It’s no secret that these days, money has a huge influence in football, with the strongest clubs in the world mainly being the richest too. The financial situation has also created a huge gap between European leagues, with top sides from less wealthy league’s struggling to compete with those from England, Spain and Germany in particular writes Fin Crebolder.
In the Dutch Eredivisie, clubs have never been big spenders, but have instead created great sides mainly through either developing players in their own youth system, or buying players from abroad at a young age. In both cases, the players would usually reach their peak at the club, allowing the team to compete with the best, before moving on to a major European league. However, since the billionaire owners and the huge TV licensing deals have come into play, this has rarely happened, as the Eredivisie top talents are signed by the rich European clubs before they reach their peak. Gone are the days of great Dutch European sides such as the Ajax team of 1998, with mid-table clubs in major leagues such as Southampton and Newcastle now being more appealing to exciting young talents than the traditional giants of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. As these Dutch clubs all suffer the same fate, teams can be built that look excellent domestically, but simply are not good enough to compete with the bigger and richer teams in Europe. However, this was of course not always the case. There was a time, not so long ago, where a Dutch team went toe to toe with the best in Europe. And what a team it was.
It was 2004, and PSV Eindhoven were not in the best state. They had just lost out on the Eredivisie title to rivals Ajax, and Chelsea, recently bought out by a rather wealthy Russian man, had signed two of their key players, Arjen Robben and Mateja Kezman. To make matters worse, the chairman Rob Westerhof and the board had constantly clashed with manager Guus Hiddink regarding financial matters. Whilst off the pitch the situation may not have been good, as soon as the season started it became apparent that these problems had not affected the on pitch performance of the club, with them still possessing one of the strongest squads in Europe, not just the league.
In goal was the new signing Heurelho Gomes, who after initial struggles and question marks, became a fan favourite, often bailing the team out with his reflexes and acrobatic, if somewhat erratic style. However, he was not called upon all that often due to the defence in front of him. Starting at right back was club legend Andre Ooijer, who had been at the club since 1997. Whilst he was not a marauding and exciting full back, he more than made up for it with his defensive solidity. Wilfred Bouma led the defence from the centre, being partnered by the 21 year old Brazilian Alex, who was on loan from Chelsea, and would remain so for three years. Completing the defence was the more adventurous and attacking of the two full backs, Lee Young-pyo, who Hiddink brought to PSV after the two worked together at the 2002 World Cup. His incredible speed and stamina allowed him to constantly run up and down the left side, becoming a key player for PSV in both defence and attack.
Whilst the defence was very impressive, it was the midfield of PSV that truly made them one of the European elite. In the holding role of the three was Johann Vogel, whose work often went unnoticed. With an excellent tackle and intelligent positioning, Vogel would sit in front of and protect the defence, allowing his two midfield partners to make an impact further forward, and they did just that. Phillip Cocu had just been brought back to PSV after an extremely successful six year spell at Barcelona, and became a key player, playing as the most attacking of the three midfielders, often getting forward and posing a goalscoring threat, shown by the ten goals he scored, but also tracking back and putting in excellent defensive work in tougher games. What Cocu lacked in technical ability he more than made up for with his work rate and off the ball movement. The third and arguably most important cog in the PSV midfield was club captain Mark Van Bommel, who was simply the complete midfielder. Often starting in a deeper position, Van Bommel would relentlessly press the opposition and more often than not win the ball. However, contrary to popular believe, there was far more to his game than just brute force, as he was often the creative hub of the team with his excellent range of passing and set piece abilities. This midfield three was wonderfully balanced, with all three players possessing excellent technical, mental and physical abilities between them, making them an efficient and at times unbreakable machine.
As said, the midfield was the key to this team, providing stability and balance, but that’s not to say the attack wasn’t equally as impressive. Usually on the right was Park Ji-Sung, arguably the side’s player of the season behind Van Bommel. He had struggled for first team opportunities after joining with Lee following the 2002 World Cup, but after the departure of Arjen Robben, he was given a chance in the starting lineup, and took it. He may not has possessed the unbelievable attacking abilities of Robben, but more than made up for it with his work rate in both pressing the opposition in their own half and man marking players into his own. This is not to say he lacked attacking ability. At the time Park was extremely quick and possessed impressive passing and crossing ability, shown by the ten goals and six assists he got. On the opposite side of the attack, Farfan and Beasley, the two players brought in to replace Arjen Robben, competed for the starting spot, with Farfan usually taking it. As they were brought in to replace Robben, both of these players were far more attacking and direct than Park, often running directly at the opposition defence with their pace and dribbling, making them key to PSV counter attacks, whilst off the ball they would make runs behind the defences. Leading the line for PSV was Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink. After signing in 2001, Vennegoor of Hesselink struggled, and before the start of the 2004/05 season looked set to leave. However, after Kezman left for Chelsea, he too was given a chance in the first team and became an important player, with his physicality key to the side. He often held the ball up before laying it off to one of the onrushing Cocu, Park or Farfan, and was also a threat inside the box both in the air and on the ground, finishing the season as the side’s top scorer with 19 goals.
