Header photo: SciSports
Read more articles here
Following the interruptions of 2020, football has been running at full pelt in 2021, the intensity turned up to high and the matches coming at us thick and fast.
Unlike in the Premier League, the Dutch Eredivisie takes a breather over the winter with a three-week break. That provides us with a perfect opportunity to assess five of the main talking-points so far of what is shaping up to be an exciting and unpredictable campaign.
A two-horse title race
Look across the recent history of Europe’s top leagues and you will see a common theme of one side breaking clear of the chasing pack and comfortably trotting, under no real pressure, over the finish line. Apart from the odd anomaly, generally we have not seen many sustained tight two-horse title fights for several years.
This is certainly not the case in the Eredivisie this year. After two title wins on the bounce, not including the abandoned 2019/20 season, it was looking like Ajax were on course for a third after a supreme start in which they amassed 25 points from their first 10 games.
Yet despite being mauled 5-0 by the defending Champions, it is PSV Eindhoven who currently sit top of the pile by a single point. A combination of quality young players, such as Yorbe Vertessen and Cody Gakpo, with experienced heads like André Ramalho, Marco van Ginkel and a certain World Cup winner called Mario Götze, PSV are on an eight match unbeaten run and look primed for a real title challenge, especially if they can get Eran Zahavi and Davy Pröpper back from injury soon.
There are questions that could swing it in PSV’s favour. How will Ajax cope without their talisman Sébastien Haller, who has directly contributed to nearly a third of their league goals, due to the African Cup of Nations? What will an extended Champions League run, where they look a real threat, have upon their domestic focus? The game between the two sides at Philips Stadion in mid-January could already be decisive.
Fans of Dutch football were denied a dramatic conclusion to the season two years ago because of the pandemic, with Ajax and AZ Alkmaar locked together on points as they entered the home straight. It looks like this year will give them the finale they deserve.
Impressive newcomers SC Cambuur
It is very unlikely that many outside of the Netherlands will have heard of SC Cambuur – unless you happened to be aware that one Jaap Stam played there in the 90s.
Located in the northern city of Leeuwarden in Friesland, with a stadium capacity of just 10,500, Cambuur secured promotion last season by winning the Eeerste Divisie, essentially the Dutch Second Division.
This campaign is only their 8th in the Eredivisie in the club’s 57 year history – and so far they have really impressed. They are currently lying comfortably mid-table and within tantalising reach of a full Europa Conference League challenge. Despite being one of the early-season favourites for the drop, they’re already in double-figures for wins, including an impressive run of four on the bounce which shot them up the table.
It is a true feel-good story for several reasons. Firstly because Cambuur were denied promotion in the 2019/20 season after finishing top of the table due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s more, they very nearly disappeared as a club altogether when they fell into bankruptcy in 2005, and have since then grown steadily and sustainably. A predominantly Dutch squad has been performing better than the sum of its parts, with Dutch pundits highlighting the genuine quality of their football.
Whether they can keep it up over the remainder of the season remains to be seen but they have undoubtedly been the surprise package at the campaign’s midpoint and deserve what should be a secured spot in the division for next season.
Too tight to beat the drop
One quirk of the Eredivisie is the approach to relegation. Rather than the bottom three just dropping down, it is the bottom two, with the side finishing 16th going into a four-team relegation play-off against sides from the Eerste Divisie.
At this midpoint, PEC Zwolle look almost certain to be saying farewell after a 10-year stay. Yet apart from that, there could feasibly be six teams competing to avoid that second automatic relegation place and the dreaded play-off. At present just six points separate Fortuna Sittard in 17th and FC Groningen in 12th. With so little space between them, predicting who fills those two unwanted places is almost impossible to predict, especially with the main protagonists all getting to play each other again, including in the season’s final few rounds.
What this does mean is that the first half of the season has set things up perfectly for the second – at both the top and the bottom.
The brilliant Ajax defence
This season the majority of appraisals of Eric Ten Haag’s superb Ajax team have focused on their electric forward play. This is understandable considering they have amassed 56 goals from 18 matches, an average of over three a game, including an astonishing six 5-0 wins and a 9-0 thrashing of Cambuur.
However, there is another mind-blowing Ajax fact – they have only conceded four goals all season. Let that settle a moment – in 1,620 minutes of football, their defence has been breached on only four occasions. This is the best defensive record in Europe’s major leagues, with the next closest being Sporting Lisbon and Porto in the Primeira Liga, with seven and nine. For further context, even runaway league leaders Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have conceded 13, 16 and 17 respectively (all at time of writing).
What is even more impressive is the age of some of the standout performers in this area, such as Jurien Timber who at 20 is already a full Dutch international, and Peer Schuurs, one of the most promising centre backs in Europe right now. The 24-year-old full back Noussair Moazraoui could soon become one of the most sought-after free agents, with his contract entering its final six months. Yet such is the Ajax way, they already have a fine young replacement ready in the versatile Devyne Rensch, who has broken into the team this season at 18 and has already made his full Netherlands debut.
They say every great team is built on solid defensive foundations and this is a case in point.
The kids are alright
The Netherlands has long been an ideal place for young players to develop, whether by coming through excellent Dutch academies or being sent over on loan deals by foreign sides. And this season has so far again demonstrated that the Eredivisie is one of Europe’s best divisions for exciting young talent.
The mid-season statistics say it all – six of the top 10 goalscorers are 25 or under, with five of the top 10 assist makers also in that age bracket. Particular standouts so far include Jens Odgaard, a Danish striker at RKC Waalwijk on loan from the Italian club Sassuolo, the Ajax winger Antony, whose performances have earned him international recognition from Brazil, and Jesper Karlsson, who has eight goals and six assists in 18 games for AZ Alkmaar.
The defensive statistics are even more impressive. According to an Eredivisie assessment combining defensive duels won and lost and interceptions, all but one of the top 10 are 25 and younger. If you’re interested in getting a look at some of the game’s future stars, tune in to some of the Eredivisie in the coming months.
Read more articles here