The last time Feyenoord were crowned champions of Holland the new Millennium was still hotly anticipated, Manchester United had yet to win the treble and their current midfield maestro, Jordy Clasie was only seven years old. Since then there has been a tumultuous thirteen season period which has seen failed championship challenges, financial meltdown and a hugely embarrassing 10-0 defeat with the Rotterdam club in the midst of a boardroom level conflict. There has been a solitary UEFA Cup win in 2002 but you would be hard pressed to find little more positivity at De Kuip over the past decade since that title win marshalled by Leo Beenhakker.
This year however there is a sense and real belief that Feyenoord can end their thirteen season wait for their fifteenth Dutch title, with Jordy Clasie coined the Dutch Xavi aiding the Rotterdammer’s creativity from midfield, Bruno Martins Indi adding youthful exuberance and strength to a defence led by the experience of Joris Mathijsen and finally the travelled centre forward Graziano Pelle having arguably the best season of his career thus far having registered nineteen league goals.
This squad unlike previous Feyenoord outfits in the past ten years is not without leadership, Dutch icon Ronald Koeman after a disappointing spell in charge of AZ Alkmaar is leading his Feyenoord side to the height of their potential. Koeman has fully utilised the traditionally attacking 4-3-3 formation with Jordy Clasie being the pivotal point of his midfield very much like Xavi is at Barcelona, aiding Clasie in terms of Feyenoord’s creativity is the nimble footed trickster, eighteen year old Tonny Trindade de Vilhena, a prime example of Feyenoord’s famed youth academy who has taken the attacking midfield mantle from Georginio Wijnaldum following his transfer to PSV Eindhoven in the summer of 2011.
Ronald Koeman has this week come out and publically stated he believes his side has the wherewithal to win this season’s Dutch Eredivisie “I don’t know why Feyenoord can’t be champions,” and the Rotterdam giants appear to be hitting form at exactly the right time following a 2-1 home win over league leaders PSV two weeks ago which was followed by an impressive 3-0 victory over NEC Nijmegen to leave Feyenoord just three points behind PSV at the top of the table and only one point behind fierce rivals Ajax who currently occupy second position.
It is said you need experience in abundance to win titles and this has often been proved to be correct with particular reference being made to the longevity and success of Paulo Maldini at AC Milan however another factor within a squad which is too vital to be overlooked is youth and inexperience which is at times when challenging for a title very useful to have. Feyenoord as they always have done possess a great deal of youth in their current squad, the Rotterdam club famed for its use of academy graduates for example Robin Van Persie, Leroy Fer and Jonathon de Guzman now of Swansea continues to produce exceptional talent with as many as 14 of Feyenoord’s current first team squad coming from the Varkenoord which is currently managed by Roy Makaay, with the most notable being Martins Indi, goalkeeper Erwin Mulder and the club’s vice captain Jordy Clasie.
The way Koeman has blended experience and youth this season has been a joy to behold with the success being clear for all to see as early as the start of the season with Feyenoord winning three of their opening five Eredivisie fixtures. Whilst Stefan de Vrij is registered as club captain a lot of the team’s leadership comes from the back in the form of Joris Mathijsen. Following the financial difficulties at Malaga the experienced Dutch centre half was identified by Ronald Koeman as the wise old head to guide his young defence through the more testing times of a thirty four game season and was duly snapped up on a free transfer. Alongside De Vrij at the heart of the Feyenoord defence Mathijsen has added the much needed nous of when to press and when to hold a line, as well as an eye for the timing of an aerial challenge which has all contributed to Feyenoord remaining unbeaten at De Kuip this season.
Feyenoord have nine games remaining this year and have to make up a three point deficit on PSV in order to win the Eredivisie title however when you look at the games Feyenoord have left to play it is a more than achievable aim especially when you consider PSV and Ajax still have to play each other. Feyenoord have just three of their remaining nine fixtures against teams inside the top eight of the Eredivisie standings with the toughest of those games being more than likely the home fixture against fourth placed Vitesse Arnhem who are pushing for a spot in next season’s UEFA Champions League with great vigour led by the goals of Wilfried Bony. Feyenoord travel to sixteenth placed Roda JC tomorrow with victory firmly on Koeman’s mind especially with it likely that PSV and Ajax will win their respective games against similarly lowly opposition Heerenveen and FC Zwolle.
