COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
It was inevitable, given the dynamics of the Dutch Eerste Divisie, that there would be a drop-off for Fortuna Sittard. It may be a curious time to take a magnifying glass to them, coming off a 3-0 loss to Dordrecht, but no harm was done; Sunday Oliseh's side remain a point clear at the top.
The story is not so much about a modest club that was listing nowhere as it is about their charismatic, polarizing figurehead who has turned it all around. While the season is only halfway gone, it is undeniable that he has wildly overachieved.
Now comes the hard bit.
By virtue of a second period title, awarded to the top team from rounds 12-20 (in that span, they amassed 24 points, more than any other team in the division), Fortuna are guaranteed a place in the end-of-season play-offs for promotion to the Eredivisie. The season is split into four periods, and the winners of each go through to the 'Nacompetitie'.
The challenge now for Oliseh is keeping a young squad focused for the rest of the term, and grounded in spite of what is a truly momentous achievement, given their circumstances a year ago.
The team's top scorers Finn Stokkers and Djibril Dianessy (with nine) are 21, and no player in the league has made more decisive goal contributions than Lisandro Semedo (eight goals, 11 assists), who is also 21—eager, they are; experienced in the pressures of leading a title race, they are not.
There was some warning for them in that humbling loss at the weekend, remarkable given that Dordrecht had, only in the previous game against bottom-side Jong Utrecht, snapped a five-game losing run. Fortuna themselves had won the reverse fixture 5-1; a waning of motivation, possibly, but also a sense that their luck might be turning.
Indeed, in assessing the bare numbers of how they seek to play, there is a suggestion of something fortuitous. What's in a name, eh?
Well, Oliseh's side is atop the table despite averaging just over seven tackles a game, and even fewer fouls per game (about four). This might suggest a possession-based game, but Fortuna average 46% possession, and play half as many passes as second-place NEC.
Sitting deep, perhaps? They have made far fewer blocks, interceptions and clearances NEC and Jong Ajax in third (both teams who play on the front foot), and have also been in less than 900 duels. Both those sides have contested no fewer than a thousand.
In spite of these, they are second top scorers in the division, and have the second best defensive record. On the one hand, one has to wonder how sustainable leading the table is with weaker overall numbers, both in defence and attack, is.
This, allied to the circumstance of having already sealed a place in the play-offs, makes it an uphill task for Oliseh to motivate his team for the second half of the season.
On the other though, it does put into focus the scale of what the former Super Eagles coach has done.
Fortuna supporter Guido Merry is a fan: "He revolutionised the team, made the youngsters better," he said. "He uses their strengths and masks (or tried to) their weaknesses. He has them playing quite decent football at times."
It is easy to forget, but he is a real novelty: an African manager at any kind of competitive level in Europe remains the exception, rather than the rule.
Some have seen his success as a vindication of his fraught stewardship of the national team, which ended in acrimony and recrimination.
While that is a flawed argument on even a logical level – the particulars of managing a club side are a lot different, and probably suit Oliseh more; if for nothing else, the day-to-day nature of it saves him from himself – to even bring that up inherently devalues his achievement in taking Fortuna to the cusp of promotion for the first time in over 15 years. That deserves notice on its own merits.
He has certifiably brought water out of the rock. Next challenge: to turn that water into wine.