Up until a few years ago, I will admit I didn’t hold the Dutch Eredivisie in particularly high regard. I saw it as a closed shop. One year Ajax would win, the next year it would be PSV and the next year Feyenoord. This footballing oligarchy never made for good viewing, in my eyes.
Then it all changed. A few years ago a little known manager named Martin Jol took little-fancied Heerenveen into the Champion’s League. There was no longer a “big three”; there was now a big five or six. Last year the top two were AZ Alkmaar and FC Twente – a pairing which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
This is another year of great change in Dutch football, with five out of the top six clubs changing their managers in the summer break (who would’ve thought Steve McClaren would be the only manager in the top six to keep his job when he was announced as Twente manager).
One of these managers is the aforementioned Martin Jol, who comes to Ajax on the back of successful spells at Tottenham and Hamburg. Jol has wasted no time in bringing journeyman full-back Timothee Atouba with him from Hamburg to replace Arsenal-bound Tom Vermaelen, and also completed the signing of Dutch international midfielder Demy DeZeeuw from rivals AZ Alkmaar. Ajax will look to win their first Eredivisie in six years, and are my tip for the title. Their potent attack of Luis Suarez, Miralem Sulejmani and talented playmaker Ismael Aisatti (sometimes referred to as “the next big thing”) should see them through, especially with talk of the club signing a big-name striker on loan before the end of the summer.
AZ Alkmaar will have to learn to cope with out their star midfielder from last season Demy DeZeeuw, although new signing Pontus Wernbloom is tipped to fill the gap along with club stalwart Stijn Schaars. New manager Ronald Koeman will hope that strikers Moussa Dembele and Mounir El Hamdaoui (formerly of Tottenham) can replicate the form the showed last season. AZ will probably battle with PSV for second spot, although a good start could see them challenge Ajax. Kew Jaliens should be rock-solid at the back and striker Ari is also one to watch.
Steve McClaren’s FC Twente suffered a big blow earlier in the summer when they two of last seasons stars, Eljero Elia and Edson Braafheid both departed for foreign shores. Twente will now rely on Slovakian Miroslav Stoch to provide flair and creativity in midfield and could struggle to finish near last season’s second place if the squad is not strengthened further.
Like Ajax, PSV Eindhoven are also hungry for the Eredivisie, after they lost out last season for the first time in four seasons. Fred Rutten has lost French defender Jeremie Brechet and Aussie Jason Culina has returned home but the new boss (formerly manager of Twente and Schalke, as well as assistant at PSV) promptly replaced the pair with veteran Andre Ooijer and midfielder Orlando Engelaar, brought by Rutten with him from Schalke. Hard working Engelaar can count Ruud Gullit among his fans, and is enjoying a great late bloom in his career (Engelaar is now 28).The new manager will look to do better than last season’s fourth place finish and the brilliant Ibrahim Afellay will be central to his plans.
Heerenveen won the Dutch cup last season and finished in fifth position. Much of their success could be built on the talent of Ivorian striker (older brother of Chelsea’s Salomon) and the signing of beanpole Czech striker Michal Papadopolus should spur Kalou into doing better than last season’s two goals in seventeen appearances. Warhorse forward Gerald Sibon (once of Sheffield Wednesday), former PSV midfielder Mika Vayrynen and Norwegian midfielder Christian Grindheim will all be keys to Heerenveen success, although much will depend on whether the attack can gel together and work effectively. A similar position should be on the cards though.
One of only three clubs never relegated from the top flight, Feyenoord have had a difficult time lately. De Club van Zuid haven’t won a league title this century, with their last trophy being the Dutch cup two seasons ago. Last season’s seventh-placed finish was dissapointing, and Het Legioen (Dutch for “The Legion”; the name for Feyenoord supporters. The number 12 jersey is never given to a player, it belongs to The Legion) will hope that the club can do better. There’s a new manager – Mario Been – but not many changes apart from that. On paper, Feyenoord have a very strong side, with international quality all the way through. Captain Kevin Hofland and Tim De Cler marshal the defence, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst still thunders down the wing along with the promising Diego Biseswar, Canadian Jonathan De Guzman is creative in midfield, and Roy Makaay and Jon Dahl Tomasson add the finishes up front. Been needs to address the underlying issues which undermine the consistency in the Feyenoord camp, be they psychological or otherwise. If he manages to give the team a winning mentality, Feyenoord could indeed surprise a lot of people.
Groningen will look to hold on to their sixth spot, although sustaining last years form will be difficult. NAC Breda, Vitesse Arnhem, ADO Den Haag and Utrecht will all also have their own ambitions of getting in to the top five.
RKC Waalwijk look like the weakest team in the division and along with Roda JC , VVV Venlo, Willem II and Heracles they will battle against the drop to the Eerste Divisie.
The Eredivisie is a league which can be turned upside-down very quickly, one where it is possible for a small club (if effectively managed) to succeed. This season it will feature some of the best up-and-coming players in the world. Look out for the aforementioned Ismael Aisatti, Ibrahim Afellay, Georginio Wijnaldum at Feyenoord and Genaro Zeefuik (when he returns from a loan period) at PSV.