Goalscorers don’t sit on benches and neither should Huntelaar

By Mohamed Moallim

It’s reached the point where Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is no longer frustrated; this summer will be his fourth successive tournament with Oranje, under a third different manager, but Huntelaar’s situation remains the same. If not for Robin van Persie he would be the undisputed Dutch ‘number nine’.
Huntelaar or Van Persie intensified during the build up to Euro 2012. It turned into a debate that divided the nation. The former came out on top in every newspaper poll; however the opinion that mattered belonged to then manager Bert van Marwijk, his decision was already made, opting for Van Persie, off the back of a breathless season in England even if Huntelaar matched him stride for stride in Germany.
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It was a second chance. Van Persie led the line in South Africa but finished with one goal same as Huntelaar despite starting every game. “Of course I’m angry and disappointed,” Huntelaar said after learning of the news from Van Marwijk after a training session days before the tournament. He had every right, one reason supporters backed him was because of his record, Huntelaar scored 15 goals in his last 17 games prior to Euro 2012. Van Persie managed the same amount in his last 26 games spanning three years.
No stranger to adversity, his mental toughness was forged at PSV, opportunities were limited but it didn’t stop him from learning from the clubs finest: Van Nistelrooy, Luc Nilis and Mateja Kežman. It paid dividends. The last decade seen him morph into a modern predator turned all-rounder (part-playmaker, part-finisher) – adding distinctive traits of the three: Van Nistelrooy’s finishing, Nilis’ ingenuity and Kežman’s fearlessness – every game he cuts an impassive figure, mind focused, void of distraction and feeling every fibre geared for a single purpose. Once that mission is done the child in him escapes but just as quickly his mask goes back up and the cycle starts again.
To say goals is an obsession would be an understatement. It’s compulsive. His one addiction “when you hear it [ball hitting the net] you spend the whole of the next week longing to hear it again,” Huntelaar told UEFA.com. “It’s like the elixir of life.” 
Louis van Gaal, current Oranje boss, described him as the best inside the penalty area “bar none”. But Huntelaar is much more. His all-round game – awareness, vision, movement and link-up play – stands out greater than it has done before. Huntelaar’s natural game centres around an innate ability to score just about every type of goal, often in the most unlikely of situations, whether creating for himself or finishing a team effort – it can be ugly or laced with finesse – his ambidexterity makes it easier as well as being acrobatic and dominant in the air.
The city of Gelsenkirchen, after a two year odyssey in southern Europe, has reinvigorated him. In the bright lights of the Bundesliga [first Dutchman to win the ‘kicker Torjägerkanone’ – top scorer in 2011-12] he’s showing the form that first brought him to widespread attention at Heerenveen then Ajax eight years ago: a ruthless goal-scoring machine that drew comparisons with premier Dutch marksmen of yesteryear including Marco van Basten, who in spite of growing pressure resisted calling him up for a place in his World Cup 2006 squad.
Instead ‘De Hunter’, that summer, went to the U21 European Championships in Portugal where he spearheaded the Dutch to their first title. A few months later Huntelaar made his international debut in Dublin scoring a brace. It would be another seven games before adding to his tally. He’s never looked back since.
His time with Real Madrid and AC Milan respectively is often looked back on as a failure, but in reality he was a victim of circumstance. Huntelaar arrived in Madrid as Bernd Schuster, the manager that wanted him, was leaving. His successor Juande Ramos saw him as an unwanted €27M welcome present. But when push came to shove, true to form, Huntelaar proved his worth in goals: eight in his first five appearances. Florentino Pérez’s return in the summer of 2009 ended a brief six-month stay.
It was no different in Milan the following campaign; manager Leonardo preferring Marco Borriello and Filippo Inzaghi instead, however there were glimpses most notably a stupendous brace in injury time away to Catania and penultimate goal away to Cagliari a fantastic left-footed drive from 20+ yards out, another example faith in him would be rewarded, exactly what Schalke has done.
Felix Magath gave him a platform as well as a supporting cast, Huub Stevens and Jens Keller as well, the latter describing him as “class” (no pun intended). His recent goal against Hertha BSC was his 275th at club level; since his return from a knee injury that robbed him four months of this season, he’s scored 10 times from 13 games played. ‘HunTORlaar’: a befitting moniker.
Another is ‘Hunter der Nation’. Huntelaar, to his credit, at one stage – despite never being considered first choice in six years as an international – was close to breaking Oranje’s all-time goals record held by Patrick Kluivert which Van Persie subsequently broke. However, if we look at goal-to-minute ratio, only the legendary Faas Wilkes (one every 99) betters Huntelaar (one every 101). Van Persie, in comparison, one every 143. But the Manchester United striker ability and dynamism is unquestionable. Van Persie – now skipper – barring an injury should start in their World Cup opener against Spain [June 13]. “No, it doesn’t bother me,” Huntelaar recently told Sp!ts. “Of course I have ambitions, but it is what it is.” 
Van Gaal, not one to admit, subscribes to Johan Cruyff’s ‘conflict model’:  an individual should be encouraged to prove his manager wrong. There’s a player at his disposal – in what could be his last major tournament – determined (who can grab a goal out of nowhere). And that bodes well for Oranje.

