After the best start in their 128-year history, unheralded Vitesse Arnhem had been challenging for a first ever League title and could still upset the Dutch powerhouses by securing Champions League qualification for the first time
Due to the combination of a hectic schedule, little pre-season and a lack of fans, Europe’s major leagues have thrown up a fair amount of unpredictability and unexpected excitement this season – especially at the high end of their respective tables.
This has delivered some great stories – from Lille challenging PSG for the Ligue 1 title, to AC Milan rising from the ashes after years in the Italian wilderness to potentially knock Juventus off their Serie A perch, to Atletico Madrid having a huge lead over Real Madrid and Barcelona with a game in hand. In England, you still can’t with complete certainty write off Leicester City doing the unthinkable a second time by winning the Premier League.
This trend has continued in the Dutch Eredivisie, a league traditionally dominated by the trio of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord, who have a huge 26, 21 and 10 titles respectively. In the 2020/21 season, another team has arrived at the party and, despite a poor recent run of results, has shown that they’ve not simply turned up at the wrong house – Vitesse Arnhem.
The progress of this historic club, which was founded in 1892, has been one of the talking points of the season so far. They have a very real chance of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time and, despite that recent dip which has enabled Ajax to pull clear, still cannot be completely discounted in the title fight in an erratic season that has many twists and turns to come. At time of writing, they are in third place, having just slipped to four points behind PSV Eindhoven.
Considering they have never come close to winning the Eredivisie, apart from one runners-up finish in 1998, have just one notable trophy (the 2017 KVNB Cup) and a mere three intermittent Europa League appearances, this could shape-up to be an incredible campaign for the club from the east of the Netherlands.
This progress has gone relatively unnoticed though.
That’s maybe not surprising, considering this past lack of the prominent success normally needed to capture the attention of football fans beyond the Netherlands. Indeed in England, Vitesse is mainly known in recent times for the ridiculous number of players they have taken on loan from Chelsea. At last count, this stood at 28 and includes the likes of Nemanja Matic and Mason Mount. The club has housed many other prominent names though, including Philip Cocu, Roy Makaay, Sander Westerveld and Wilfried Bony, who was the Eredivisie player of the year when appearing in the famous yellow and black jersey.
Led by German Thimas Letsch, who has had a relatively understated Managerial career to date and only joined in the summer, Vitesse delivered their most successful first half of the season, winning 13 and taking 41 points from their first 18 matches, including big wins over PSV and Feyenoord and a seven match unbeaten run. They looked like matching that before surprisingly dropping points to VVV-Venlo, RKC Waalwijk and Heerenveen. There are now two huge games approaching for Vitesse and their fans, known as the ‘Vitessenaren’, against PSV and Twente, which could well define their prospects for the rest of the campaign and show if they are really in it for the long run. Matches against Feyenoord, and a game on the final weekend of the season against Ajax, could also be decisive in the season’s home stretch in securing their best ever finish.
What makes the performance of Vitesse, who play their home matches at the 20,000 capacity GelreDome Stadium, even more remarkable is that they lost many key players before the season had even begun. The forwards Bryan Linssen and Tim Matavz, who had been a huge source of goals over the previous three seasons, left to Feyenoord and Al Wahda respectively. Meanwhile they also bid Vaarwel to Julian Lelieveld, Kostas Lamprou and Khalid Karami. To respond, they effectively turned to the loan market, bringing in Lois Openda from Club Brugge, Armando Broja from Chelsea, Idrissa Toure from Juventus, and Fiorentina’s Jacob Rasmunssen. To be in such a relatively strong position, with a new Manager and off the back of so much squad disruption, is a fine achievement.
And it is some of these loan players who have made such a difference. Openda and Broja, who looks like yet another talented young player to come through the Chelsea academy, have seven league goals each. Meanwhile, Rasmunssen has slotted in seamlessly into the centre of defence. Other general standout performers include Oussama Tannane, who has already beaten the combined 11 goals and assists he provided on loan in 2019/20, whilst Oussama Darfalou has also stepped up, weighing in with some significant attacking contributions.
The defence the aforementioned Rasmunssen has joined has also been vital to Vitesse, with them currently being the second best in the whole of the Eredivisie. Until the surprise defeat against VVV-Venlo, they’d conceded just 13 goals in 18 matches. One player to keep an eye on in their back-line is Danilho Doekhi, a highly rated Netherlands U21 international whose continually commanding performances may mean him being snapped up by one of Europe’s major clubs soon. He could even force himself into Frank de Boer’s plans for Euro 2021.
Logic, and recent signs, suggest a dose of reality is just around the corner for Vitesse. That these plucky challengers from the East will soon be put back in their place.
Yet for the football idealists, it would be one of Europe’s feel good narratives of this unprecedented COVID impacted football campaign if Vitesse can steady themselves and cause a real upset against the Dutch powerhouses. As positively stated recently in an interview by their Sporting Director Johannes Spors, “We have to work harder, think smarter. We are spending less money than before but Europe is possible with this young, energetic team.”
Many neutrals will hope mere possibility becomes reality for Vitesse Arnhem.