Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Eredivisie Review by Joep Smeets

With the Eredivisie winding down an incredible season, we thought we'd poll commenter Joep Smeets for some thoughts and opinion from the Netherlands.

When LB asked me if I wanted to review the finish to the Dutch Eredivisie, my stomach turned. Sure, this year’s league was an historic one, with a culmination of several interesting trends in Dutch football which I am happy to be able to detail in this post.

My stomach turned, however, because the season is not yet finished and I’m writing this knowing that my team, Roda JC is looking the prospect of relegation square in the eyes.

The reason I was asked to write this was because last Sunday, the fight for second place (and a CL qualification spot) was settled, with the championship being decided a week before. The Dutch league has been dominated by three teams for the past 30 years and none of those - Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord - laid claim to those two spots.

Instead it was AZ Alkmaar who won the title and FC Twente who took second place.

AZ came tantalizingly close to the league two seasons ago, only to blow their chances on the last day in one of the most bizarre days in Dutch football history.

Last season, they failed to live up to expectations with style, finishing in 12th place. When confronted with rumors about his dismissal, coach Louis van Gaal went on a tirade about how his players had to prove they were worthy of him instead of the other way around. After losing the first two games of this season they finally did, going on an unbeaten streak that lasted until two weeks ago, when they could clinch the title. For the second time in two years, AZ lost a game that could win them the league, only to have it handed to them by a 6-2 loss of Ajax at PSV the day after.

AZ’s success is mostly attributed to coach van Gaal and chairman Dirk Scheringa, who has led the club for 16 years. In the previous years, AZ’s budget has grown enormously thanks to Scheringa, allowing them to pay the players, who stood out in the rest of the league, hefty salaries. This, and the possibility of working with coaches such as Adriaanse and van Gaal attracted players who normally would have chosen for one of the top 3 teams, such as Stijn Schaars, Dutch international and Mounir El Hamdaoui, the league’s top scorer.

In recent years, AZ was known for its attacking flair, but this season saw them use a new, more reserved approach, dropping back and preserving leads rather than keep attacking and be vulnerable on the counter, which resulted in enough boring 2-0’s to wrap up the league.

FC Twente
FC Twente is the best example of a successful trend among provincial clubs in Holland who work, step by step, to raise their budget through outstanding scouting and a great youth set-up, much like SC Heerenveen and FC Groningen. All of these three teams have increased their stadium capacity in the past few years and have enormous local support from both fans and sponsors. They combine great scouting with the possibility to sign standout players from lower teams in the league and have been the biggest threat to the traditional top 3.

Ironically, many of the players these teams develop are then snatched up by the top 3 for inflated prices, but tend not to perform as well in a higher pressure situation (see, Sulejmani, Mickey). FC Twente qualified for the CL qualifications last year, only to be eliminated by Arsenal. This year, they duked it out with Ajax for second place until last weekend. Ajax, however, embarrassed themselves losing 4-0 to Sparta while Twente beat a very lethargic AZ, that had nothing to play for, at home 3-0, rendering their head to head in the last round meaningless.

Aside from their great league performance, Twente, led by Steve McClaren, did well in the UEFA cup and has made it to the Dutch cup final. They’re a team loaded with young talent, so look out for names like Elija and Arnautovic, both wingers, come silly season.

The "Top 3 (but really the Top 2)"
Clubs like AZ and Twente are ultimately just taking advantage of years of mismanagement by those traditionally considered to be the top teams in Holland, Ajax and PSV. I won’t even go into the downward spiral Feyenoord has been caught in for years.

Pundits think of Ajax as a team of skilled individuals who can’t function as a team. Their inexperienced coach van Basten – deemed by some Ajax Fans to have all the tactical knowledge of a pancake - isn’t capable of turning this around. Truth is Ajax has talented players, but not even a first team full of them. Van Basten’s inexperience became evident mostly in his inability to settle on an actual starting eleven, but Ajax can’t afford to send him packing after years of changes in management.

They’ve decided to commit to a coach for the long term, but van Basten has done nothing to show he’s Amsterdam’s version of Alex Ferguson. I could list a lot of this season’s disappointments for a club that was outstanding in the UEFA Cup until an overtime scrimmage knocked them out against Marseille, but the true tell of why this team didn’t challenge showed against PSV.

When AZ failed to clinch, Ajax, still had a long shot to make it a race. If they would beat PSV, and with only tough matches remaining for AZ - starting with a game in Amsterdam - the very least they could do was make a lot of people in Alkmaar very nervous. But against PSV, when they absolutely had to perform, they rolled over and got trampled. A week later, when all they had to do was beat Sparta to set up the home game head to head with Twente that would decide second place, they rolled over some more.

The story of PSV is far easier to explain. Champions for four successive seasons, the quality of their team deteriorated year after year. Every season, their top players left and each year the players that came in return were slightly worse. They went from dominant to good, to adequate and lucky until even that wasn’t enough for them to keep up with AZ anymore.

Finally, I want to use this spot as an opportunity to ask you to spare a thought for the fate of my club, Roda JC, as Sunday might very well be their last game in the Eredivisie. After a season full of controversy regarding a possible merger with our main rivals, my team is now facing relegation.

UFers, send the good vibes to Roda this weekend as they battle Feyenoord to secure their future in next season's Eredivisie. COME ON YOU LIMBERGERS, THE PRIDE OF THE SOUTH!

We'll hopefully be checking back in with Joep next week.


The NY Kid said...

I don't know if I can root for a club known as the "Limbergers"

EbullientFatalist said...

COME ON YOU LIMBERGERS, THE PRIDE OF THE SOUTHThanks to that, I've got my fill of humor for the week.

Good job, Smeets. It seems AZ and Twente played the role of underdog overachievers well this year. Villa and Everton should take note.

EbullientFatalist said...

Jesus, HTML. Cut me some slack.

Precious Roy said...

Yeah, EF... don't know when that started but using the 'i' tag apparently means you can't use a space or a carriage return.

We've had a chat about a redesign at getting off blogger. Hopefully that's coming to a theater near you this summer.

Nice recap Joep. Up the Limbergers!

ü75 said...

I've heard about the apparent merger. Is that happening or not?

Joep Smeets said...

No its not, it was cancelled at the last minute, meaning both teams remain in a high precarious financial situation. Yeah, were having one hell of a season

Kp said...

Joep... letswe have to pray for our salvation. we have to pray for Roda in Holland and Necaxa in Mexico. We have one game left and that´s it. Good luck.