It was always going to be a difficult season for AZ Alkmaar as they had a reshuffle of their squad to deal with, the added exertions of Europa League football and the implentation of ample youngsters into their lineup. AZ are a team just a cut below the creme de la creme of the Eredivisie meaning their best players are not only snapped up by the vultures from the top European leagues but are hoovered up to the likes of Ajax and PSV too. In John Van Den Brom, the team have been lucky to have one of the elder statesmen in Eredivisie management terms to lead their team through a tricky time into much smoother waters.
The team have risen into the top four with six straight wins and apart from PSV, are the Eredivisie’s form team while also possessing the Eredivisie’s form player in Vincent Janssen who has scored nine since the end of the winter break. Nevertheless, it wasn’t always this easy for AZ as in the summer they lost Aron Johannson, Steven Berghuis and Nemanja Gudelj which stripped them of a bounty of their goals and top tier talent that had driven them into the Europa league. Van De Brom replaced them with the likes of youth products Joris Van Overeem and Dabney Dos Santos while the club also made shrewd additions from the Eerste Divisie in Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Vincent Janssen.
The team had a shotty first half of the season, only managing to string two consecutive wins together twice as Van Den Brom tinkered and toiled with his lineup. Jahabakhsh and Janssen were still adjusting to the intensity of the Dutch top flight as the club failed to find the form that had deserted them after a brilliant pre-season. They finished the first half of the season clinging to mid-table and now after six wins in their last six games, they sit in fourth place as they are only one point behind Heracles as their young squad has now gelled into an exciting unit.
Although they lost captain Jeffrey Gouweleeuw to Augsburg in the January transfer window, the additions of Ron Vlaar on a free transfer and Stijn Wuytens from Willem II have proved to be bargains as the two have banded together to form a sturdy defensive partnership. The partnership is definitely in it’s infancy as AZ have conceded 12 goals in six games but also have four clean sheets in their last six as the side becomes more resolute. The experience that a player like Vlaar can bring to a young team cannot be understated as he marshalled the Netherlands’ backline at the World Cup in Brazil.
Markus Henriksen was the standout player of the first half of the season as he took up the mantle left by Gudelj, who moved to Ajax. His ability to play intricate short passes and time his runs into the box to perfection made him a thorn in opponent’s sides. However, to be effective, he needs support in midfield as he needs a defensive support and a player who can string things together in midfield so he can create havoc in the final third. He found that in Joris Van Overeem who has three assists and two goals since the start of the second half of the season and Ben Rienstra who is the deepest lying midfielder in the three man-midfield. Van Den Brom seems to have found some continuity in a position where he has ample options with the likes of Celso Ortiz and Thom Haye providing stern competition.
Up front AZ possess one of the gems of Dutch football in Janssen who in a time where there is a deficit of talented young Dutch strikers coming through the ranks, has shown that there could be life after Klaas Jan-Huntelaar and Robin Van Persie. Like Van Persie, his roots are from Feyenoord’s fabled Varkenoord academy before he was discarded in 2013 and joined second-division side Almere City. He scored 19 goals in the Eerste Divisie last season and also impressed for the Dutch Youth side at the Toulon Tournament before joining AZ.
He had to contend with the pressure of being the club’s main striker after the loss of Johansson and has now found his stride and is growing in confidence. He scored a hat-trick against his old club Feyenoord which symbolised his qualites well as for the first, he latched on to a brilliantly curled Jahanbakhsh cross, the second he twisted and turned away from Sven Van Beek to lash a strike past Vermeer from a tight angle while the third was a simple tap-in.
The goals have been flowing of late as he has been nothing short of brilliant lately as his goal against Vitesse Arnheim was sublime as he flicked the ball over the head of his marker upon receiving it and beat Eloy Room with an audacious chip which bounced of the underside of the crossbar and in. He himself has found a stable support system with Jahabakhsh finally finding his rhythm with three assists and two goals from the right flank since the turn of the year while youngster Dos Santos has five assists in the second half of the season. This will stand the club in good stead as the club prepare to face Groningen at home and title contenders Ajax away in their next two games.
Van Den Brom said it would not surprise him if his talisman, Janssen was selected for the Dutch National Team next month. The signings have been testament to the club’s brilliant implementation of ‘moneyball’ techniques in their recruitment strategy as former Dutch baseball player Robert Eernhorn is their general director while Billy Beane acts as an advisor to the club. The club are also well-known for having an academy system which produces talented players as we have got to see winger Levi Garcia and Thomas Ouwejan make appearances recently as one can only hope that Van Den Brom who extended his contract to 2017 this season can maintain this group for at least another season.