Feyenoord – the sleeping giant that is finally awakening

After many tumultuous years, the famous Rotterdam club looks to be finally back on the right track – no matter what happens in the Europa Conference League Final

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This season, Feyenoord accomplished something that they hadn’t achieved in two decades – reaching a European Cup final. The inaugural Europa Conference League has been sniffed at by many but its value to clubs seeking another taste of European success and adventure became ever more conspicuous as the tournament progressed.  

And few have needed such European escapism more than Feyenoord. 

On the surface, to an outside football fan it might just look like another strong season for the famous Rotterdam club. Many will know them as one of the renowned ‘big 3’ in the Netherlands, along with Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. A quick search and they’ll also see a club with 36 major honours. Having been to the Feyenoord Stadium recently (see my photography “skills” below) – which is the second largest ground in the country – I can attest for the size and passion of their support and comprehend why they are nicknamed ‘The Club of the People’. This is a Dutch footballing giant. 

Yet it has been a sleeping giant. Or at best, one that decides to come out and wreak havoc only intermittently. Indeed, despite the history, the fanbase and the trophies, to say the last decade or so has been a tumultuous one for Feyenoord would be an understatement. 

It has been a period of poor decisions, financial mismanagement and much political in-fighting on the club’s direction, ranging from plans for a new stadium to internal appointments. Not to mention a poor transfer policy and high player-churn caused by one too many signings falling into the category of ‘questionable and overpriced’ and a lack of a clear playing style. The nadir occurred between 2008 and 2011, a period in which five different Managers were appointed and they suffered the embarrassment of a 10-0 defeat to PSV. Many big players also had to be sold, such as Georginio Wijnaldum, to get the club out of a seriously dangerous level of debt that threatened the future of the club. 

There were of course some causes for celebration in a three year period between 2016 and 2019. These included a shock league title in 2017 under Giovanni van Bronckhorst, inspired by a returning Dirk Kuyt, and two Dutch Cups in three years, the latter of these aided by another returning legend in Robin van Persie

Photo: NU.nl
Photo: UEFA.com

Yet do not let this fool you. These were flashes of light during a long period of increasing darkness and worry. The fact the 2017 success was their first Eredivisie in 18 years, a league they are meant to be a dominant force in, says a lot. Others would also argue that rivals Ajax and PSV were going through a process of rebuilding that season. Fans I have spoken to further highlight the poor use of the financial rewards from this triumph, spent largely on Eredivisie players who could not take the team to the required next level. If you need recent evidence, just look at the disappointing 5th place finish in 2021 under Dick Advocaat. 

And that brings us to 2021/22 and the argument that irrespective of the result against Roma, this has been a Feyenoord season of incremental but real progress that has gone slightly under the radar and bodes well for the future. Where once Feyenoord were stuttering behind Ajax and PSV, they are now looming ever larger in  their rear-wing mirrors. The engine is suddenly running more smoothly, the destination of travel looking more obvious. 

Photo: The Sun

For a long part of the season, a three-pronged title race looked a genuine possibility before a late defeat away to Ajax (a game I was fortunate to be at) brought down any building championship hopes. A final total of 71 points is the highest Feyenoord have had since that title win five years ago and, not accounting for that 21st century anomaly, their finest in 16 years. The 76 goals scored also matched the number from 2017, including putting four past PSV in Eindhoven. At the other end conceding just 34 was their 2nd best defensive result in the last decade and was bettered only by Ajax. 

A significant reason for this progress is the new vision under Technical Director Frank Arnesen, once of Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, and Manager Arne Slot, who was brought in at the start of the campaign after only one season as the main man in the dugout with AZ Alkmaar. Together they are building a team with a genuine style, with value and real promise. Under Slot, the team has been transformed into a more attack-minded outfit that presses harder and uses the ball more intelligently and quickly. This year they’ve been happy to mix possession-based and direct approaches – for the latter just look at what they did to Marseille in the semi-final first leg. Whisper it quietly but Feyenoord look enjoyable to watch again. 

Photo: Friesch Dagblad

Under Slot, a squad is gradually being created with that ideal blend of young players with a desire to prove themselves and wiser, experienced heads. He is building a group with the right mentality and ambitions with the club who he knows he can work with, which is perhaps why the loss of Steven Berghuis last summer to Ajax, a crucial player for five seasons, has not been felt as badly as was anticipated. Moving forwards there is a desire to have fewer key figures leaving each close season.  

This is being underpinned by intelligent recruitment and effective use of the youth system. For example, Tyrell Malacia (22) and Lutsharel Geertruida (21) have stepped-up from the academy to be first choice full backs, whilst another youth product, Turkish international Orkun Kökcü (21), has been transformed from a number 10 drifting in and out of games to a box-to-box midfielder making a real impact. The Columbian winger Luis Sinisterra (22) has also had his most productive season yet with a huge 37 goals and assists. A deal is already in place to bring Brazilian striker Danilo Pereira (23) on a free – from Ajax of all clubs. On the more experienced end of the spectrum, the Norwegian international Fredrik Aursnes was only signed last summer but has quickly become a pivotal defensive midfielder, whilst Austrian centre back Gernot Trauner, brought in during the same transfer window, has been the calming rock upon which the prime defensive numbers already mentioned have been built. 

The use of the loan market has also been impressive. For example, acquiring centre forward Cyriel Dessers, who has 21 goals and six assists in all competitions and leads the Europa Conference League score charts, has certainly paid off – especially with a 4 million Euro release clause that surely has to be activated. There could be a similar option with attacking midfielder Guus Til, who has contributed 15 league goals on loan from Spartak Moscow, although his future is less certain due to the location of his home club. Yet even if he does not stay he has served his purpose, an assessment we can also give of Reiss Nelson, an FA Cup winner with Arsenal who gradually emerged as an important first team player for a new team playing in red and white during an effective loan spell. 

Photo: NU.nl

If Feyenoord do go on to lose to Jose Mourinho’s Roma, there will be obvious disappointment. Some may use it to define the season – another campaign with no trophies and Ajax and PSV still ahead of them. This should not be the case. Not just because they never expected to be there, especially when they stuttered through the initial qualifying rounds, but because of the genuine steps forward that have been taken this season and the strong foundations that have been laid for the future. 

Next season Feyenoord can finally push for a sustained Eredivisie title effort and a potential place in the Champions League, something even the most optimistic sections of that renowned fan base would have struggled to predict 12 months ago. There’s no need to whisper it any longer – the sleeping giant of Dutch football is finally awakening. 

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