Ryan Ferguson takes a look at PSV Eindhoven’s start to the season, and how they can overcome their recent struggles.

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psv mloWe’re witnessing the most competitive start to an Eredivisie season in recent memory. After twelve matchdays, the top eight sides are separated by just three points, whilst bottom side NEC Nijmegen are only thirteen points adrift of table-topping AZ. It’s a thrilling ride, with the outcome of games and seasons changing with the merest of details.

When the margins of success and failure are so slim, teams search for any possible advantage, no matter how insignificant it may appear. For instance, fans read a lot into the suspension of Feyenoord captain Graziano Pellè, arguing that it may have a lasting impact on the Rotterdam clubs results; a notion seemingly scotched with their 2-0 victory over Cambuur this weekend. Similarly, concerns have been raised about the performances of Ajax forward Viktor Fischer this season, with many believing that more consistent displays are required from the Danish wunderkid if the Amsterdammers are to defend their crown for a fourth successive campaign. Thus, it becomes clear that, in this new, ultra-competitive Eredivisie, where the established powers seem to drop points at every opportunity, it’s ever more important for managers to have a full squad at their disposal if they wish to re-affirm their clubs superiority and take command of a stomach-churning title race.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Eindhoven, where Phillip Cocu is enduring the most challenging period of his managerial reign thus far. PSV are without a win in five games in all competitions, with recent defeats to Roda and Groningen scuppering their progress in the Eredivisie. At the weekend, they struggled to a 1-1 draw at home to PEC Zwolle, a result which leaves them in fifth place. In recent weeks, PSV have, for the first time, begun to feel the effects of losing many top-class players over the summer. Dries Mertens, Jeremain Lens and Kevin Strootman left for pastures new, whilst Mark van Bommel retired, effectively taking 43 goals and abundant quality out of the PSV side. It left a massive void.

In attempting to fill the gap, PSV got creative. A change of ethos saw the club transition away from the boom-and-bust days of recent memory and towards a new, sustainable and organic future. The promise of major investment in the clubs De Herdgang youth academy was substantiated by the hiring of a strategic team headed by Art Langeler to smooth the path for youngsters to the first team. Cocu, appointed alongside assistants Ernest Faber and Chris van der Weerden on four-year contracts, was the public spearhead of this culture change within PSV, and it’s most passionate advocate. Accordingly, Cocu has put unprecedented faith in youth. A pair of star-studded wingers, in Memphis Depay and Zakaria Bakkali, are just two of the teenagers to break through at the Philips Stadion this term, with both earning International call-ups recently as testament to their rapid development. In wider terms, Cocu has relied on other youngsters such as Jurgen Locadia and Adam Maher to fill the holes left behind by the aforementioned departing superstars. Earlier in the season, the youngest starting eleven in PSV’s one-hundred year history was fielded in a game against NEC, a quirk wholly indicative of Cocu’s new direction.

However, young players are by their very nature capricious. The consistency, awareness and responsibility which top-level experience brings is obviously lacking; many of the players have a raw and tenuous grasp of tactics, systems and the art of winning football matches when Plan A fails. In placing such thorough belief in youth, PSV were always bound to experience growing pains. As the clubs technical director Marcel Brands opined in a FourFourTwo interview this week, the current troubles of his young squad were far from unexpected: “you know relapse in this process is logical with a completely new team. As management and staff we were already prepared.” All the hallmark problems of a young team have been in evidence over the last four or five PSV games: Locadia has struggled for form when given the chance, Depay showed indiscipline when sent off against Roda, and the team has looked generally lacking in leadership. Such is the double-edged sword of highly-talented yet hugely-inexperienced young football players.

So, how are PSV to turn this run of poor form around?

A lot relies on the fitness of key experienced players. As mentioned previously, this is an Eredivisie in which managers need their best players ready and firing. Cocu has been simply unable to field his best eleven thus far, with Luciano Narsingh, Georginio Wijnaldum, Karim Rekik and Ji-Sung Park all struggling with lengthy injuries. These are perhaps the best players in the entire PSV squad, but they are yet to play a single minute all together on the field. Narsingh is a precious talent who possesses the guile and dynamism to unlock defences, a stark deficiency in PSV’s recent performances. Wijnaldum is the club captain, providing leadership and a fine touch around the penalty area. Rekik is a rock besides Jeffrey Bruma and is fast-becoming one of world football’s best defensive prospects. Park has years of invaluable experience and is the sage of the PSV squad. When the considerable attributes of players like these are removed from any side, it is going to struggle. In recent weeks, PSV have experienced this firsthand.

However, Narsingh and Rekik returned at the weekend against Zwolle, and now need only to build-up match fitness, which is a major boost for Cocu. Park will likely return from an ankle knock in the next fortnight, but Wijnaldum is out until the winter break with a back injury. Such is the conundrum for Phillip Cocu and PSV: they need their experienced players with proven quality to blend with the mercurial young starlets breaking through, yet a setback seems to linger around every corner.

When things do fall into place, though, with Wijnaldum, Narsingh and Rekik joining Maher, Bakkali and Bruma on the same pitch, PSV may have just what it takes to seize command of this unbelievable Eredivisie race.

Ryan Ferguson (23 Posts)