After a flying start to this year’s Eredivisie season, leaving AZ Alkmaar deservedly sitting third in the table behind only PSV and Ajax, Oussama Idrissi, Calvin Stengs and Myron Boadu are the three names on the lips of every follower of Dutch football. The trio have been in scintillating form from the off – securing themselves a place in the Europa League group stage in the process.

  • By Ellis Douglas
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Another three names, on the lips of a much wider fan base than that of Dutch football, are Sadio Mané, Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino after their exhilarating conquering of the Champions League last season. These three are undisputed world superstars scoring countless goals and laying on an abundance of assists to each other on the regular. They tend to play for each other and the team too, with Firmino arguably the most generous ‘number nine’ on the planet and Mané recently showing immense frustration when Salah went for glory rather than setting up his Senegalese partner for an easy finish.

Liverpool, normally, play with Mane on the left, Salah on the right and Firmino through the middle, often dropping deep to collect the ball/press the opposition midfield. Mane and Salah don’t play as conventional wide men however, they tend to sit inside, cutting on to their favoured right and left feet respectively. It is in these half spaces, playing more as forwards than wide players, where Mane and Salah wreak havoc linking up brilliantly with Firmino as he drops deep to pick up the ball as his African compatriots surge past him towards goal.

Therefore, in order to compensate for the width lost through Mane and Salah occupying inside positions, Liverpool play with two of the most attacking fullbacks on the planet in Andy Robertson on the left and Trent Alexander-Arnold down the right. These two constantly bomb up and down the flanks providing overlaps to aid Mane and Salah finding space inside whilst supplying cross after cross into the box.

AZ operate in a similar manner. They normally line up with Idrissi on the left, Boadu through the middle and Stengs starting out on the right. Like Liverpool, Idrissi is a right footer on the left and Stengs a left footer on the right. Stengs tends to occupy the inside half space at most times, playing more as a forward, whilst Idrissi often starts out wider before coming in on his right with his expert dribbling, reminiscent of a more stereotypical wide player.

In order to create space, again like Liverpool, the AZ full backs also provide multiple overlapping runs. Norwegian Jonas Svensson plays down the right and youngster Owen Wijndal down the left. Svensson is the more experienced and more attacking of the two allowing Stengs to sit inside as a forward, much like Salah, whenever he feels the need. Wijndal is equally capable of getting up and down the pitch at will but doesn’t tend to overlap as much as Svensson in order to allow Idrissi space both inside and outside to make the most of his smooth and sexy, North African inherited dribbling.

Idrissi and Mane are similar in more ways than their African nationalities. Both possess immense close control making them a nuisance for defenders to take the ball from and can both cut inside from the left before unleashing wicked ,yet controlled, curling shots with their well-honed technique.

Idrissi, although playing in multiple Netherlands youth teams, elected to play for Morocco, the home of both his parents. His eloquent, flowing dribbling definitely showcases his Moroccan heritage. Like Morocco teammates Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal, he makes beating a man look both simple and stimulating whilst his seven goals and three assists in all competitions so far this season prove his end product is their too. Idrissi is no stranger to the top of Eredivisie dribbles completed charts, nor the back of the net.

Next, most often deployed on the right, Stengs is AZ’s Salah, with curly fro and all. Both are left footed players who tend to sit just inside the right flank, sort of like a faux number ten, although, Stengs doesn’t quite have the goal scoring prowess of Salah yet. However, his creativity more than makes up for it. Playing in tight spaces, Stengs often cuts in and lets off a powerful strike, cleverly slides in a through ball for an onrushing Boadu, Idrissi or Stensson or dribbles effortlessly wide before whipping in a controlled cross.

Although only 20 years old, and after suffering a horrible ACL injury early in his AZ career, Stengs is taking the division by storm. His calm and composed dribbling is aesthetically brilliant and effective at the same time. He always looks in control of the ball and seems to know exactly what he’s going to do next, precisely why he’s racked up eight goals and six assists in all competitions so far this season.

Linking it all together is teenage sensation Myron Boadu. His goal and assist numbers, seven and six respectively in all competitions, suggest he is as big a team player as Firmino. It is indeed true he also plays a significant role in setting up his teammates but he is a largely different player from Liverpool’s Brazilian star.

Boadu spends the majority of his time hanging off the shoulders of opposition defenders using his speed and clever movement to get in behind and stretch defensive lines. Firmino tends to look for space in between the midfield and defensive lines to work his magic highlighting the differences between the two players.

Despite their differences, Boadu is always brilliantly aware. It is because of this he is putting up the numbers he is. Quick of the mark to attack any gaps that appear in the oppositions defence and around their box Boadu makes putting up assist numbers ten times easier for Stengs and Idrissi. His composed and clinical finishing is the cherry on top, slotting away a high percentage of the chances presented to him with great aplomb.

Working together, the exciting and fluent trio have left AZ in an excellent position in the table. Should they continue to develop and perform at such a high level, third place is almost certainly theirs. Getting through the Europa League group stage could also be attainable despite two tough tests against Manchester United and a gruelling trip away to Kazakhstan.

AZ fans should enjoy their talented youngsters whilst they still can. The way they have started the season, it won’t be long before some of Europe’s big boys come sniffing.

Ellis Douglas (2 Posts)