PSV Eindhoven fan Ryan Ferguson analyses the clubs Eredivisie campaign as fans begin to grow weary at another title failure.

  • By Ryan Ferguson
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psv end of seasonThere is plenty of unrest in Eindhoven. A sixth consecutive season without an Eredivisie crown is testing the patience of PSV fans. When a club of such renown endures a drought of this magnitude, questions are bound to be asked on the slippery slope towards crisis. Indeed, a recent statement from seven fan associations highlighted the concern of many PSV supporters; a hard-line group placing on record their complete lack of faith in a management hierarchy which has delivered very little. PSV fans have suffered quietly in past years, but the wholly indifferent conclusion to this sorry season has fed anxiety and fueled protest. In essence, people feel that PSV have taken two steps back across the board, from player recruitment to on-field expectations, and fear that the club is venturing so far from its traditional base as a perennial powerhouse as to make any return improbable. Quite alarmingly, tales from another broken campaign serve to substantiate such claims.

In terms of analysing a barren PSV season, we’ve been here before. All too often. But this time, the tone is somewhat more desperate. Since Sef Vergoosseen steered PSV to glory as Eredivisie champions in 2007/08, the club has struggled for direction and momentum. A host of managers came and went, ranging from Huub Stevens and Dwight Lodeweges to Fred Rutten and Dick Advocaat, each failing to win a Title or restore the club to Champions League participation yet altering endlessly the personnel, identity and tactics. In 2010, Marcel Brands arrived as technical director, promising to right the ship. However, club philosophy has been definitively capricious under his aegis; PSV oscillating between bold transfer campaigns and overzealous youth movements in the past four years. All with an air of panic. All without winning.

Thus, occasional disappointment has morphed into annual frustration for PSV fans, who are increasingly distrustful of any Brands-led management. At best, PSV supporters are skeptical and suspicious of his dealings; at worst, they’re vociferous in calling for his immediate dismissal. The aforementioned statement, produced in unison by seven prominent fan groups, questions how PSV could be allowed to stoop to such a worrisome nadir, and is rather explicit in laying a majority of blame at Brands’ door. “For years, the sports climate has completely disappeared at PSV,” reads the published declaration. “Every season, the board itself hides behind excuses like player fitness. The need to perform and to compete for the highest places is not a must anymore, but a nice touch. Gone is the elite culture where you have to account for missing out on a Title. Gone is the culture in which we can showcase our players in the Champions League. Gone is the culture in which there is unity on the field, in the stands, on De Herdgang and across Eindhoven. Until now.”
The statement, spearheaded by groups such as Lighttown Madness and PSV Fans United, concludes that, after six fruitless years, “it’s time for a completely new board this season!”

Indeed, Brands’ flagship drive towards a more sustainable, youth-centric PSV appears to have stumbled out of the gate this term. In the distant aftermath of financial turmoil and the immediate wake of losing several prominent players, Brands’ embraced a new direction last summer. Instead of chasing expensive, volatile transfer targets, it was decided that funds would be funneled into bolstering the clubs youth department. Furthermore, transfers would be made only for players befitting the new profile, the new ethos, the new financial model. However, a host of cornerstone stars, such as Georginio Wijnaldum, Adam Maher and Luciano Narsingh, have been missing for extensive periods through injury and poor form. Jürgen Locadia and Zakaria Bakkali have been infuriatingly inconsistent. Even Memphis Depay, undoubtedly the most productive player at PSV this season, remains a raw prospect. The streamlined approach which Brands’ envisaged has yet to really get off the ground. In some quarters, it has been argued that Brands’ new philosophy is but a tool for financial parity; his aim merely to sign younger, cheaper players as a cost-cutting measure. Whilst remaining economically prudent is crucial for a club like PSV, many fans feel that Brands has become almost obsessed with a clean balance sheet, neglecting the creation of a capable, balanced, varied, mentally-strong football team in the process.

It almost feels like PSV are looking merely at price tags when shopping, rather than actual talent, character and squad needs. For instance, the club signed Florian Jozefzoon for buttons and Ji-Sung Park on loan, when providing competition at left-back, central midfield and centre-forward was arguably more pertinent. Admittedly, Santiago Arias looks an absolute steal at € 800,000, and Stijn Schaars has proved a more than adequate return on a similar investment, but the regularity with which PSV are finding such hidden gems has devolved in recent years.

