Frank de Boer achieved something that wasn’t witnessed by Amsterdam in last 16 years – winning the Eredivisie title in consecutive seasons. Unsurprisingly, Frank has been compared with his mentor Louis van Gaal whose Gloria Ajax won back-to-back Eredivisie titles in ’95 and ’96. Can Frank go further and win a hat-trick?
2011-12 was a remarkable season of football in Netherlands. For the first time since its inception more than half a century ago, Eredivisie had a six-way fight to the league title. However, the spring surge from Ajax which saw them win last 14 league matches in a row helped them retain the trophy which they snatched from McClaren’s Twente on the last day of 2010-11 season. Ever since Frank de Boer took over Ajax’s coaching role from Martin Jol in December 2010, he started to implement his own brand of football.
The football world was busy idolizing Pep Guardiola and his remarkable Barcelona side but a new revolution was slowing taking over Ajax Amsterdam. Frank de Boer comes from the Cruyffian school of football and has played under Louis van Gaal for Ajax, Barcelona and Oranje. It was no wonder that his Ajax team are built on possession-based football who have outplayed their opponents in a majority of their games but it wasn’t achieved overnight. Frank de Boer took nearly 18 months to finally fulfill his vision on the pitch. However to continue their success this season, Ajax have got major challenges ahead.
First comes in the form of familiar foe, the club from Eindhoven. PSV and Ajax are the top two favorites for the punters to win the title this year. Fred Rutten was the first manager since Thijs Libregts nearly three decades ago to not win a title after spending at least a year as PSV’s coach. Rutten was sacked after an embarrassing 6-2 loss to FC Twente at Philips Stadion and was replaced by former captain Philip Cocu as interim manager. Cocu steadied the ship and fought with Feyenoord till the final day for the 2nd Champions League spot but Ronald Koeman’s team matched their performances and finally snatched the 2nd place by a solitary point.
While Ronald Koeman has lost his captain Ron Vlaar and Karim El Ahmadi to Aston Villa, PSV started building for the current season. They appointed former manager Dick Advocaat on a one-year deal so that Philip Cocu can learn from him and take over as full time coach from next season. Advocaat and Cocu have faced this scenario before. Cocu was part of the PSV team which won Eredivisie title in 96-97 with Advocaat as their coach. Doing so, they managed to stop Ajax from winning a hat trick of titles. This season they will try to achieve the same. In addition to Advocaat, PSV also got back their former captain Mark van Bommel after AC Milan released him. Luciano Narsingh who led the assists charts for Eredivisie last season with 20 assists was bought from SC Heerenveen for €4m.
In the Johan Cruijff Schaal season opener, PSV Eindhoven defeated champions Ajax Amsterdam 4-2 to earn Advocaat his first piece of silverware this season. The Dutch Super Cup carries a curse as none of the clubs which won the traditional season opener has managed to win the league title in same season since PSV did that in 2000. Advocaat had a setback in the first game of Eredivisie as Wesley Sneijder’s younger brother Rodney Sneijder inspired Erwin Koeman’s RKC Waalwijk to a 3-2 win over PSV. The Eindhoven club bounced back in style beating Roda JC 5-0 in the first home game of the season and they followed it up with another impressive 3-1 win in Groningen.
With Van Bommel and Strootman anchoring the midfield behind an enviable attacking contingent comprising of Toivonen, Matavz, Mertens, Lens, Narsingh, et al, PSV Eindhoven will be a force to be reckoned with this season and they will fight hard to reclaim the Eredivisie title they last won in 07-08. Loss of Champions League money hurt them in last four years with the Eindhoven municipality opting to bail them out to prevent the club going into administration. PSV will want to win the league and get an automatic spot in next year’s Champions League.
It is difficult to see other clubs mount a challenge for the title this year. AZ Alkmaar were not the same force they were in 2009 and they lost influential midfielder Rasmus Elm to CSKA Moscow. SC Heerenveen appointed Marco van Basten as the coach after Ron Jans’ contract expired. However, they lost their front three of Oussama Assaidi (Liverpool), Luciano Narsingh (PSV Eindhoven) and Bas Dost (Wolfsburg) without bringing in any suitable replacements. What Ronald Koeman achieved at Feyenoord was nothing short of a miracle. Unfortunately, they couldn’t capitalize on the 2nd place finish and got knocked out to Dynamo Kyiv in the Champions League qualifier.
