency to drift left even when playing centrally for PSV will make him a threat playing there.
Little is expected of the Netherlands collectively at the tournament. Undoubtedly talented, their young are arguably too wet behind the ears to grind through knockout games, and their elders largely retained only through loyalty. The chance for the likes of Malen to impress individually however is great, and would further stake his reputation into loftier grounds.
The next great nine
Dutch talent is rarely give the chance to breathe. The cream rises so quickly in the Eredivisie that by the age of twenty, European vultures are already circling. This of course has huge benefits in exposing young players to competitive football at a young age. Equally it can be choking, and rip plyers from their homeland before they are ready. Just ask Vincent Janssen.
Donyell Malen’s path has taken him the long way round. Few doubt that had he stayed at Ajax he would have broken through and gained a reputation there. Ajax are not ones for caution when it comes to thrusting their academy products upwards.
His move to Arsenal was certainly a curveball to tradition. To learn at such a well structured academy, under the image of Wenger, would have been invaluable. Yet first team football could never be a guarantee.
His return home has proven his greatest strategy. Returning whilst young enough to continue developing without the weight of expectation, Malen was on the precipice of his breakthrough. Since that point he has proved a revelation, and talent of pure ability and application.
The question that follows of course is where next. Talk is already rife of interest from Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Each with well documented needs for a versatile, but goal scoring forward.
However such talk is, well, boring. Malen no doubt will leave PSV Eindhoven, and the prospect of him wearing yet another illustrious shirt and badge is exciting. The debate of where, or when, or how much though is tedious. That he has already followed such lineage of striker, and such prestige of club, is fascinating and makes you wonder where he will sit among them.
Van Basten. Kluivert. Ibrahimovic. Wright. Anelka. Henry. Van Persie. Romário. Ronaldo. Van Nistelrooy.
All stats from Wyscout accurate up to Matchweek 29
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