A look at potential replacements PSV could sign in the summer to fill the gap left by Kevin Strootman and Mark van Bommel.

  • By Ryan Ferguson
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stroot + van bThe recent game between Ajax and PSV explained a lot. Phillip Cocu’s side looked dangerous in a fascinating first half, but a chronic profligacy in front of goal let Ajax off the hook. A dexterous half-time intervention by Frank de Boer transformed the tempo, pattern and eventual outcome of the match; his Amsterdam champions stunning PSV with searing pressure and invention. Though frayed, PSV managed to hold-on for a spell like Ajax had in the first half. However, as on so many occasions throughout this ruinous season, one naïve lapse in concentration proved fatal; Kolbeinn Sigþórsson ghosting in-between a sleeping Bruma & Rekik to nod home a Schöne cross. Whilst showcasing the spontaneous potency which will likely fire Ajax to a fourth consecutive title, this unexpected goal highlighted the dire need for on-field leadership at PSV. It exposed the unfilled void were once Mark van Bommel stood.

The story which evolved at the Amsterdam ArenA was very familiar. In an impressive first half, PSV looked fit, strong and composed. Memphis Depay grazed a post; Locadia spurned two glorious opportunities; and Bryan Ruiz looked lively on debut. Cocu’s side were organised defensively, with Park Ji-Sung and Stijn Schaars restricting the spaces in which Viktor Fischer and Davy Klaassen so frequently beguile. However, PSV displayed the same inability to score which has characterised a failed campaign; players rushing in the final third and often snatching at clear opportunities. They came to rue such wasteful play.

Ajax stood strong in the face of danger. In particular, Daley Blind was phenomenal, producing a defensive midfield performance steeped in tactical awareness. When PSV beat Ajax 4-0 earlier in the season, Blind played left-back, but a change to this deep-lying midfield berth has added solidity. The transformation has been tremendous for Blind, whose technical skill and appreciation of space is quintessential Ajax. He plays the pivote role with such brilliance that predicting a bright future at the highest level is easy for any on-looker.

Blind was the physical difference between Ajax and PSV. He gave the hosts a responsible screen in front of Veltman and Moisander; his a relentless and intelligent presence maintaining concentration levels throughout the entire team. In direct opposition, PSV had no leader. Eventually, the half-time tinkering of de Boer put Ajax on top, and they drove home this ascendancy with ruthless intent. Once Sigþórsson put Ajax ahead, the Eindhoven heads slumped, the tactical resolve melted, and Ajax ran riot. Cocu was a helpless by-stander, yearning for an on-field commander. Sure, Rekik & Bruma are brave and occasionally stupendous at the back, but they suffer from the streaky concentration endemic in young players. They have brilliant physical attributes, but require a fearsome leader on whom to rely for reminders and prompts; a true captain to feel accountable to and perhaps even a little scared of; 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. They need a Blind, a Strootman, a van Bommel.

Strootman left PSV for Roma amid much acclaim last summer, whilst van Bommel called time on a glorious career. In addition, Dries Mertens and Jeremain Lens were also extracted from an exciting PSV team, with Cocu and Marcel Brands selecting a different road to success. The new plan pumped significant investment into De Herdgang, PSV’s youth academy. A greater emphasis was placed on homegrown prospects like Depay and Zakaria Bakkali. A shift in transfer policy targeted a new demographic. Effectively, Brands went shopping for bargains. The result? A clutch of midfielders, led by Adam Maher, Stijn Schaars and Park, joined captain Georginio Wijnaldum and youngster Oscar Hiljemark. This stable of players has struggled for cohesion, leadership and understanding. PSV currently average just 17.3 tackles per game, which ranks 15th in the Eredivisie. In search of midfield symbiosis, Cocu has experimented with different combinations and shapes, but the same problems have emerged, derailing a once-promising season. Ultimately, PSV are learning that whilst long-term vision is a noble gift, you cannot replace proven superstars with unproven hopefuls and succeed in the short-term.