Ultimately, Marcel Brands should be applauded for delivering improved financial results and integrating potential-filled phenoms into the squad, but many PSV fans worry that their technical director has lost sight of the main, over-arching objective which drives any large club: winning.

When you’re technical director of PSV Eindhoven, any philosophical or policy adjustments should be made amid a backdrop of continuous success. The history, status and identity of this club hinges on victory. Evidently, it’s what the fans demand. In previous eras, domestic success was taken almost as a prerequisite for PSV. Now, it may take a radical upturn for the club to win its 22nd Title. Such facts damage Marcel Brands’ remit to govern.

The critical fan statement also raises concerns about the “elite sporting culture” at PSV. Essentially, those fans more accustomed to the halcyon days of Gullit and Ronaldo and Romario and Van Nistelrooy and Van Bommel and Robben and Kežman and Cocu are hurting. We miss like a hole in the head those classy players, those magical teams, those wondrous nights. But, in failing to qualify regularly for the Champions League, PSV can no longer afford to harbour such players. The revenue generated from being in that elite competition acted almost as life support to this football club through its prominent boom; an income stream which the club came to rely upon as grist for expansive living but ultimately took for granted. Once PSV collapsed from perennial contention at the very top of Dutch football, that income was simply taken away. Accordingly, the change to a more financially-prudent philosophy, replete with salary cap, has limited the calibre of player willing to embrace Eindhoven. Thus, the club is often forced to sign players which many people believe simply aren’t good enough to consistently produce the success which many generations of PSV fans are accustomed to. Indeed, the featured statement argues that some players and executives are content with fourth place. As a PSV fan, I totally agree. I don’t wish to display any disrespect, nor apply blame to individuals, but winning an Eredivisie crown would be a monumental achievement for players such as Florian Jozefzoon, Luciano Narsingh, Jurgen Locadia and Abel Tamata. To players of that ilk, an Eredivisie winners medal would likely represent the pinnacle of a career. In line with their career trajectories, it would be more aberration than routine.Therefore, how can these players represent, never mind thrive with, a mighty club whose fanbase demands routine success as standard?

Of course, the aforementioned players have talent and, as youngsters, have a chance to evolve and develop into proven winners. But that can only happen if PSV is providing the correct coaching, the correct opportunities, and the correct environment for its players. In recent seasons, the club has invested a lot in potential, rather than ability. Now, it may be time to assess critically whether the tangibles are in place to enable much-needed progress. To steal the slogan from a recent Ultras’ protest, PSV directors may need a “wake-up call.”

Obviously, the aforementioned fan groups have thought extensively about a culprit for the current state of nothingness at PSV. They arrived squarely at the door of Brands and Sanders, whilst also questioning the readiness of Head Coach Phillip Cocu and the lack of football knowledge on a malfunctioning Advisory Board.

However, one must consider the very roots of this tailspin. PSV failed to win an Eredivisie Title in the two seasons preceding Brands’ arrival. By the time he assumed control, any assumption of guaranteed Champions League participation had been demolished. Perhaps more culpability should be apportioned to Ronald Koeman who, after guiding PSV to an epic Eredivisie Title, fled for Valencia in October 2007, throwing the clubs long-term planning into disarray. Perhaps we should blame Jan Reker, who promised to “cleanse” the club as General Manager but ultimately failed to map out a long-term plan or appoint a progressive manager. Perhaps we should blame Huub Stevens, who as manager was cantankerous and historically bad. Perhaps we should blame the players he so evidently fell-out with; the players who revolted against him as the club slipped shamefully from its perch. Perhaps we should blame Fred Rutten for being Fred Rutten.

A lot of people have been complicit in the relative demise of PSV. That fact is often overlooked.

In a similar regard, the actual players should be scrutinized in greater detail. Marcel Brands and Tiny Sanders and Phillip Cocu can only do so much. For instance, Brands can identify Adam Maher as a primary transfer target; Sanders can sanction his acquisition; Cocu can deploy him in the team. But what if Adam Maher does not produce? The options available to executives should a player suddenly fail to perform are somewhat limited. A certain responsibility must be assumed by the player and, this season in particular, too many have failed to do so.

