Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Robin van Persie are near the top of the Eredivisie scoring charts so far this season. Charlie Pritchard takes a look at the continued success of ageing duo.

The Eredivisie has always been a league which has attracted vast interest from around Europe because of its wealth of exciting young talent, with the exploits of Hirving Lozano, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong closely monitored on a weekly basis by the continent’s elite clubs. However, it is two of the Eredivisie’s more senior players, both 35 years of age, who have been equally outstanding so far this season.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar of Ajax and Robin van Persie of Feyenoord have scored six goals apiece in the league this season, setting the tone for the Eredivisie title race and proving their own individual points.

For Huntelaar, three braces against FC Emmen, Groningen, and Vitesse Arnhem have contributed to Ajax’s appeal as an exciting team to watch. Building from a solid defence including Daley Blind and de Ligt, the way Ajax move the ball going forward has been exquisite at times, and when their forward players combine, they are a joy to watch.

Matters have not been as straightforward for Van Persie. After an embarrassing 2-0 defeat on the opening day to De Graafschap, Feyenoord continued to infuriatingly leak goals throughout September. Nonetheless, Van Persie has been the Rotterdam club’s saviour, scoring vital goals at home to Excelsior and Vitesse, as well a fine display against NAC Breda at De Kuip.

But how did these two Dutchmen return to the Eredivisie with so much left to offer?

Huntelaar has always been what you can call a ‘pure’ striker, a point made recently by Football Paradise. Of course, the ‘Hunter’ may not fill one with joy throughout an entire game, but his innate ability to influence matches has become a hallmark of his style. Indeed, it has not always been easy for Huntelaar during his career.

Disappointing spells at Real Madrid and AC Milan were sources of deep frustration for Huntelaar, on and off the pitch. His mentality was tested during periods of relative inactivity after he was so prolific at Ajax between 2005 and 2009, scoring 105 goals in 136 appearances. He scored 15 goals in 50 appearances for Real Madrid and Milan combined, and a move to Schalke 04 was essential in his quest to become one of Europe’s best strikers once again.

Louis van Gaal told German press in 2010 that Huntelaar was ‘the best striker in the world inside the penalty area’ and his assertion rang true the following season (2011/12 campaign) when Huntelaar scored 48 goals from 48 appearances in all competitions for Schalke. It has become clear ever since Huntelaar’s underwhelming spells in Spain and Italy that his longevity as a top striker has stemmed from a desire to prove himself on the continent.

Therefore, the durability of Huntelaar’s career is down to what he learnt during his time not playing. When he was selected, Huntelaar’s game suffered enormously. Under Leonardo at Milan, the team played without the width Huntelaar was used to, resulting in rarely any crosses falling into his path. The frustration of his time in Italy actually served to be a longer-term benefit for the striker because he began to realise the importance of playing in a team that catered to his strengths.

In relation to Van Persie, his career at Arsenal was defined by perseverance. Van Persie had to bide his time before hitting an explosive stride. The 2011/12 season was seminal for the striker as he scored 30 goals in 38 Premier League appearances, a feat which sealed his move to the Gunners’ rivals Manchester United in the summer of 2012.

During Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season in charge of United, Van Persie was fundamental to the Red Devils’ league title victory. 26 goals in 38 appearances in the Premier League was yet more evidence of his growing pedigree and class as a marksman. Despite disappointing results for the club under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal after Ferguson’s departure, Van Persie nonetheless managed to register 28 goals in his last two seasons at Manchester United before moving to Fenerbahçe.

Three years later, Van Persie returned to the club where he made his first impressions as an Eredivisie striker. He has reinvented himself at Feyenoord as a playmaking forward player, linking up with Steven Berghuis, Tonny Vilhena, and Jens Toornstra superbly. Van Persie’s teammates have profited immensely from his excellent performances, with Feyenoord scoring 17 goals from eight league games so far this season.

From a tactical standpoint, Huntelaar’s success this season has been down his trainer at Ajax, Erik tan Hag. Under Van Tag, Huntelaar has excelled in a three-man attack alongside Dušan Tadić and Hakim Ziyech. The way tan Hag has set up his attacking trio has catered perfectly to the ‘Hunter’, as the way Ajax attacks tend to revolve around the striker as a focal point, with the creative panache of Tadic and Ziyech contributing another dimension to the team’s threat.

Furthermore, the attacking quality of Ajax left-back Nicolas Tagliafico has vastly benefitted Huntelaar’s style, with the Argentine’s crossing ability carving out numerous chances for the Dutch forward. After his brace against FC Emmen on Matchday Three, Huntelaar proclaimed, ‘I am still young’, a pleasing message after a vibrant start to the campaign. Indeed, the return of Kasper Dolberg to the Ajax first-team in the last couple of weeks has seen Huntelaar’s minutes become more limited, yet the Dutch veteran can feasibly offer plenty of advice to the impressionable Dane, a huge advantage for Ajax going forward.

Without disrespecting the importance of Huntelaar to Ajax, Van Persie’s significance to Feyenoord’s prospects has been even greater. Many figures in the Dutch game have openly expressed their admiration for the striker’s persistent talent. After Van Persie scored the decisive winner in the 87th minute at home to Utrecht in September, the visitors’ trainer Dick Advocaat was almost lost for words, dubbing the Dutchman ‘a phenomenon’. Advocaat lamented, ‘if he gets a chance, you know the ball is going in’, he told De Telegraaf.

Adri van Tiggelen went even further in his praise for Van Persie, telling De Telegraaf, ‘Without Van Persie, Feyenoord have a very limited team’. Whether it bothers Van Persie or not, Van Tiggelen nonetheless maintains, ‘all the pressure comes to rest of Van Persie’s shoulders’.

Perhaps the most generous appraisal Van Tiggelen gave was when he proclaimed, ‘It is clear that the boy has more quality than the other 21 players on the field’. In relation to Feyenoord opponents so far this season, it would be fair assert that Van Persie has been the best player on the pitch, but it remains to be seen whether the Dutchman can decisively influence the course of the biggest games of the season, those against PSV Eindhoven and Ajax.

Finally, it is Van Persie’s role as Feyenoord club captain which increases his responsibility as a striker in comparison to Huntelaar. Van Persie has taken to the Feyenoord captaincy seamlessly, remaining a positive leader of the dressing room. Despite a sending off at home to Vitesse after his sumptuous free-kick won the match for Feyenoord, it was clear that the referee was harsh on Van Persie, evidenced by the overturning of the ban the striker would have incurred.

After Feyenoord were humiliated 5-1 on aggregate to the Slovakian team AS Trenčin at the qualification stage for the UEFA Europa League, Van Persie urged those around the Feyenoord camp to pick themselves up and strive towards victory in their next match. Van Persie spoke to the De Telegraaf about his role, maintaining, ‘You can lose one match, that is not the end of the world, right?’. This quote is purely indicative of the Dutchman’s exceptional attitude, another facet of his game which persists through his later years.

Overall, it is fair to assert that two of the Eredivisie’s most seasoned players continue to flourish in a league which is so focused on the players of tomorrow. Both Huntelaar and Van Persie remain consummate professionals at their respected clubs and can continue to be instrumental presences as the season continues. Whether they play every game or not, their roles as experienced veterans at their clubs are essentially invaluable, and for their sake, long may this continue.

Charlie Pritchard (9 Posts)