Ryan Ferguson takes a look at what is behind PSV Eindhoven’s recent revival in the Eredivisie.
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All of a sudden, PSV are relevant again. Phillip Cocu has rekindled pride from the wreckage of despair, leading his club towards a comprehensive revival. Earlier in the season, frustration mounted as PSV couldn’t buy a victory. The club struggled to balance Europa League commitments with an Eredivisie Title chase; a bruised PSV suffering ignominy against Chornomorets and destruction by Vitesse as injuries mounted, fatigue set-in and confidence dripped away. Any hope of a domestic championship was quashed by defeat to Ajax in January. Even in those darkest hours, a blind faith permeated the support of PSV. The vociferous fans, loyal in a testing climate, maintained a profound belief that something positive could still be salvaged from a disastrous campaign. Cocu was accepted, embraced, supported. We knew he would get it right; he has too much talent to fail. Now, we’re seeing that trust come to fruition. Now, we’re seeing a return to true PSV dominance. Now, the media, once eager to write grave obituaries on a failed campaign, must analyse the prospect of a 40th consecutive season of European football in Eindhoven. The revival is afoot.
PSV have won six consecutive games, undoubtedly their best run all season. During the disastrous August-December spell which so ruined any chance of silverware, PSV managed to conjure up just 2 victories in 13 Eredivisie matches; a record which included woeful defeats to Groningen, Roda and NAC Breda and contributed to a slide into mid-table humiliation. Nonetheless, Cocu benefited from a groundswell of support, with fans adoring his PSV links and executives admiring his long-term vision. All believed that a corner would be turned, but heavy defeats to Feyenoord (1-3) and Vitesse (2-6) obscured matters further. Since that mauling by Arnhem, PSV have won 9 of their last 11 games, taking 27 of a possible 33 Eredivisie points along the way. Cocu’s side has accumulated 18 points in their last 6 league games. They required three times as many games to collect the same amount of points prior to the recent upturn; PSV earning 18 points in 18 matches from late-August until the winter break.
“Why?,” I hear you ask. How can a team effectively triple its productivity so quickly? Well, the fact that PSV were so bad prior to this bright spell plays a role. They weren’t just bad, they were historically bad. In two or three generations, we’ve never seen a worse-performing PSV team than that which crashed-out of Europe, failed in the KNVB Cup and languished in seventh place as winter approached. So, even a return to average performance would have been an improvement for PSV in the season’s second half. However, at present, Cocu’s side is far out-performing any other Eredivisie team; in the last six rounds of play, PSV have won 6 points more than second-best Ajax. Thus, it’s clear to see that the Eindhoven club is currently excelling, but what are the underlying factors contributing to their success?
Ironically, the lack of European participation may be a major factor in PSV’s rapid improvement. In the 11 Eredivisie games since they were unceremoniously beaten by Chernomorets, thus ending their Europa League purgatory, PSV have won 9. In two of those matches, away at Cambuur and Go Ahead Eagles, Cocu’s team came from behind to secure victory, displaying the freshness of mind and body which was desperately lacking whilst the European campaign was alive. At Go Ahead in particular, PSV were sharp and energetic in transforming a 0-2 deficit into a 3-2 triumph with the games last kick. Such determination, fitness and presence of mind was not forthcoming during the earlier struggles. PSV toiled in an uninspiring Europa League group which included trips to Croatia, Bulgaria and Ukraine. Admittedly, first class travel is especially lavish nowadays, but the fact remains that PSV had to travel over 7,200 miles to and from Europa League away games. Often, these long-haul trips were compounded with tricky Eredivisie away games upon arrival home; unsettling defeats to Roda and Feyenoord following exhaustive excursions to Eastern Europe. By comparison, Ajax traveled roughly 4,700 to and from their Champions Leagues games, often benefiting from one or two extra days rest before subsequent league games. Whilst this is undoubtedly the reward for success, and whilst Ajax richly deserve their current domestic superiority, such statistics may explain why PSV’s title challenge failed to materialise.