At Roma, Strootman has become a global superstar, settling into a suave midfield alongside Daniele De Rossi and Miralem Pjanić. Cocu can only dream of such proven quality within his current squad. If he had such a player, PSV would still be competing on three fronts this season. One solid midfield stopper could be the antidote, aiding the concentration of youthful prospects and enforcing the high standards necessary to win championships. A disciplined veteran is needed to provide security for expressive players like Depay and Maher. It’s crucial that PSV sign a top player to fill this role.

Marcel Brands must think and act like a major technical director when recruiting in this position. 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.

So, who should they target? Naturally, they are never going to sign Sergio Busquets, Arturo Vidal or Xabi Alonso. But there are realistic deals to be made out there, and ideal players can be added with a little bravery and expansive-thinking from management. The Ajax defeat effectively ended PSV’s season, meaning they’re unlikely to complete any further transfer business in January. It was, however, a great shame to see several potential targets join new clubs within the winter window. As a PSV fan, I’ve watched many games in the past eighteen months just to earmark players who could potentially replace the departed stars. After watching a number of Cagliari games, I set my heart on Radja Nainggolan as ‘The New van Bommel.’ It was never more than mere speculation on my part, but the Belgian international fits all of PSV’s needs like a glove. He has strength, heart, aggression and loves to tackle, whilst also possessing great vision and passing ability. Unfortunately, he moved to Roma on loan this month and will likely make the deal permanent this summer.

In a similar vein, combative Milan midfielder Antonio Nocerino would have been ideal for PSV. He was signed by the San Siro club as the heir apparent to Gennaro Gattuso but struggled to find consistency. A loan move to West Ham United represents shrewd business by Sam Allardyce, who receives a player with great tactical understanding and appetite for physicality.

Just across London, Fulham were also busy concluding a loan deal for another player who would’ve helped PSV. William Kvist, a Danish anchor with great stamina and technique, moved to West London from VfB Stuttgart. His experience and attitude would have been welcomed in Eindhoven.

One midfielder in whom PSV displayed solid interest was whole-hearted American Michael Bradley. A US international, Bradley is blessed with great technical ability and stamina; attributes which have taken him to clubs like Heerenveen, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Aston Villa and Roma. The influx of star midfielders in the Italian capital led to diminished playing time for Bradley, who received firm contract offers from PSV and several other clubs. Ultimately, he showed little desire for a Dutch return, signing instead for Toronto FC in the MLS.

In the summer, I believe PSV will explore the transfer market with greater intent. Whilst highly unlikely, the club should attempt to attract robust stars like Nigel de Jong, Igor Denisov and Gary Medel. Perhaps Brands could test the water on Victor Wanyama at Southampton following the recent departure of chairman Nicola Cortese? If the ubiquitous Yann M’Vila soap opera returns for yet another transfer window, it would be great to see PSV ruffle a few feathers with a substantial bid. What have they got to lose?

I understand that attracting this calibre of player comes with great difficulty, especially without the magnetism of Champions League football. In altogether more realistic terms, Cocu could look within the Eredivisie to add bite and defensive guile to his midfield. Yassin Ayoub of Utrecht currently leads the league in overall tackles made (67), and average number of tackles per game (4.2). That kind of midfield authority would be ideal in Eindhoven. Furthermore, Utrecht midfielder Jens Toornstra remains attractive to a club like PSV. He would bring a short-term impact whilst also fitting into the long-term philosophy.

In terms of realistic targets abroad, PSV could maybe tempt Lassana Diarra, Pontus Wernbloom or Rasmus Elm from their respective Russian clubs. These players have the kind of industrious work ethic and battle-hardened experience which Cocu craves in his squad. They also wouldn’t break the bank. The club could also look to Germany, where Roman Neustädter is an intriguing proposition, or England, where Vurnon Anita could possibly be lured from Newcastle by the prospect of regular first team action and adding another Eredivisie title to his CV.

Obviously, this is not a video game. Nor is it fantasy football. PSV cannot simply sign anybody who catches the eye. Cocu and Brands must weigh-up the financial and philosophical ramifications of any potential transfer. However, if they can think more ambitiously and sign a proven midfield player of great defensive quality, this entire rebuild may be transformed. In finally replacing Mark van Bommel and Kevin Strootman, PSV may find the perfect antidote and start seriously competing with Ajax once again.

Ryan Ferguson (23 Posts)