 This piece was written by Mohamed Moallim, our resident Dutch expert. Follow him on twitter @jouracule. Comments below please.

Goalscorers don’t sit on benches and neither should Huntelaar

By Mohamed Moallim

It’s reached the point where Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is no longer frustrated; this summer will be his fourth successive tournament with Oranje, under a third different manager, but Huntelaar’s situation remains the same. If not for Robin van Persie he would be the undisputed Dutch ‘number nine’.

Huntelaar or Van Persie intensified during the build up to Euro 2012. It turned into a debate that divided the nation. The former came out on top in every newspaper poll; however the opinion that mattered belonged to then manager Bert van Marwijk, his decision was already made, opting for Van Persie, off the back of a breathless season in England even if Huntelaar matched him stride for stride in Germany.

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Reinvented by de Boer, Ajax’s Daley Blind transforms into the ‘Dutch Lahm’

By Mohamed Moallim

Innovation swirls around Ajax like leaves, in the Vondelpark, on a blustery autumn’s day. “Almost every club tries to imitate them,” Aad de Mos, who managed them between 1980 and 1985, recently said. “But they are unique and two steps ahead [of their rivals].” What kept Ajax ahead of the game, and could do so again, is the education their footballers receive. One such individual is Daley Blind son of club legend Danny.
His impressive displays at left-back over the last eighteen months cemented his position as one of the most improved footballers in the Netherlands, but the last few months has seen him reinvent himself, moving into the heart of midfield where he continues to excel. [[MORE]]
Arguably the tactical manoeuvre so far this season at least the most high profile. But this is nothing new in Amsterdam, the idea (and pursuit) of universality, being comfortable in multiple positions, is central to the club’s ethos and instilled from an early age. Blind isn’t the first player – whilst donning the colours of Ajax – to move into a new position, subsequently making it his own, and will certainly not be the last. 
His transformation, in some quarters, is reminiscent of Johan Neeskens who began at right-back – where he greatly impressed – before converted into midfielder tour de force.  However it’s more accurate to say Blind has gone back to his roots, a testament to his versatility that he’s an accomplished left-back, for much of his youth playing career he was utilised as a ‘number six’ (or controlling midfielder). Frank de Boer throughout last season (2012-13) hinted Blind’s future would be in midfield it so happened to come to fruition in the following campaign. 
His familiarity in the role and Ajax’s modern interpretation of totaalvoetbal (modified by Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal, which De Boer has gradually re-implemented) has made his assimilation smooth. His energy and discipline has become the kernel around which the rest of the side’s panache is constructed. In the role Blind is essentially a ‘third centre-back’ – dropping between the central defenders – and conductor rolled into one. He’s tasked with retaining and recycling possession: averaging 68.6 passes, 2.1 tackles and 2 interceptions per game (according to WhoScored.com).
Blind, who often operates as single-minded man-marker – normally designated to do a job on the opposition’s playmaker – shuttles across the pitch following the ball once with it his impeccable metronomic passing and grandiose football intelligence triggers their positional game/ Ajax in possession morph into a 2-3-2-3, one-touch combination football is second nature to them. In the Eredivisie their pass accuracy (86.8%) and average possession (62.9%) is ranked first (stats from WhoScored.com). He dictates the tempo: whether Ajax needs to slow things down or raise it. This also depends how high up the pitch they are. 