They also serve to demonstrate the simultaneous talents and shortcomings of Phillip Cocu. In the months since PSV exited the Europa League, Cocu has showcased his immense coaching talent. A tactical innovator, Cocu benefits greatly from having an entire week to prepare for matches; a clean schedule on which to plan training, implement strategies and scheme a gameplan for forthcoming opponents. We saw it in his side’s dominance of possession against Utrecht and in endeavour against NEC. However, when PSV were competing in hostile cities like Zagreb, Odessa and Razgrad, there was little time between games to train, let alone prepare a detailed manifesto on future league opponents. Therefore, PSV struggled. Such is life under a precociously talented yet largely inexperienced coach. Ajax experienced a similar fate under Frank de Boer, who initially struggled to assert his authority on the European stage but has gradually developed to a point whereby dual success at home and abroad is expected. Again, PSV can learn a lot by studying their greatest rivals. Phillip Cocu is still adjusting to the pace of continental football, still learning how to manage every facet of a club. This is a process which can only become fluid with experience.
In his prolonged deliberations throughout a calm working week, Cocu has more time to think, more time to experiment, more time to make decisions. One of his best has been in electing a desired midfield and sticking with it. During this upturn in results, Stijn Schaars, Ji-Sung Park and Oscar Hiljemark have been near-ubiquitous in Cocu’s selection. Whilst the trio still lacks complete harmony and would benefit greatly from a defensive fulcrum for security, they’re getting the job done. In particular, Hiljemark has been a major performer in recent weeks. PSV win 65% of Eredivisie games in which he plays, compared with just 14% when the former Elfsborg man is absent. Cocu has realised his importance, even forcing big money star Adam Maher to the substitutes bench to accommodate Hiljemark. The talented Swede brings guile to a functional midfield, whilst also maintaining a strong defensive work ethic. Above all, he adds much-needed balance and reliability, key components in the formula with which Cocu has tinkered all season.
Hiljemark, who was rewarded with a new four-and-a-half year contract in January, has a smart football brain which allows him to take up positions beneficial to the team. He is altogether more utilitarian than Maher; capable of defending when needed, yet also contributing in an attacking sense. This provides greater license for attacking flair players to express themselves within a game, as we are currently witnessing with Bryan Ruiz. The Costa Rican, on loan at PSV from Fulham, has rekindled form and fitness recently; his productivity another major factor in the Eindhoven revival. Ruiz still plays in his trademark languid style, with verve and panache, but the Eredivisie affords him greater room in which to find an end product. He’s scored three goals in seven appearances, including the dramatic stoppage-time winner against Go Ahead and important strikes against Heracles and NEC. Such contributions have added a modicum of class to a PSV strikeforce which has struggled mightily this season. That Ruiz is joint-fifth highest goalscorer on this PSV team after barely two months at the club is demonstrative of his positive impact.
All of these decisions, improvements and adjustments have been made in the presence of Guus Hiddink, whose role as a PSV adviser is an over-arching good. The revered coach has been available to players, management and staff in recent weeks, imparting his wisdom and providing pointers on the finer nuances of football management. It’s very noticeable that, since his return, PSV have displayed far more spirit. The roaring comeback at Go Ahead was reminiscent of Hiddink teams of yore; full of character and determination to match unquestionable skill. PSV have been gritty of late, grinding-out results and taking a systematic, week-to-week approach. After being humbled by Chernomorets, thumped by Feyenoord and humiliated by Vitesse, it’s seems like the PSV players have taken more responsibility. In watching recent games, there is a tangible sense that the squad is playing with intent, with purpose, with pride. They’ve seen the hurt caused by poor performance, and concluded that enough is enough. Recently, PSV have played as if trying to prove their worth. A combination of managerial poise, far less travel, slight tactical tweaks and the impact of new players has enabled them to do just that. Hiddink has coaxed those varied ingredients to a simmering boil with sensitive adroitness.
What will the finished product be? Can PSV maintain their all-encompassing improvement and sneak into a Champions League qualification place? Only time will tell. The recent revival has at least put PSV back in the conversation. At present, Cocu’s men rest in fifth place, but the gap to near rivals has closed considerably. Whilst leaders Ajax remain way off in the stratosphere, PSV are just one point behind Feyenoord in fourth, two off third-place Twente and five behind Vitesse, who currently occupy the second Champions League slot. PSV and Vitesse meet at the GelreDome this weekend. From the ashes of distress, Eindhoven has once again inched within striking distance.