Eredivisie

FOX Soccer Exclusive

PSV, Ajax in rebuilding mode, again

DUTCH ARCHITECTS
Phillip Cocu (L) and Frank de Boer (R) are promising young coaches in Dutch football.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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There’s no such thing as deja-vu in the Dutch Eredivisie. Year in and year out, the league’s two big clubs Ajax and PSV Eindhoven do battle -- usually with the title at stake. Together, they have won 17 Dutch championship over the last two decades -- a stranglehold on the league that has only been interrupted, not broken.

But never once have these bouts – the next installment of which takes place on Sunday – between Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven, between the capital city and the provinces, between purported arrogance and warmness, resembled one another. That’s because in the Netherlands, if your team is any good -- and these teams are almost always good, within the context of Dutch soccer -- it doesn’t stay a team for very long. As the premier feeder league for Europe’s top shelf, the Eredivisie has functioned as a final staging ground for the game’s elite talent since the advent of soccer’s free agency in 1995. And even before then, the true stars were never long for the Netherlands.

Scads of great strikers have passed through. Men whose greatness made their own first names obsolete: Cruyff, van Basten, Gullit, Romario, Ronaldo, van Nistelrooy, Ibrahimovic. But their stays at Ajax and PSV were a mere stop. Glory isn’t won in Holland, it’s merely prepared for.

This summer both teams were ravaged by the transfer market yet again. It’s a simple equation, really. Spain, France, England, Italy, Germany: bigger populations plus higher broadcast rights equals more money to pay players. Money attracts talent; talent begets prestige. Bereft of both, the talent leaves the Netherlands in pursuit of said money and prestige.

PSV lost five starters. Box-to-box midfielder and star-in-the-making Kevin Strootman left for AS Roma. Fellow Dutch national team regulars Erik Pieters, a left back, and Jeremain Lens, a right winger, went to Stoke City and Dynamo Kiev, respectively. Central defender Marcelo headed for Hannover; attacking midfielder Dries Mertens to Napoli.

Ajax, for once, looked like they just might cling onto their talent. Playmakers Siem de Jong and Christian Eriksen and defensive rock Toby Alderweireld were attracting plenty of interest (and offers) but kept rebuffing the advances. If they were going to leave, they all said, it would be for a big club. But when Tottenham Hotspur finally sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, they quickly pushed through a series of acquisitions, nabbing Eriksen. Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, fetched Alderweireld in short order. The only thing that seemed to keep de Jong around was a collapsed lung that rendered him incapable of passing a physical.

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Today, Ajax and PSV are managed by men who were there when their club knew its last high before slipping from continental relevance. Frank de Boer, now two and a half years and three league titles into the job, anchored the defense back in 1995 and ’96 when Ajax reached the Champions League final, winning the first and losing the second on penalties. Rookie coach Cocu had just returned from six years at Barcelona when he led PSV to the Champions League semifinals in 2005.

Both are charged with rebuilding around promising young Dutchmen. At Ajax, Mike van der Hoorn, bought from FC Utrecht, is to make the fans forget about Alderweireld, unless youth product Stefano Denswil does it in his place. Lerin Duarte was recruited from Heracles Almelo after the Eriksen sale. He has made a strong impression, but isn’t a playmaker like the dazzling Dane. He’s more like his idol, Edgar Davids, a ball-winner who can join the second wave of the attack. This does, however, free up de Jong to focus on attacking, an area in which Bojan Krkic and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson promise to blow up.

PSV paid top dollar for AZ’s playmaker Adam Maher; got winger Florian Jozefzoon off RKC; brought Jeffrey Bruma and Stijn Schaars back from abroad; and landed Karim Rekik and Ji-Sung Park on loan. Goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet returned from a loan spell to RKC. With these additions blended to an already gifted core of backs Jetro Willems and Joshua Brenet, midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and forwards Luciano Narsingh, Memphis Depay, Jurgen Locadia and Zakaria Bakkali, the Eindhoven outfit now drips with promise.

Results thus far have been mixed. Both teams have dropped points early in the season. PSV sits in second place in the league with three wins and three ties from six games, earning them 12 points. Ajax have one less, having gone 3-1-2. But both are within striking distance of PEC Zwolle, the surprise early leaders. Yet both are also coming off bad starts to their European campaigns. Ajax got ripped apart by Barcelona in their Champions League opener while PSV lost their Europa League opener at home to lowly Ludogorets Razgrad of Bulgaria.

PSV will enjoy a distinct advantage on Sunday, however: supporters. Eindhoven’s mayor fears fan violence with the Ajax fans and insists that they travel by train, for easier crowd control. The train line connecting the cities, however, is being worked on and so no away supporters will be allowed in. That’s a first. But then seemingly everything that happens in this rivalry is anyway.

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