All hitherto points to one undeniable fact: PSV need a leader. At times this season, the team simply collapsed in big games; initial lapses in concentration dealing an almost terminal blow to the confidence of players who showed little resistance. Feyenoord twice beat PSV easily. Heerenveen hammered the Eindhoven side. Vitesse inflicted a 2-6 mauling in the most gruesome crime scene I’ve ever witnessed. However, the match against Ajax in Amsterdam encapsulated finely how PSV so yearn for a real leader. Cocu’s side showed attacking invention in the early stages, but profligacy in front of goal kept Ajax in the game. Ultimately, PSV were undone by the folly of youth; Kolbeinn Sigþórsson capitalising on a momentary glitch in the focus of Bruma & Rekik to score. Once Ajax were ahead, all hope seemed lost for PSV. The floodgates opened.

In this article analysing the game, I explain how Marcel Brands must act like a major technical director in recruiting an experienced midfield anchor to replace Kevin Strootman and Mark van Bommel. An excerpt from that article remains true as PSV prepare for their summer transfer drive:

PSV need a Champions League-calibre player to take over the mantle from Strootman and van Bommel. Admittedly, that is easier said than done. Since enduring financial difficulties a few years back, PSV have tried to progress from the old days of boom-and-bust to a more sustainable future. A salary cap has been instituted, and Brands has targeted players who fit into the long-term plan. However, an injection of proven quality is needed if that future plan is to work. Whilst signing an experienced defensive midfielder may contradict the club’s new youth movement, such a deal need not sacrifice the timetable for future success; the addition of a strong anchor may in fact prove to be the catalyst which sets this long-term strategy alight. Just like every solar system requires a sun about which to orbit, PSV need a splash of experienced quality to expedite the rebuilding process.”

Indeed, an established midfield powerhouse remains the most important item on Brands’ shopping list. PSV have a squad of highly-skilled, physically-excellent players. However, as Bruma & Rekik have shown on numerous occasions, such raw prospects require a fearsome leader on whom to rely for reminders and prompts about the mental side of football. Even players like Jetro Willems, Adam Maher, Zakaria Bakkali and Jurgen Locadia would benefit immensely from a central reference point on the pitch; a true leader to feel accountable to and perhaps even a little scared of. Furthermore, Wijnaldum and Depay would be liberated from carrying such an additional burden.

As I conclude in the aforementioned article, PSV need a “quality combative anchor in midfield with the heart, intelligence and passion to provide security and inculcate a message of awareness throughout a whole game.” If they can find one, this whole regeneration scenario moves on to the next step.

In retrospect, the fact that Cocu was essentially forced to manage this entire season without such a player is a damning indictment of Brands’ ability to construct a balanced squad. Whether his hand was forced by the failure of previous regimens, or whether a decision of his own accord, Brands surely knew the perils of an all-encompassing faith in youth. When constructing this team, the technical director must have been aware that young players are bound to struggle; that they encounter difficulty when acclimatising to a rigorous fixture schedule and growing responsibilities placed upon them; that they can be inconsistent and over-exuberant and undisciplined; that they know very little about the art of winning football matches. These are facts.

So when things started to unravel, why did Brands sit back and do nothing? Why didn’t he invest in a leader of greater skill than Stijn Schaars, of greater volume than Park Ji-Sung? Why did he leave this group of talented kids so exposed? Well, that is difficult to answer. In all likelihood, Marcel simply fell in-love with the exceeding potential of this team; with the exquisitely-exciting football it produced in August.

We all did.

It’s easy to forget just how phenomenal PSV were out of the gate this season. At one point, they looked like real Title contenders, playing an attractive brand of vibrant, dynamic football which produced goals and victories aplenty. Zulte Waregem were dispatched with swagger in the Champions League. NEC Nijmegen were demolished 5-0 by the youngest ever starting line-up fielded by PSV Eindhoven. Zakaria Bakkali terrorised defenders and became the youngest player ever to score an Eredivisie hat-trick. Even Ajax were thumped 4-0 by a rambunctious PSV. We were all so proud and giddy.