The controller, or in De Boer’s system ‘third centre-back’, is the most important position. Sergio Busquets – a revelation under Pep Guardiola and easily Barça’s second most important player – plays a similar role and has long fascinated the former Oranje captain. Guardiola, now managing Bayern Munich, played alongside De Boer for three seasons at Barça and has been a silent influence. As teammates they enjoyed lengthy conversations about the game. De Boer noted how Guardiola back then was effectively a coach. Guardiola equally saw the same.
Both see Cruyff and Van Gaal as a reference and share a steadfast belief in the ‘Ajax model’. Ronald – Frank’s twin – once commented Guardiola is obsessed calling him ‘half-Dutch’. He even approached De Boer to be his assistant at the Catalan giants only for the Dutchman to politely turn the offer down in order to strike out his own path. Guardiola’s four-year stint as Barça manager impacted on De Boer as it showed the ‘Ajax way’, in its purest form, still has a place in the modern game. 
No position typifies it more than the controller (see Frank Rijkaard), but Busquets is an up to date version, one that has since been pivotal to De Boer realising his objectives which is to dominate games through possession: circulation football as a means to not only create goal scoring opportunities but also a defensive weapon. If you have the ball the opposition can’t harm you. Blind is equally of most value – if not crucial – when out of possession as he would instigate Ajax’s pressing game (or ‘pressure play’): making the pitch as small as possible (compressing and closing down all space), enabling them to retain possession and win the ball back at times mercilessly more often than not by provoking their opponents into making a mistake. 
"The controlling midfielder in the modern game primarily builds [the attack]," De Mos adds. "Philipp Lahm and Blind have shown that." The former, under Guardiola, has thrived in midfield but equally remains as Europe’s finest right-back. Blind is a considerable distance from Lahm’s all-round level but there’s nothing stopping him reaching it. 
Blind’s seamless transition is second to his resurrection. Before the arrival of De Boer his future in Amsterdam was bleak. De Boer’s unyielding faith was built on seeing the potential he is now exhibiting. By restoring Ajax’s classical approach Blind, a De Toekomst graduate, has flourished. The inconsistencies that dogged him, at times shot of confidence, coincidentally eroded. “I’m indebted to Frank de Boer,” Blind said looking back.
His consistent performances throughout last season, many of which stood out, earned him the club’s player of the year award and a first Netherlands call-up. He’s been ever-present at left-back since making his debut against Italy in February 2013. Van Gaal, who still views Blind as his “first choice”, recognises the “number six” role is his true position. Nigel de Jong, who’s been a shining light at AC Milan, is expected to play there for Oranje at the World Cup.
He is now in the nations conscious. Elf Voetbal magazine, who at the backend of 2012 published an op-ed titled “The rehabilitation of Daley Blind”, readers named him – alongside Lucas Piazón of Vitesse – as the best player of the first half of the season. Not many would disagree. He is the pivot of a side chasing a historic fourth successive championship. And few are backing against them.
Now an elder statesman, albeit only 23-years-old, it will be surprising if he doesn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and captain the club he joined as an eight-year-old on a full-time basis. He recently wore the armband, decorated in Amsterdam’s coat of arms, away to ADO Den Haag describing it as “a special moment.”
A role model is Paolo Maldini, remaining a one-club man could prove to be difficult, but there’s no escaping his current iconic status: “Daley Blind is een echte Ajacied” as supporters now enthusiastically chant – hard to imagine only two years ago.  ”Everyone knows Ajax is my club,” he said after penning a three-year contract extension in spring 2013.  He’s really come full circle.
This piece was written by Mohamed Moallim, a Senior Writer for AFR. Comments below please.

