COMMENT: Ajax have won each of the last four seasons and Frank de Boer's men are aiming for an incredible fifth, but the Eindhoven giants are looking to end their reign at the top
By Peter McVitie
As a perennial giant of Dutch football and after winning seven out of a possible nine league titles from 1999 to 2008, it is amazing to think PSV have gone six years without finishing top of the Eredivisie.
The league had opened up a great deal with AZ and FC Twente claiming magnificent first place finishes in 2008-09 and 09-10 respectively before Frank de Boer’s reign began at Ajax, where he has since guided the Amsterdam giants to four straight Eredivisie titles.
De Boer’s belief in youth and tactical nous saw him end Ajax’s dismal run of seven dismal trophyless years and ring in an incredible era of dominance, seeing off the challenges of the likes of PSV, Twente, Vitesse and Feyenoord each time.
However, this year comes a particularly daunting challenge for the Godenzonen as Phillip Cocu’s side are ready to end that reign.
Last season PSV were seen by many as the team to really test Ajax and were even viewed as a favourite for the title with a young, exciting and talented squad. However, despite a bright start to the campaign and an unlucky loss in the Champions League qualifiers to AC Milan, they completely capitulated. It all seemed rosy for PSV as they started the year with three wins followed by three draws and then a 4-0 thrashing of Ajax but one win in the next ten league games saw them drift far behind the leading pack.
|Recent Eredivisie winners|
One of PSV’s issues last season was that they were a team full of youngsters who had never played together before and for key players like Memphis Depay and Jurgen Locadia, it was their first full term in senior football. On top of that, they were led by a coach in his first year in charge of a team.
PSV certainly seem up for it this year as they have an excellent squad overall. In Depay they have one of the brightest talents the league has seen for some time and he continues to be linked to the likes of Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. There is a real worry among fans of the Eindhoven giants that the tricky, electrifying winger will not be at the club by the time the transfer window closes. At just 20-years-old he is the most potent player at Phillip Cocu’s disposal and his potential departure would severely weaken them. However, there is no chance of PSV becoming a one-man team.
Young forward Locadia proved to be a versatile, quick and talented striker but the introduction of Luuk de Jong will likely see him drop to the bench this season. While the move is a risk for PSV having signed a striker who is low on confidence and at the expense of the development of a talented young forward, that they have such strength in depth will help Cocu a great deal this season.
While Depay takes all the glory on the flanks, their right winger Luciano Narsingh also possesses great quality while Zakaria Bakkali - should he remain at the club - will develop into something special. PSV have arguably the best midfield in the league with Netherlands' World Cup star Georginio Wijnaldum coming back into the team, Adam Maher had a poor debut season at the Philips Stadion but has great potential, Stijn Schaars is a strong midfield anchor while Oscar Hiljemark is a very capable player with a good engine. And to really hammer home their ambitions, PSV are even willing to splash a bit of money to bring in Steven Defour to further bolster the midfield.
The biggest weakness in the team is by far the centre of defence. The club are trying to bring Karim Rekik back from Manchester City to partner Jeffrey Bruma, and reuniting the duo will go a long way to shoring up a backline which also consists of the attack-minded Santiago Arias and Jetro Willems, although the left-back will miss the start of the season due to injury.
As a team PSV are a year older and much more familiar with each other, but they do face a difficult task in dismantling the champions who remain mostly unchanged this season. Siem de Jong is the only key departure but the former captain’s role has already been filled. Davy Klaassen will be the man to tie the midfield together while up front Arkadiusz Milik and Richairo Zivkovic will be battling it out for the No.9 position. Defensively they remain strong with Niklas Moisander staying to sit in the heart of the defence alongside Joel Veltman. Daley Blind impressed a great deal at the World Cup and his presence in the Ajax midfield was crucial in them lifting a fourth league title last season.
De Boer has proved to be a special coach in his time at Ajax and with a settled team looking to carry on from where they left off, the capital club will remain the favourites for an unprecedented fifth crown, but Cocu’s men will push them hard.
Expected to trail the big two are the very strong Vitesse and Twente. The Arnhem club have yet to make good on their promise of becoming a giant of Dutch football since their links with Chelsea began but Peter Bosz has a fine team at his disposal this year. Despite the loss of Dusan Tadic and Quincy Promes, Twente have a lot of pace and skill to their team and should still be strong enough to compete.
This season will be the first for three years in which Feyenoord are not a definite title challenger. The Rotterdam powerhouse haven’t won the league since 1999 and financial troubles kept them out of the pinnacle of Dutch football since then. However, Ronald Koeman brought them back to the big time domestically through his promotion of young players.
This year, though, the departures of Stefan de Vrij, Daryl Janmaat and Bruno Martins Indi means they enter the new season with an unsettled back line. The sale of Graziano Pelle presents a particular hurdle, though, as their hunt for a centre-forward continues. Mitchell te Vrede is a player the fans and club have no confidence in to perform as a first choice striker and their main candidate to replace the Italian, Bas Dost, is too expensive, meaning the club are expected to look to bring John Guidetti back to De Kuip.
The return of the young Sweden international will go a long way to helping Feyenoord get over the loss of such key players, but it remains difficult to see them challenging PSV and Ajax who look a class above the rest.