By Peter McVitie
In a nation famous for churning talented young player after talented young player through brilliant youth systems, Feyenoord's academy - voted the best in Netherlands for each of the past five years - is quite a remarkable production line.
The likes of Robin van Persie, Jonathan de Guzman, Daryl Janmaat, Leroy Fer, Georginio Wijnaldum, Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi and Jordy Clasie have all emerged from the lauded Varkenoord system and progressed into technically adept and formidable players. Many more graduates have shown immense potential and there is one player who has recently broken into the first team who appears capable of becoming a real star - 20-year-old Terence Kongolo.
The young centre-back joined the Rotterdam giants as a 15-year-old and quickly progressed from the Under 16 squad to the Under 17s. It did not take long for him to be noticed at a higher level as he was called up to the Netherlands U-17 team. He played a key role in their European Championship success in 2011, scoring in their 5-2 final win over Germany. He was then fast-tracked to the Feyenoord senior side, making his debut under Ronald Koeman in April 2012 before being eased into the first team in the early weeks of the following season. However, an injury stopped him from playing an important role that term.
It was in the second half of 2013-14 that he developed into a key player for the team. With the likes of De Vrij, Martins Indi and the experienced Joris Mathijsen in the dressing room, it was difficult for Kongolo to claim a regular place in the starting XI in the opening half of the campaign. However, an injury to Mathijsen in early 2014 saw Kongolo afforded an opportunity to prove himself alongside his fellow Varkenoord graduates. And he grabbed it with both hands.
Physically, he is not as imposing as Martins Indi, nor is he as much of a leader as De Vrij, but what gave Kongolo an advantage is that he is a real warrior and a winner.
Every single loose ball is his and he will throw himself into a challenge to get it. Importantly, though, he is not reckless, he is calculated and picks his moments well – no Feyenoord first team regular has conceded less fouls than Kongolo this season. Last term he was booked just twice in the almost 2,000 minutes he played. The defender’s sharp mind and agility give him a real edge in going into 50-50 challenges.
Kongolo’s performances made it impossible for Koeman to justify dropping him. Instead, he opted to adjust the back line into a five-man defence, often with Kongolo on the left side. In the last 14 weeks of the campaign, with the apprentice starting every game and completing all but one, Feyenoord lost just once – a 2-1 defeat to Ajax - as they finished second in the league to the Amsterdam side.
His performances saw him included in Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands squad for the World Cup. While Kongolo made just one very short appearance, mixing and training with experienced stars like Arjen Robben, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Van Persie, Nigel de Jong and fellow defender Ron Vlaar will have benefited him immensely.
He has returned to De Kuip a better player and although he was originally used as a left-back this season under new coach Fred Rutten, Mathijsen’s lack of pace saw the back four exposed far too often as Feyenoord got off to a rough start. Since Kongolo was moved into the heart of the defence alongside 20-year-old Sven van Beek, permanently displacing the 34-year-old, his side have lost just once – a 1-0 home defeat to Ajax.
That improvement from the team following Kongolo’s switch into the centre is no coincidence. No member of Rutten’s side has made more interceptions than Kongolo and only Mathijsen has made more blocks.
The Swiss-born player is sound and composed on the ball, maintaining an 86 per cent pass success rate. He is his side’s second most frequent passer of the ball, but he is not naive and will simply clear the ball in an agricultural manner if required.
"Kongolo has everything for the modern defender," former Ajax and Twente coach Co Adriaanse said of the youngster.
"He can play in the centre of defence, on the left or even in midfield. He is tall, fast, has good technique and can play the ball into midfield."
While a great deal was made of De Vrij and Martins Indi in their formative years, Kongolo has the potential to surpass both of them. He is a self-confident young man but has his feet firmly placed on the ground.
"I am convinced of my abilities," he said last season. "But I know perfectly well that I have a lot to learn."
Kongolo has grabbed his chance and shown that he can develop into a special defender, but he must be careful about his next move. The likes of Manchester City, where his younger brother Rodney plays, Manchester United and Southampton have all been linked to him over the last few months, but at just 20 he is not ready for the step up.
He is tied to Feyenoord until the summer of 2017, by which time he will be 23, but if he continues his current development then expect him to be snapped up by a big club. On Thursday, Feyenoord host one of Europe's most successful sides of recent years when they take on Europa League champions Sevilla. It is a test Kongolo will relish.
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