Anass Achahbar – The Feyenoord youngster proving everyone wrong

After heading a last minute winner against FC Dordrecht in the previous week, Anass Achahbar did the unthinkable against runaway Eredivisie leaders PSV on Sunday: scoring two beautiful goals to secure another three points for Feyenoord in a 2-1 win. But who is the 21-year old who has suddenly risen to Eredivisie fame?

How the times have changed for Achahbar. Just eight months ago, he returned to De Kuip with little hope of fulfilling the expectations everybody had laid on him for years. After two seasons with the first team and an unsuccessful loan spell in the German 2. Bundesliga at Arminia Bielefeld (1 goal in 10 games), Achahbar returned to De Kuip as one of those ‘what could have been’ talents despite his young age. A huge success in the youth teams, a perpetual starter in the national youth squads, but somehow not good enough to break into the starting XI in Rotterdam.

On Sunday, all hope of a rise to the top returned for Achahbar as he struck home his second and third Eredivisie goal for Feyenoord this season (and his whole career) in impeccable fashion. In the 59th minute, Rick Karsdorp, the attacking midfielder-turned-right-back, played a terrific long ball into the box. Achahbar waited, turned away from defender Karim Rekik and with a half bicycle kick smashed it past Jeroen Zoet to open the scoring. Four minutes later, Jean-Paul Boëtius moved inside, delivering the ball to Achahbar on the edge of the box, who turned, flicked it back to Boëtius and drifted into the box. Boëtius lifted it towards Achahbar, who, with a sweet chest followed by a smooth strike, made it 2-0.

There’s a certain beauty in this whole setting. Achahbar, Boëtius and Rekik being the important players in a particular highlight which helps boost the former’s stature in the Feyenoord team and the league. The three of them, together with FC Twente midfielder Kyle Ebecilio and Terence Kongolo, joined Feyenoord together between their 7th and 9th birthday. Together they played at Feyenoord’s academy for years, gaining a reputation as one of the most talented generations ever to be seen on the fields of the Varkenoord system. But Rekik left for Manchester City in 2011, one year after Ebecilio had moved to Arsenal, and Boëtius and Achahbar, together with Tonny Vilhena (a year younger), made their moves towards the first team.

During the 2011 U17 European Championship, Achahbar scored most goals of the tournament, and little time later, under the new Feyenoord coach Ronald Koeman, the 17-year old striker got a permanent place in the first team. In his first season, he played only seven league games (all as substitute), and failed to score an Eredivisie goal – although he did score one goal in a cup tie against AGOVV. The next season, Achahbar again started out as a substitute, and scored an important last minute equaliser in the Europa League qualification game against Sparta Prague. But over the remainder of the season Achahbar played only seven league games, and failed to score a single goal.

Slowly, Achahbar’s prospects changed. Whereas Vilhena and Boëtius made their way into the first team rapidly and became not only starters, but key players, Achahbar suddenly found himself on the stands, watching games of the reserves team, where Mitchell Te Vrede had taken his place as striker. While almost all players who won the U17 European Championship in 2011 with him had turned into first team players, Achahbar couldn’t even make it into the first XI of the second team.

From tallest to smallest

Achahbar’s age is not an unusual one for players to break through in the first team in most European leagues. But in the Eredivisie, we’ve grown used to 17 or 18-year olds turning into starters quickly – even at the biggest clubs. If by 21 a player once rated as a ‘top talent’ hasn’t made his way into the first team, he has apparently failed to fulfil his promise. In a league where a 25-year old midfielder (Jeff Stans) can be rated as “one of the veterans of the team” by a major football magazine (VI), a 21-year-old striker who has only played 20 Eredivisie games is almost dismissed as a failure. But Achahbar, along with Ajax’s Joel Veltman, coming into the first team at this age, show that there’s nothing wrong with taking more time to develop and prepare for first team football.

Also, it’s not unusual for tall players to be the best in the younger academy teams. Achahbar, 1.71 meters tall, stopped growing at age 13-14, while most players around him had yet to have their growth spurts. It’s in these years that Achahbar won prizes as topscorer of the youth leagues and impressed in the national teams. A team photo of the 2007/2008 U14 team says it all: Achahbar is one of the tallest, with players like Boëtius and Rekik looking nothing like the men they are now.

Feyenoord U14s (2007-08). Credit: Feyenoord Academy

Feyenoord U14s (2007-08). Credit: Feyenoord Academy

Tall talents at academies are easily named the biggest promise of their generation, but it’s not unusual for them to fall back after the others have caught up. For Achahbar, he is now one of the smallest players in Feyenoord’s senior squad. The advantage he had in most of his youth career has seemingly turned into a disadvantage. Lacking the height of Colin Kazim-Richards and last season’s star striker Graziano Pelle, Achahbar has to be inventive. But this is where his qualities are shown. For many tall youth players, their later failure comes down to a lack of broader qualities: for years, they have no reason to develop their technical ability. They could easily overrule their opponents by using their strength and pace. After the height advantage is gone, they lack the other aspects of their game required to outshine the others again.

But Achahbar did exactly the opposite. Always been quite technical, raised on the streets of Den Haag, he improved his technique even further. He turned the disadvantage of his height into an advantage: he is quick, very technical and his ball control is of one of the best in the Feyenoord squad. He can take on multiple opponents, flying through them, like he did two weeks ago against NAC. And he’s also done it in Feyenoord’s reserve team this year, netting 10 goals in 13 games, playing mostly as a No.10 and winger, but in the last weeks more as centre forward.

These qualities, together with a strong mentality and willpower, have kept life in Achahbar’s career. He is small, but strong, very rapid and technical. While his first goal against PSV was the beauty, his second was the more technical: a combination with Boëtius, taking the ball back on his chest and shooting in the far corner.

After some good performances and a lot of uncertainty in the striker position, Achahbar has received more chances and if he is given more time in the first team, could finally fulfil his promise at Feyenoord. It’s also another example of how Fred Rutten can turn seemingly failed youngsters into something special again: he’s done it before with players like Zakaria Labyad at PSV.

On Monday, Feyenoord’s technical director Martin van Geel told VI that the expiring contract of Achahbar is likely to be extended. It’s a great reward for a player who was forgotten by everybody, but fought himself back into the team – and how. Now, though, he has to stay there and prove he can reach the heights expected of him all those years ago.

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