Reinvented by de Boer, Ajax’s Daley Blind transforms into the ‘Dutch Lahm’

By Mohamed Moallim

Innovation swirls around Ajax like leaves, in the Vondelpark, on a blustery autumn’s day. “Almost every club tries to imitate them,” Aad de Mos, who managed them between 1980 and 1985, recently said. “But they are unique and two steps ahead [of their rivals].” What kept Ajax ahead of the game, and could do so again, is the education their footballers receive. One such individual is Daley Blind son of club legend Danny.

His impressive displays at left-back over the last eighteen months cemented his position as one of the most improved footballers in the Netherlands, but the last few months has seen him reinvent himself, moving into the heart of midfield where he continues to excel.

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Once the midfield master on the field and now the manager, can Cocu start a dynasty at his PSV?

By Mohamed Moallim

The more things change, the more they stay the same. No better example than at PSV Eindhoven; third consecutive season they’ve started with a new manager, yet it hasn’t impacted, they remain a threat going forward as well as nervy at the back. However, the atmosphere is slightly different, a whiff of a nouveau PSV: exuberance replacing pragmatism, catalyst being their new manager Phillip Cocu.

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As Europe searches for drama, the Eredivisie’s title race rises

With seven games remaining in the Eredivisie the destination of the championship is no clearer than it was at the beginning of the campaign. At this time of writing four sides are in contention separated by three points making this the most eagerly anticipated climax to any of Europe’s major leagues. Like the season finale of a gripping television drama series, its one not to be missed.

How this has come about is attributed to a new economic reality, one that has slowly weakened Dutch clubs, as a result the gap between the traditional old guard (consisting of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV) and majority of the division isn’t as wide as it once was. You get the feeling this season won’t be a one-off.

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Vilhena ready for the next stage after emerging from Feyenoord’s fountain of talent

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By Mohamed Moallim

Ask a manager about the value of camaraderie and you could be there for a while. Ronald Koeman is no different, his situation unique to most, is common within the Netherlands, and even then it’s different. No better demonstration this season and explicitly in Feyenoord’s recent game against FC Twente. It would end goalless, but the headline was already written, one that embodies the clubs resurgence heavily characterised by a youthful feel.

When it comes to youth football the Rotterdammers are at the forefront, their academy Varkenoord – reinvigorated by club icon Wim Jansen first as manager then as technical advisor – been voted three years running as best in the Netherlands. It’s this coupled with talents given a chance at first team level – averaging seven graduates starting per game – that has eroded fears of losing them before a professional contract can be presented (see Karim Rekik and Nathan Aké). Those waiting to break through can look to the Twente game.

Koeman, who arrived in the summer of 2011 with reputation as a champion of youth development, started with four of the clubs brightest recent graduates: The Four Musketeers. It was their first ever appearance together; Jordy Clasie the most experienced, and Feyenoord’s metronome, flanked by wingers Jean-Paul Boëtius and Anass Achahbar and mercurial talent Tonny Vilhena alongside in midfield.

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Luuk de Jong, Huntelaar and Dost represent the evolution of the Dutch number 9

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It’s strange, in a sort of good way, how a song can remind you of someone, their image instantly etched into your mind. ”The Saints Are Coming” (Green Day/U2 version), is one example, the goal music at De Grolsch Veste – home of FC Twente – now forever associated with Luuk de Jong, largely responsible for many of its airing last season, now plying his trade in Germany he’s hoping for a similar amount of encore performances.

His departure last summer, along with Bas Dost who moved from Heerenveen to Wolfsburg, confirmed the long-held view: one of the Netherlands chief exports is ‘number nines’. Both are the latest in a long line of Dutch strikers, a lineage as decorated as Italian defenders, but what excites most onlookers is not their records (which speaks for itself) but their gradual evolution: getting better, more uncanny in front of goal, both – notably De Jong – determined to be become renowned for scoring in the unlikeliest of situations. Ultimately to attain the title of number nine par excellence.