STYLE OF PLAY
This side was very different to the traditional great Dutch sides. Rather than focusing on possession and freedom of movement, Hiddink set up this team to be fast, direct and efficient. They were defensively sound, not only due to the individual quality of the defenders, but the structure of the midfield in front of it.
Off the ball, Vogel and Van Bommel would form a double pivot in front of the defence with Cocu pushing slightly further forward to press the opposition, forming a stable 4-2-3-1 formation, with Park tracking back on the right to protect the solid but aging Andre Oojier, who would then tuck in and sit narrower and deeper to his fellow full back. The protection provided by the midfield meant that the central defenders would rarely have to press the opposition midfield, allowing them to sit deeper and mark the attackers, making it extremely difficult for the opposition to find space near the PSV box.
On the ball the team was still a largely structured unit, but were certainly more fluid than off the ball. Van Bommel would push higher up, leaving Vogel as the lone holding midfielder and changing the formation to a more attacking 4-3-3, where Cocu would push even further forward most of the time, although he sometimes swapped roles with Van Bommel. On the left side of the pitch, Farfan would often drift into the position of left striker, leaving space for Lee to bombard forward and provide a cross for one of Vennegoor of Hesselink, Farfan, Park or Cocu to get on the end of, with Van Bommel lurking outside the area ready to recover the ball or release a long shot. On the right was Park, who was given the most free role in the team, often drifting central behind the striker, and this, coupled with Farfan’s movement created a diamond shape in the team. This was also beneficial defensively at times, as it allowed Park to mark and harass the opposition defensive midfielder (I’m sure you’ve all heard those Pirlo quotes).
The team’s main philosophy was quick transitions, aiming to get the ball from one of the pitch to the other as quickly as possible. This does not mean that they were a long ball side who simply punted it forward to Vennegoor of Hesselink, but instead moved up the pitch quickly through either the individual pace of Park, Lee or Farfan, or through the excellent passing ability of the midfield, and Van Bommel in particular. The creative ability of the midfield along with the pace and movement of the wingers made this strategy extremely successful, with Vennegoor of Hesselink also key to it, holding up the ball with his back to goal before setting up one of the onrushing players.
In their first three matches of the league season, they managed to score 15 goals, and this was reflective of their domestic season, as they stormed to the league title, finishing ten points ahead of Ajax, who they beat 4-0 in the ArenA in one of their many scintillating displays. They finished the season with 87 points, 89 goals and just one defeat, a quite incredible record. They managed to complete the domestic double when they won the KNVB Beker, breezing past Willem II 4-0 in the final, after defeating Feyenoord on penalties in the semi-final. Whilst their domestic achievements were undeniably impressive, there have been many great Eredivisie title winning sides over the years. These teams achievement among the European elite is what set them apart from other Dutch sides of recent times.
After breezing through the play off, PSV were drawn in a group with Rosenborg, Panathinaikos and Arsenal. In the group stages, their first game was their toughest, as they faced arsenal at the Emirates. Despite a strong defensive performance, they lost 1-0 due to an Alex own goal just before half time. They followed this with a 1-0 win over Panathinaikos, a 2-1 win away at Rosenborg and a 1-0 win over them in the return leg. They entered the home game against Arsenal two points clear at the top of the group, and managed a creditable 1-1 draw to maintain this advantage going into the final game. However, they played their worst performance of the season in the final group game, losing 4-1 to Panathinaikos, and finishing 2nd.
In the first knockout round they were drawn against Monaco, who had topped their group above Liverpool. Like in the group stages, PSV were excellent defensively, scoring early on through a Alex set piece in the first leg before holding a 1-0 lead to take to Monaco, where they put in an excellent performance, scoring a goal in each half through attackers Vennegoor of Hesselink and Beasley to win 3-0 on aggregate against a largely fancied side.
In the quarter-finals they were drawn against an even stronger French side, Lyon, the team who had won three consecutive league titles and were storming the French league yet again, and also finished above Manchester United in their Champions League group. Lyon’s class was clear straight away, as they came racing out of the blocks and were 1-0 up after twelve minutes. They continued to dominate PSV and Heurelho Gomes was inspired in the PSV goal, single handedly keeping it at 1-0 going into halftime. However, in the second half PSV looked like a different side, starting to take control of the game and equalising through Cocu in the 80th minute, giving them a crucial away goal to take back home. In the second leg, it was clear that both sides were nervous, as both failed to play to the best of their ability. However, like in the first leg, Lyon managed to score early again, this time after a mistake from Bouma, and things were looking bleak for PSV, as the rest of the half was poor. After half time, PSV got that all important goal through a superb Alex volley, but it did not provide the spark to their performance, and the scrappy game continued through the rainy night, until penalties loomed. The Dutch side held their nerve, with Gomes the hero again, saving two penalties, and sending PSV to the last four of the Champions League. Their opponents? AC Milan.
