The international break can be a frustrating time for football fans. When Europe’s top leagues shut down for a week as players turn-out for their national sides, a lack of club news often presents itself. However, for PSV, the recent round of World Cup Qualifiers brought cause for great celebration; the international debuts of Memphis Depay and Zakaria Bakkali constituting a major landmark in the growth of its youth system.
At De Herdgang, the impressive training complex for all levels of PSV, an emphasis on the production of talented players isn’t entirely new. In the past, players such as Boudewijn Zenden, Ibrahim Affelay, and Zakaria Labyad have all graduated through the ranks and featured prominently in the first team. Even Coen Dillen, a renowned legend who has a statue at the Philips Stadion entrance, was taught as a youth at PSV. The difference now is that the youth system has been placed at the very nucleus of the clubs long-term philosophy, with significant investment being channeled into the development of young players and a technical team headed by Art Langeler drafted in to oversee the academy’s progression. Now, youth talent is regarded as an intrinsic aspect of the PSV plan, rather than a useful coincidence.
Phillip Cocu and his coaching team are the public figureheads of this ethos. When the former PSV captain was appointed manager on a four-year contract in the summer, promising to enact this widespread belief in youngsters, a few core players were earmarked for more prominent roles. Memphis Depay and Zakaria Bakkali, a pair of lively and skillful wingers, were duly unleashed on the Eredivisie stage. In the first three months of the season, both have earned rave reviews with a succession of electrifying performances and breath-taking wonder goals; Depay netting five important goals thus far and Bakkali becoming the youngest player ever to score an Eredivisie hat-trick. The recent international call-ups were fine reward for two shining jewels of the PSV revolution.
Depay, a Dutch-born Ghanaian, joined PSV in 2006 at the age of twelve. In time, the enigmatic winger has found his niche, his style, his role within a team. While working with Cocu in the Jong PSV set-up and representing Oranje at three different youth levels, Depay began to distinguish himself as a genuine prospect for the first-team. When Cocu briefly assumed interim control in 2011, Depay was granted his PSV debut, scoring two and assisting another in an emphatic 8-0 demolition of Noordwijkerhout. He later featured in the Eredivisie, before continued improvement saw the forward make thirty appearances under Dick Advocaat last term, when he often impressed the fans of PSV with dynamic, explosive performances.
The new direction embarked upon by PSV this summer owed much to youngsters such as Depay, Bakkali, and Jurgen Locadia pressing for greater first team inclusion. Cocu has relied heavily on these players as the foundation to his squad. Depay, in particular, has repaid him with a growing list of sensational goals from long-range and set-pieces. When watching Memphis, it’s immediately evident that his footballing idol is Cristiano Ronaldo; many of Ronaldo’s famous mannerisms, from the free-kick technique to the powerful running stride, are visible in Depay’s play. It’s exciting to see such a talented homegrown player at the fore of a new PSV generation.
It’s also exciting to see products of the academy featuring in an uber-talented Dutch national side. Depay, a prominent member of the Dutch Under-21 squad which reached the European Championship semi-finals in the summer, was an unused substitute for the senior team in a September game against Estonia. However, Louis van Gaal summoned him from the bench for the final few minutes against Turkey in Istanbul on 15 October, thus granting Depay a full international debut. Whilst he had little time to impact the game, it was still a proud moment for PSV; another of its homegrown players breaking through on the international stage.
At roughly the same time 1,600 miles away in Brussels, Bakkali doubled the delight for PSV. The immensely-talented seventeen year old took the impressive step of debuting for a Belgium side experiencing its greatest ever epoch. If you thought playing within a galaxy of Belgian stars at such a tender age would faze the wide-man, you’re sadly mistaken. “Well, isn’t it just a game like any other?,” Bakkali deadpanned while talking with Belgian daily Het Nieuws Blad after the game in which he replaced Everton starlet Kevin Mirallas for the final twelve minutes. It was apparently just a routine day in the continual growth of a superstar. A growth which has already seen him score in the Champions League, fire the aforementioned historic hat-trick at Philips Stadion against NEC Nijmegen, and become an integral part of a vibrant young team.
Bakkali wasn’t always the most heralded prospect, however. In fact, only diehard fans and local journalist knew a great deal about him as he progressed through the youth ranks. However, Phillip Cocu has shown tremendous faith in his forward, who is averaging a goal every other game, and the hype has clearly extended to the international scene. While Moroccan football executives hoped that Bakkali would elect to represent their country, the enthusiasm of Belgian coach Marc Wilmots was likely a determining factor in Zakaria’s choice. Wilmots has already likened Bakkali to superstar Eden Hazard, opining that “Zakaria is a player who scores easily, is very fast and has skillful dribbling. He has just about the same profile as Eden.” No pressure, then.
The future is certainly bright for PSV, with such a stable of impressive youngsters. In a World Cup year, players are given greater motivating to produce their best form, which will only benefit both club and country. Bakkali already has his sights set on Brazil, stating that he’ll “do everything, truly everything, at PSV to be able to go to Brazil. That is my big dream!” Thus, the advantages of international football become clear: PSV will have a motivated Bakkali striving to impress Wilmots and earn a place on the plane to Brazil which, in turn, will help sustain the phenomenal level of performance which he has shown, and help PSV in their quest for an Eredivisie title.
Ultimately, however, all of this comes back to Cocu and his vision. If his thorough belief in youth is to be vindicated, the cases of Depay and Bakkali must continue to be replicated. There is ample reason to believe that, with continued investment in youth development and the bright ideas from those in charge, they will. Every young player currently being taught at De Herdgang must hold these fully-fledged internationals as role models and standard-bearers. The rise to international prominence of such homegrown talents must act as inspiration. If we see more like Memphis and Zakaria in the coming years, PSV may seriously threaten Ajax and Feyenoord as traditional seats of young Dutch talent.
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