What will serve Feyenoord well in these remaining nine fixtures is their defensive solidity which we saw in evidence on February 24th as the Rotterdam side kept PSV to just one goal in the 2-1 win at De Kuip which ended in controversy with Mathijsen and Jeremain Lens embroiled in a brawl come the full time whistle. Feyenoord’s four at the back on that day consisted of Stafan de Vrij, Joris Mathijsen, Bruno Martins Indi and Daryl Janmaat and they all played exceptionally with Tim Matavz, Dries Mertens and Jeremain Lens being essentially defended out of the game apart from a small number of instances including PSV’s opening goal following a well worked passing move from Lens and Matavz. What was even more impressive however was the way in which the three man midfield of Feyenoord pressed PSV in such a way when they had possession of the ball that the creative spark of Kevin Strootman and Georginio Wijnaldum could not stamp their influence on the game in the slightest. Watching the match from a Manchester United supporter’s perspective I was keen to see just how Kevin Strootman would fare against one of the stronger teams in the Dutch league however at times I was left wondering if in fact he was on the pitch at all, that was the impact Jordy Clasie and Lex Immers had on the match.
Furthermore in stopping Strootman and Wijnaldum having any influence and time on the ball it allowed the more creative Tonny Vilhena to express himself further up the pitch and help Feyenoord create chances, which they did. Vilhena was deployed in a way that surprised many against PSV with the youngster being positioned by Koeman in almost a box-to-box midfield role, this role whilst at times restricting the impact Vilhena can have in the attacking third of the field conversely utilises the Dutchman’s raw pace and energy allowing him to cover a lot of ground from the middle of the midfield through to the final third when Feyenoord are on the attack.
Do not be fooled however, Feyenoord are not simply a well oiled defensive side with the ability to occasionally counter attack, they can if the game requires it create numerous chances with the pace and passing ability spread across the three man midfield and the three man forward line. In recent weeks the emergence of Jean-Paul Boëtius and Anass Achahbar has really aided Feyenoord’s forward line with an almost over-reliance being placed on Graziano Pelle at times this season. Pelle has taken the goal scoring mantle from last season’s loanee John Guidetti who in retrospect should really be at Feyenoord once again this season with injuries hampering his current campaign at Eastlands with Manchester City. Boëtius expresses the pace of a winger yet the nimble footedness of a player in the trequartista mould and his recent performances in particular against PSV have earned him his debut call up to the Dutch national side. It is in no small part down to Pelle, Boëtius and Achahbar that Feyenoord have the third highest goals scored tally in the Eredivisie this season behind only PSV and Ajax however with those the teams above them in the table it may well be this that could cost Feyenoord when May comes around.
Feyenoord finished runners up to champions Ajax last season and Koeman following that disappointment will be determined to avoid the same outcome this season and it seems as though Feyenoord does have more about them when in the face of adversity this season with the most recent example being the match against PSV where Feyenoord came from a goal down to keep their title challenge alive and it is this resolve that will have to stay with Koeman’s charges as there will undoubtedly be bumpy moments in the next nine games but champions have to get through them. Feyenoord need to keep pressure on PSV and Ajax right up until those two sides meet on April 14th with that being the weekend when the title could swing in Feyenoord’s favour providing they beat RKC Waalwijk away from home.
In their current form and with their squad in the main at this point remaining injury free it is by far Feyenoord’s greatest chance to claim their fifteenth Dutch title since they last ruled Holland way back in 1999 and it will be with great intrigue that many will watch their remaining nine fixtures to see if their squad can keep their nerve in a pressure situation of the highest order and it is important to note that with many of Europe’s top clubs circling around their brightest talents this year may well be the best chance Feyenoord gets to win the Dutch title for the foreseeable future.