This was an AC Milan team of incredible quality, boasting the likes of Cafu, Maldini, Pirlo, Kaka, Seedorf and Shevchenko in their illustrious squad. They topped Barcelona in the group stages, and beat Manchester United and fierce rivals Inter Milan in the knockout stages, and were unsurprisingly heavy favourites against this PSV side. The following matches would define this PSV team, and ensure they went down in history as one of the great Dutch sides.
The first leg was played at the San Siro, and Hiddink set the side up in a diamond formation in an attempt to match AC Milan man for man, whilst also giving Park a more central role to both mark Pirlo off the ball and drive at the heart of the AC Milan defence of it. Vennegoor of Hesselink was left on the bench as Hiddink went for pace in attack, hoping to counter attack Milan with Beasley and Farfan. For the first fifteen minutes of the match, PSV were under siege from AC Milan, barely surviving the constant attacks thrown at them. However, the defence (just about) held on and by the twenty minute mark the Dutch side began to gain a foothold on the game, largely due to the performances of midfield duo Van Bommel and Cocu. Park’s direct running was also causing AC Milan all sorts of problems, with Farfan missing a golden chances after springing the offside trap. This warning woke Milan up who began to press forward again, forcing Gomez into two excellent stops from Kaka. However, just before half time, Shevchenko got the goal to send Milan into half-time with a deserved 1-0 lead. I don’t know what Hiddink said during the break to his players, but it must have been some speech, because a different side came out in the second half. PSV dominated and created chance after chance, with Park, Lee and Farfan all guilty of failing to finish. Vennegoor of Hesselink was brought on with half an hour left, allowing PSV to go more “route one”, with Van Bommel being the next to miss a chance, narrowly hitting over the bar from close range. Ultimately though, the effort had worn the PSV players out, and AC Milan finished the game strongly, pushing forward and getting a crucial (and very avoidable on PSV’s part) second goal from Tomasson. A lapse in concentration had left them with it all to do.
Going into the second leg, PSV had to score at least two unanswered goals against a side who had only conceded two goals all season in the Champions League. Ooijer was suspended whilst Beasley was injured, meaning Theo Lucius and Vennegoor of Hesselink were given the nod, with the team playing their usual 4-3-3 formation. They startled AC Milan with their high paced start, constantly pressing to win the ball and running directly forward with it. This intense start paid off when Park put PSV ahead after just nine minutes when he drifted inside from the right and finished off an excellent move. This put a real spring in the Dutch side’s step, with them maintaining their high intensity for the rest of the half, although they couldn’t find that second goal. The second half was more of the same, with the home crowd louder than ever before, and they would only get louder after Cocu equalised with a header following excellent wing play by the marauding Lee. Farfan, who had arguably been the star of the show, continued to tear apart the Milan defence and force multiple saves from Dida. With ten minutes left, PSV were pressing for the winner whilst Milan, who had no shots on target, seemed content to survive to extra time. However, in the 90th minute, PSV hearts were broken, when captain Van Bommel lost Ambrosini, the man he was marking, who headed home an excellent Kaka cross. Although Cocu managed to score a simply stunning volley only a minute later to make it 3-1, it was too late, and PSV were cruelly knocked out on away goals against a team they had well and truly outplayed and outclassed over two legs. In true Dutch fashion, they had a team capable of winning it, but fell at the (semi) final hurdle, Football, ay? It’s a cruel mistress.
Unsurprisingly, the financial superpowers in football took notice of the excellent talent at PSV and sadly the best Dutch club side since 1998 was largely ripped apart. In defence, both Bouma and Lee couldn’t resist the temptation of the English top flight, moving to Aston Villa and Tottenham respectively. However, the real losses came in midfield where Vogel went to AC Milan, Park joined Manchester United in a big money move, and Van Bommel left on a free transfer to Barcelona. They all left Eindhoven as club icons, beloved by the fans, and Park, Van Bommel and Bouma would all return to the club in the swansong of their careers, receiving a heroes welcome. PSV still managed to win the Eredivisie the following season, but didn’t have the quality to replicate their incredible Champions League run, falling to Lyon in the first knockout round.
As I said at the start of this article, these days it is very rare for a Eredivisie side to be able to hold on to key players and build a side capable of competing on the European front like they used to. However, this wonderfully talented side showed just what can happen when it does happen, when everything just clicks, and we can only hope that, in this game dominated by money, another Eredivisie side manages to build and maintain a team even half as good. With billionaire owners and TV licensing deals hurtling more and more money into the major leagues, it may take a while for this to happen, but I assure you, if it’s anything like this PSV side, it’ll be worth the wait.
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