AZ Alkmaar challenge the Dutch “big three”

A YEAR ago, Ajax were the darlings of Europe as they disposed of Juventus and Real Madrid and looked set to reach the UEFA Champions League final. In 2020, Ajax have left the European stage already having lost to Getafe in the Europa League, and they are being seriously challenged at the top of the Eredivisie.

Ajax were recently beaten by AZ Alkmaar at the Johan Cruyff Arena, a result that put the victors level on points with their hosts and reminded the Amsterdam club’s fans that they are going to have to fight hard if they want to regain their domestic title.

AZ’s win completed the double over Ajax (they won 1-0 earlier in the campaign at home) and have, uniquely, emerged triumphant at all three of the Netherlands’ blue riband clubs, having won 3-0 at Feyenoord and 4-0 at PSV Eindhoven.

 

Key facts: AZ Alkmaar

Founded 1967
Nickname Cheeseheads
Home ground AFAS Stadion (17,023)
Average gate 10,522 (2019-20)
Major honours 2 x Eredivisie title; 4 x KNVB Cup wins

AZ also went out of the Europa League at the last 32 stage, losing to Austria’s LASK, but they have rarely let-up in the Eredivisie. They have the best defensive record – just 17 goals conceded in 25 games – and only Ajax have scored more goals than Arne Slot’s team. Slot felt AZ were unlucky to get eliminated by the team from Linz: “I don’t feel like we have been beaten by the best team we have played this season. In my opinion, Antwerp (who AZ met in the group stage) were a better team.”

AZ have been fielding up to half a dozen players under 25 years of age and some of the youngsters have been catching the eye of Europe’s big clubs. Just as Ajax’s youth became very fashionable in 2018-19, AZ have been attracting scouts from England, Spain and Germany to their home games this season. Slot believes that five of his exciting squad could make the Netherlands’ squad for the European Championship.

While midfielder Calvin Stengs and striker Myron Boadu are now Dutch internationals, goalkeeper Marco Bizot is on the brink of a cap. Slot also thinks Teun Koopmeiners and Owen Wijndal could also step up.

Boadu has been a sensation this season and has netted 14 goals in the league in 23 appearances. He scored on his international debut against Estonia in November 2019. A strong and quick striker, Boadu was turned down by Ajax earlier in this career. He looks certain to leave Alkmaar in the summer and is likely to earn the club between €20 and € 30 million. Newcastle United have been keeping a close eye on the Amsterdam-born, 19 year-old.

Winger Oussama Idrissi, a Morocco international, is also coveted by other clubs. He joined AZ from Groningen in 2018. He has interested West Ham United, Leicester City and Everton, so he could also be heading to the Premier League in the summer. He has become an exciting player after being a typically mercurial wing-man in the past.

Stengs is one of the Eredivisie’s most productive players this season and he’s also been called-up by the Dutch national team. Barcelona have been eyeing the 21 year-old and he’s naturally been watched by Ajax, even though it is unlikely that AZ will sell him to the reigning Dutch champions.

Given that AZ may lose their top talent, it may be a case of now or never for this group of players in the red shirts of “the cheeseheads”. The club has only won the Eredivisie twice, 1981 (double plus UEFA Cup finalists) and 2009. Their last major honour was the KNVB Cup in 2013.

They have a good chance, for Ajax seem to be out-of-sorts after a European exit, defeat in the KNVB Cup semi-finals and the 0-2 home loss at the hands of their nearest rivals for the title. It should be an interesting finale in the Netherlands.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

AZ Alkmaar and the A to Z of player development

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 team photo during Europa League match AZ Alkmaar vs Manchester United on the 3rd of October 2019 in Den Haag, Netherlands.

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.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA