THIS IS a club that has called on the methods of Billy Beane of Moneyball fame. A club that has a reputation for bringing on home-grown talent. They’re also dynamic data wizards and come from a town best known for cheese.
AZ Alkmaar have a playing budget that amounts to around 25% of the mighty Ajax’s wage bill so they have to find ways to narrow the gap other than throwing around money they haven’t got. For five years, AZ, “the cheeseboys”, have finished no lower than sixth in the Eredivisie, and this season, they are making a serious attempt to wrestle the Eredivisie title away from Ajax, the team that captured the heart of European football fans in 2018-19.
They recently beat Ajax 1-0 at their AFAS stadium in front of a season’s best home crowd of 17,002 a result that added credibility to their title aspirations. It was the first game at the AFAS since the roof blew off in August. Since then, they have been playing their home games 84 kilometres away in the Hague, which makes their form this season even more remarkable. The Ajax game was won with a 90th minute goal from sought-after young striker Myron Boadu. “You expect almost anything from Myron, but not that he’ll score with his head,” said AZ coach Arne Slot, who is in his first season in charge after moving up from the number two role following the departure of John van den Brom.
AZ followed that up with a surprise 3-0 defeat at Sparta Rotterdam, a game that was marred by the fifth minute sending-off of AZ keeper Marco Bizot. This was their first away defeat since August, despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession and having as many efforts on goal as the home team and it was only their third loss in the entire league campaign.
AZ have not won the Eredivisie since 2009 and survived the financial crisis that followed that success. It is tough for clubs like AZ to compete with Ajax, but they have emerged as an innovative organisation that is embracing new techniques to maximise their resources. They have 14 players in their first team squad that have come through the Jong AZ academy system. “We cannot compete financially, so we have to think differently,” said Marijn Beuker, the head of AZ Performance & Development at this year’s World Football Summit in Madrid. “And logically.”
Beuker underlined the club’s philosophy in Madrid. “We don’t buy success, we create it. We believe in making the difference through our vision, our programmes, facts, knowledge and, importantly, by having capable staff,” he added.
AZ have a cluster of young players that could become top stars in European football and earn the club a lot of money. Ajax get widespread credit for blooding their youngsters, but 45% of AZ’s squad are “club trained” versus 34% at Ajax and 34% at PSV Eindhoven. Not for nothing has AZ become known as a “talent factory”.
Boadu, the matchwinner against Ajax, is one of a quartet of young players tipped for the top. He’s only 18 but he has scored 11 goals in the first half of the season and he’s just been capped by the Netherlands. Although he’s had a few knock-backs, notably a bad ankle injury last season, his ball control and goals have brought him to the attention of overseas clubs. AZ have said he will not be sold in the January transfer window, although the club have identified the need for a new central defender and might be tempted to cash-in on their youngsters. Earlier in his career, Boadu was being courted by Arsenal, but opted to stay in the Netherlands.
Midfielder Teun Koopmeiners is another one to watch. Just 21, he is the club captain and is the team’s spot-kick expert. Winger Calvin Stengs is also 21 has also been capped by his country. He has formed a good partnership with Boadu and takes and makes goals, but he could also be on his way in the near future as Barcelona, among others, have been closely watching him. Owen Wijndal, an overlapping full back, has just been capped by the Dutch under-21 team. Just 20, he has caught the eye of clubs in England and Germany.
AZ have pulled off some spectacular results this season in addition to the 1-0 win against champions Ajax. They won 3-0 at Feyenoord and 4-0 at PSV and they lost just once in their Europa League group that included Manchester United, who beat them 4-0 in the last round of matches. They will face Austria’s LASK of Linz in the round of 32.
The club has coupled a data-driven approach to identifying potential and developing young players. “Facts provide the knowledge, but you also have to have soft skills and make use of your experience,” said Beuker in Madrid. “Predicting future potential has really become the holy grail of football.”
Beuker said Big Data has been crucial in this process. His club estimate that you need 16 good players to win a championship, even less if you’re not playing in Europe. But you need to have the best players available all the time, which is difficult to achieve.
Crucially, he said that when analysing players and identifying their strengths and weaknesses, emotions have to be put to one side. “At AZ, we look at the whole person, not just the player on the pitch,” he insisted.
AZ may have lost their last game before the Christmas period by 3-0 at Sparta, but that took their goals against column to just 11 in 18 games. They’re three points behind Ajax, but seven ahead of third-placed PSV. In the past few months, they have developed into a stylish, attack-oriented team, one that could well run Ajax right to the wire in the second half of 2019-20. The Eredivisise could be in for a very exciting few months and Europe’s medium-sized clubs will be looking to Alkmaar for inspiration.