Such is the neurotic nature of a youth football. It’s able to produce these moments of extreme inspiration and terrible failure in near-equal measure. PSV fans experienced the whole spectrum this season, in a roller-coaster ride which will never be forgotten.

When the season started drifting towards oblivion, results and performances were often historically-bad. Not in two or three generations have PSV fans endured a more dreadful stretch than that which occurred between October and December 2013. At times, it was just unbearable. In addition to the aforementioned defeats against Feyenoord and Vitesse, PSV were beaten by Groningen, Roda and NAC within a seven week period which ravaged their season. Furthermore, ignominious losses to minnows such as Ludogorets and Chornomorets saw Cocu’s men crash out of Europe amid tremendous humiliation.

The loss of Wijnaldum to long-term injury, coupled with under-performing stars, left PSV with few options to alter the negative course of events. As confidence drained from the camp, PSV lacked cohesion, lacked symbiosis, lacked a common spirit. When watching games, the team more often resembled a collection of frustrated individuals striving for their own targets, rather than a close-knit group inspired by the objectives of PSV.

Additionally, this lack of confidence and togetherness was underscored by wastefulness in front of goal and frailty in defensive midfield areas. Throughout the Eredivisie season, PSV averaged 16.7 shots per game, 6.3 of which were typically on target. In total, they scored just 60 league goals, some 43 fewer than Dick Advocaat’s swashbuckling team of 2012/13. Just like twelve months ago, defensive inconsistency undermined any burgeoning Title hopes. PSV averaged 17.9 tackles per game, 4th worst in the entire league. Admittedly, this statistic is distorted by their penchant for dominating possession and dictating matches, but the fact remains: this was far from the rigorous, combative, aggressive style which defined PSV under dominant coaches such as Guus Hiddink.

To that end, extracting any modicum of success from this season is largely impossible without the return of Eindhoven’s legendary coach. In February, Hiddink returned as an adviser to Cocu and his coaching staff. Almost immediately, PSV embarked on a sensational run of form, including eight consecutive victories that shot the club back into contention for a 41st consecutive season. Hiddink was available to players, management and staff, imparting his wisdom and providing pointers on football’s finer nuances. PSV displayed far more spirit. A roaring comeback at Go Ahead was reminiscent of old Hiddink teams; full of character and commitment to match skill. They were gritty again, taking a systematic approach to victory and progress. They were confident and determined, eager to put right their previous misdemeanors. They were simply fantastic.

The protest statement circulated by PSV fans earlier last week even scrutinised this upturn in results. In essence, they see it as something of a shallow, substance-less achievement; produced by means, namely Guus Hiddink and Bryan Ruiz, which won’t be available to the club next term. The statement conveys a worrisome air about the fate of PSV once Hiddink takes charge of Oranje and Ruiz returns to Fulham. How will the club fare in their absence? That is largely unknown.

This can be used as further evidence to demonstrate how Brands routinely contradicts his own ethos’ when constructing a team. All too often, he panics and overpays for a player or policy which doesn’t mesh with the clubs current philosophy. How does the signing of Ruiz, an expensive veteran, tally with the newly-sanctioned youth drive? What does the instant success under adviser Hiddink say about the incumbent staff? The fans statement has a clear idea, arguing that it shows the “lack of elite sports culture” and demonstrates how current management is “not equal to a level the fans are accustomed to.”

So where does the club go from here? The suggestions made in this fan statement must be assessed in a serious manner. Perhaps this fan intervention can provide a point of evaluation on the readiness of Cocu as a front-line manager. At the very least, a change in attitude at board level must occur, if not personnel transformations. PSV must stick to one distinct philosophy, then do everything in its power to make it a success. If that involves appointing a senior coach, a football man on the Supervisory Board, or a new technical director, so be it. If that involves selling from surplus to add quality and depth, so be it. If that involves yet another radical overhaul, so be it. Regardless of how, it’s imperative that the old unity and fire quickly returns.

Ultimately, PSV Eindhoven must reclaim its position amongst the elite of European football. The club is too historic, too grand, too important to languish like it has for the previous six years. Those in charge must not lose sight of that fact. In the past and present, they have. But going forward, the health of this once fine institution must come first, if it is to progress at all.

Ryan Ferguson (23 Posts)