After conquering the Eredivisie a logical step would be the Bundesliga. A league equally synonymous with great strikers: Gerd Müller, Uwe Seeler, Klaus Fischer and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge to name but a few. Those illustrious figures of the past serve as a inspiration just like compatriots Henk Groot, Willy van der Kuijlen, Marco van Basten and Ruud Geels. On arrival it meant three Dutch numbers 9s in the same foreign league. The other, is already a household name and last season’s Bundesliga golden boot winner – first Dutch striker to do so – Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

As time move so do trends, today for most up-and-coming strikers Huntelaar is their reference. Though the striker many still attempt to emulate is Van Basten still held as a beacon, ultimate example of near perfection, technique and finesse intertwined in unadulterated ruthlessness.

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The Dynamic Danes continue to explode at Ajax

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Morten Olsen, national team coach of Denmark, can be forgiven if he decides to start shuttling between Copenhagen to Amsterdam on a regular basis. He would though have a very good reason. Ajax, where he won the double in his only full season before leaving unceremoniously, is again preying on his mind.

Outside his homeland no club other than Ajax boasts a larger Danish contingent, compatriots with pivotal roles, who aren’t just there to make up the numbers. 

Their 3-1 victory over PSV last Saturday was a testament, spearheaded by one of the most naturally gifted footballers to leave the land of Hamlet in recent years, Viktor Fischer.

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Feyenoord’s Clasie has arrived and he’s here to stay

By Mohamed Moallim

There was one minute left in extra time and Ronald Koeman started to prepare for the inevitable. He found what he was looking for, a notepad and pen, after collecting his thoughts he jotted down numbers one through five. Next to number one ‘Lex’ was written, followed by a space, then letters I and M, before he could finish the surname, a loud roar erupted, looking up, Koeman saw Lex Immers – the very person that was going to take the penalty – wheel away in celebration, Feyenoord left it very late.

In a single minute every emotion imaginable was exhausted. They say the KNVB Beker is often void of drama well the Goffertstadion played host to one. It was cruel on NEC, but satisfying for Feyenoord, who needed that win. A few days earlier they were second best to a PSV side many had down on the verge of a crisis. Yes, even this early.

It goes to show how much football has changed, it’s about the here and now, no patience and nothing is kept in perspective anymore. A one game losing streak, to paraphrase Roy Keane, is a crisis. Their success last season, finishing runners-up, has meant anything less won’t do. The expectation from the fans was the club would push on instead they’ve started their campaign slowly. The mindset of their support has reverted to a previous state one Koeman encourages and is doing everything to satisfy.

The club from Rotterdam is a different one from years gone by, but they are now – like before – players in the Eredivisie. Their recent successes, which is few and far between, been built on their esteemed youth academy based in Varkenoord, with its seemingly endless production line. The game against Excelsior – city rivals – last April featured 18 academy graduates, the bulk in red and white. On the scoresheet – getting their second in a 3-0 win – is probably their current crowning jewel: Jordy Clasie.

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Frank De Boer’s smokescreen ‘gras-rel’

By Mohamed Moallim

After trawling out for a closer inspection, what he saw left a concerned expression on his face, after taking it all in he slowly walked back inside fearing the worst. Constantly preying on his mind, they had to somehow leave with all three points, they didn’t. The subsequent result only prompted him to make it a bigger issue. It was an odd outburst, only coming out as a feeble excuse, even if there was a point.

The individual in question: Frank de Boer, his concern: state of the Kyocera Stadion pitch, result: ‘gras-rel’ (or grass riot).

“I don’t know where the man who cuts the grass is, he’s certainly not here,” the Ajax manager bemoaned. The length according to him was detrimental to his side, “Everyone knows short grass is advantageous to our style of play.” Before kick-off he graphically exaggerated how it came up and “tickled” his armpits. Maurice Steijn, manager of Den Haag, agreed “The grass was too long”.

However there was no sympathy from Kees Kortekaas, the groundsman, “It’s almost the same length at the Amsterdam ArenA,” he pointed out, “De Boer lost two points and probably should have something to complain about. I find it much ado about nothing.”

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