After years of financial troubles, Feyenoord are slowly mending their ways and stopped useless spending by relying more on their youth academy. Promising young defender Stefan de Vrij inherited the captain’s armband from Ron Vlaar. Harmeet Singh was brought from Norway to play for the Rotterdam club. Twente have lost their top scorer Luuk de Jong (Borussia Monchengladbach) and Ola John (Benfica) but bought former Feyenoord player Luc Castaignos from Internazionale. Twente have set the league on fire by winning all three of their opening games but it will be difficult for them to claim the top spot at the end of the season.
Ajax too have seen players leave over the years. The Dutch Footballer of The Year and Ajax captain, Jan Vertonghen moved to Spurs leaving a gaping hole in the heart of defence. To add to the misery, Vurnon Anita, one player who is responsible for Frank de Boer’s Ajax to switch seamlessly from 4-3-3 to 3-3-1-3 (and at opportunistic times to 1-3-3-3) moved to Newcastle United. Though they were integral part of Ajax’s success, they felt that playing in EPL might offer them better chances of getting selected to their national teams. Jan Vertonghen will be competing with Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen for a CB spot in Belgian team. If he can outshine the latter two in the same league, he will not have to be shunted wide at left-back and can play in his natural position.
Vurnon Anita feels EPL offers him a better exposure and after performing exceedingly well and contributing highly to the back-to-back titles in Amsterdam, it is time for him to play in the more physical Premier League. With Louis van Gaal’s preferred 4-3-3 system needing ball-playing central midfielders who can attack and defend well, Anita seems to be a better fit than Nigel de Jong. Both Vertonghen and Anita are still loved by the Ajax faithful – Vertonghen attended the Super Cup match between Ajax and PSV while a huge “Anita is a true Ajax player” banner was displayed in ArenA in the match against NAC Breda.
Ajax appointed Marc Overmars as their sporting director who joined his former colleagues Dennis Bergkamp (assistant coach) and Frank de Boer (main coach) to form the Holy Trinity. He has overlooked transfers during the summer window and has brought in players like Tobias Sana (€300,000 from IFK Göteborg), Niklas Moisander (€4m from AZ Alkmaar) and Christian Poulsen (free), while handling the departures of Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspurs), Vurnon Anita (Newcastle United), Theo Janssen (Vitesse Arnhem) and Aras Ozbiliz (FC Kuban Krasnodar). Tobias Sana instantly became a fan favorite at Amsterdam after impressive displays against AZ Alkmaar (hit the cross bar), NEC Nijmegen (scored 2 goals) and NAC Breda (1 goal and 1 assist). He is an exciting winger who can cross, shoot, dribble and outsmart the defenders.
Frank de Boer tried to replace Vertonghen by partnering Daley Blind (son of former player Danny Blind) with Toby Alderweireld but after disappointing performances during the pre-season and in the matches against PSV and AZ Alkmaar, Ajax decided to bring in Niklas Moisander from AZ Alkmaar and gave him the former player’s #4 jersey. Moisander spent youth career in Amsterdam before he was let go and after coming back to Ajax, he has fit in perfectly. He started in 5-0 win against NAC Breda and scored on his debut. He is left-footed and complements Alderweireld well.
Theo Janssen was expected to be partnered with Siem de Jong and Christian Eriksen in a three-man midfield but he was sold to his former club Vitesse Arnhem. Though there were options to play Schöne, Serero, Boccara, Enoh in Anita’s position, Overmars has decided to sign Christian Poulsen on a free transfer to inject much-needed experience into a fairly young squad. The #5 jersey which he inherited from Anita is no indication that Poulsen will play regularly. Frank thinks Boccara needs at least one more year in the youth team and during the time he graduates to Anita’s position, Poulsen’s experience will be important.
The personnel may have changed but Ajax have continued their style from previous season. They are unbeaten in Eredivisie with 2 wins and a draw averaging more than 700 passes with over 80% passing success. They have scored 13 goals in 3 games with average possession of more than 60%, comfortably higher than 51% mark that Van Gaal has set as minimum requirement for dominating a match. Amsterdam is full of optimism about the club’s success this season and it will be an incredible achievement for Frank de Boer to win Eredivisie again this year.
Written by Guest Author