The fact that AZ Alkmaar lost their captain and top scorer but still have a strong squad littered with options is testament to their incredible approach to recruitment. Their summer departures have not been as extensive as last season when they lost Aron Johansson, Steven Berghuis and Nemanja Gudelj in the summer and Jeffrey Gouweleeuw in the winter transfer window. However, Vincent Janssen and Markus Henriksen are huge losses but they have managed to replace them with a fine array of options and a 24.4 million euro profit (more when Henriksen’s deal becomes permanent).

az ginaA team that boasts an openness to new ideas that many other European clubs lack as they are breaking barriers in metrics and their frugality in the market has seen an improvement in the infrastructure around the club. Their transfer strategy was the brainchild of watching the ‘Moneyball’ movie and a discussion in a diner in Haarlem while the architectural inspiration for their recently finished training base stemmed from Louis Van Gaal, Marcel Brands, Toon Gerbrands and Dirk Scheringa taking an excursion to Glasgow to view Rangers’ training ground.

They don’t just use metrics to buy players but to nurture talents in the academy, groom youngsters in the first team and analyse their performances and fitness constantly. Their new training ground, opened by a tanned Louis Van Gaal was replete with more than one hundred square meters of physio therapy structures, a fitness centre, three more recovery rooms and two audiovisual rooms and so much more. Earnie Stewart’s vision has borne fruit and outlived his tenure at the club as the team are well placed to be a surprise package in the Europa League.

“Last year’s experience we will continue to carry. We are no longer surprised by the opposition. We are a real Europa fighter,” was the rallying cry issued by manager John Van Den Brom in the qualifying phase.

Between January and now, AZ have shrewdly replaced former captain Gouweleeuw with Ron Vlaar on a free transfer and Rens Van Eijden from NEC Nijmegen to have two pillars of experience in their back four. Ridgeciano Haps from the youth academy is a burly left-back who has come leaps and bounds, so much so that Dutch legend Willem Van Hanegem penned a column calling for his inclusion in the Dutch National Team a few weeks ago. Mattias Johansson is constantly in motion looking to win the ball higher up the pitch and is an option in the passing sequences out wide as he adds an extra number going forward.

Deployed in their midfield three, are two players who were playing in defence last season in Stijn Wuytens and Derick Luckassen, another academy product who is also able to play as a centre-back and left-back but has found a home for himself at the base of their midfield. Wuytens seems more liberated, playing impeccable long balls, joining in on attacks and scoring free-kicks making some forget that he had played at centre-back for the second half of last season.

The third midfield position represents a selection a headache as another component of their youth academy, Joris Van Overeem and summer signings Illias Bel Hassani and Mats Seuntjens provide competition. Van Overeem had a stunning season last season as he led the team in assists and already provided a superlative cross for a Dabney Dos Santos diving header this season. Bel Hassani was one of the driving forces that took Eredivisie minnows Heracles into the Europa League qualifying stage while Seuntjens reached double figures in goals and assists last season in the Eerste Divisie.

“In the Netherlands, I would never get what I could earn in Turkey. But I asked myself what do I do? Money or a career? The choice was not difficult. Immediately I chose AZ. I spoke to Wout (Weghorst) about AZ and thought he was talking about Barcelona or something! But when I came here, I saw the training complex, the facilities and so many trainers and specialists in the field of nutriton which is not normal,” said Bel Hassani to Voetbal International upon joining AZ.

Up front are Dos Santos (also from their academy) on the left wing who was brought through as an attacking midfielder but has found his place as a tricky and creative wideman that is developing a nose for goal. Levi Garcia from Trinidad and Tobago who is another skillful winger who will challenge him for this spot.On the other flank is Alireza Jahanbakhsh who was given a tour of the Brighton and Hove Albion training ground last season but chose to join AZ Alkmaar from NEC instead. He is becoming the muse for his young side, cutting in to chip in with goals while also maintaining an ability to hit the most well-measured crosses.

Up front are two new signings left to wrestle for a starting position with Wout Weghorst who is a lanky and clever striker. Fred Friday, the rapid Nigerian forward will challenge him for the starting spot. AZ or the Cheeseheads as they are more affectionately known are in the same group as Zenit St Petersburg, Dundalk and Maccaibi Tel Aviv as they are strong enough to get through the group.

In John Van Den Brom, they have one of Dutch Football’s most talented and experienced bosses who has managed in the Europa League during a spell with Anderlecht. He is tactically adaptable and has worked with the majority of the squad for the last six months. During pre-season, AZ embarked to team bonding exercises like shooting and quadbiking in the woods while although they did not manage to get past the group stage last season, they were signs of potential.

They held more possession in matches like away to Partizan Belgrade and Augsburg but still lost while they scored first away at Athletic Bilbao and drew as they were lacking experience. With players like Vlaar, Wuytens and Ben Rienstra who will return in the coming weeks, they will bridge the gap while players like Haps, Luckassen, Van Overeem, Dos Santos, Jahanbakhsh, Johansson and others gained experience from last season. In the qualifying stages, AZ won away games comfortably playing playing a brand of counter-attacking football to prove that they have learned and adapted from the errors of last season.

With PSV in an incredibly tough group while Ajax and Feyenoord fine tune their tactical shortcomings, AZ seem best placed to spring a surprise in European competition. Van Den Brom has been deprived of a team to really challenge domestically and in Europe in recent seasons but exceptional recruitment has blessed him with the best squad they have had in a while. Their brilliant second-half of the season which lifted them from 12th place to 4th is just an indicator of the talent that this team is laced with.

Chaka Simbeye (69 Posts)