Brentford take a smart gamble on Marinus Dijkhuizen
The massive change in direction that Brentford and FC Midtjylland have taken since Matthew Benham’s purchase of the clubs has shown what benefits statistical analysis can have in football.
The progress the English and Danish sides have made with their adoption of a stats-driven recruitment policy and playing strategy are there for all to see.
Midtjylland were recently crowned Danish champions for the first time in their history, while Brentford’s climb up the Football League to reach the Championship playoffs is an achievement which cannot be understated.
They are progressive clubs with progressive ideas, adopting progressive methods which the footballing world has been all too sceptical to adopt fully.
Midtjylland may now be at the pinnacle of Danish football, but it seems Brentford still have some way to go to realising their full potential.
The numbers game the Championship side have adopted may have been at odds in some respects with the workings of Mark Warburton, but, in Marinus Dijkhuizen, it appears the statistical models have found the man who can help drive the club forward.
Eredivisie fans have been eagerly observing the development of the likes of Ajax coach Frank de Boer and Phillip Cocu at PSV, expecting both coaches to go on to bigger and better things in the future.
Instead, though, it is a coach with less than 18 months’ experience in professional football and whose side finished fourth from bottom in the Dutch top flight in 2014-15 who makes the move to England first.
That description of Dijkhuizen may make this appointment seem bizarre and dangerous, but while it is a surprising choice for Brentford, it is also a very good one.
“I am a simple farmer from the Westland,” he said when applying for his first coaching job with amateur side VV Montfoort. After two successive promotions with the club, the simple farmer was soon regarded as the most successful trainer they had ever had.
As a youngster, Dijkhuizen spent his summers down on his knees picking tomatoes as he helped his father at work. In the winter, he was often in cold greenhouses chopping up lettuce.
How that upbringing shaped him is evident in his personality and also his coaching style. Simple, hard working and realistic.
“Being a professional footballer is great,” the former Cambuur and Dunfermline striker once mused. “But it is also an empty existence. You’re mainly trying to keep fit. The life of a coach is much more interesting. It has more depth. You have more time to get better, to extract everything.
“Your career can not be predicted. But you can plan how you see your development. You can influence your career.”
That sums up a lot about the coach. He is dedicated to improving himself. Dijkhuizen chose not to study under another, more experienced coach as an assistant to kick off his development. Instead, he jumped into amateur football to learn it all first hand.
Dijkhuizen’s successive promotions in amateur football and his bright record at Excelsior show that he is learning quickly.
He has great balance to his game as a coach. Not only is he tactically flexible and intelligent, he is also a sound man manager.
“His ability to win people over is unprecedented,” former team mate Roy Hendriksen said of him. “He knows how to give players the feeling that they are important to him. Then they also accept it when he criticises them.
“Marinus is pure in every fibre. People feel that.”
Key to Dijkhuizen’s style is the importance of every individual working for the team to make it a strong, sturdy unit which is difficult to defend against and sometimes impossible to break down.
“Marinus knows the importance of a good mentality and also stills that on the team,” Frans van Seumeren, owner of FC Utrecht, to whom Dijkhuizen was linked recently, and chairman of VV De Meer, one of the amateur sides he coached.
“Players who don’t want to participate lose out. What I noticed is that almost everyone goes along with his way of doing things.
“That was the reason I took him to VV De Meern. Simply because he gets the most out of a team.”
It was one thing for Dijkhuizen to prove his abilities at amateur level with De Meern and Montfoort, but Excelsior felt they were taking a risk when they hired him in January 2014.
“I’m not Marco van Basten, whose name opens all sorts of doors for him,” he said, as Excelsior had entered a clause which would allow them to fire him if they fell too far down the table. “I am Marinus Dijkhuizen from Westland.”
The side were seventh in the Dutch second tier when the 43-year-old took over from Jon Dahl Tomasson, who had departed to join Eredivisie side Roda JC with a view to keeping them in the top flight.
Dijkhuizen’s effect on the team was evident from the very beginning. The former video analyst at Excelsior adheres to the “Dutch school” of playing 4-3-3 with a focus on attacking, but is not so one dimensional that he cannot adopt a more defensive set up.
The tiny Rotterdam side finished the season in third place, securing a place in the playoffs, with only Willem II picking up more points since than Excelsior since his arrival at the club. Convincing wins over FC Den Bosch and RKC Waalwijk were enough to secure a place in the Eredivisie for the team from Kralingen.
Once in the top flight, Excelsior’s set up altered slightly. In most cases, Dijkhuizen stuck to his 4-3-3 system, but was not averse to a midfield diamond or even a much more defensive set up.
His side were excellent at limiting the space in their half when defending, frustrating their opponents. But what made Excelsior an interesting success story is that the majority of their team was made up of the same players who got them promoted. The additions they made, though, were very smart. Particularly Tom van Weert, who was signed from second tier side Den Bosch despite playing just three league games – two of which were in the playoffs against Excelsior – because of injuries. Van Weert scored 16 goals in 36 games for Excelsior.
During an impressive Eredivisie campaign, Dijkhuizen also lead his side through an exciting cup run. Wins over AFC Amasterdam (2-0) and VV WKE Emmen (3-0) preceded a 6-0 demolition of fellow top flight team NAC Breda and a 4-1 victory against Roda JC. Their dreams of going all the way, though, were dashed when they were beaten 3-0 away to Groningen in the semi-finals.
While Excelsior may have finished one spot outside of the relegation playoff places this term, they did not appear to be in any danger until the final weeks, mainly because they failed to win any of their last nine games.
However, throughout the campaign, Excelsior were extremely unlucky to fail to win many games.
Ajax beat Excelsior twice, but the minnows were very unfortunate in both occasions. The side with the second smallest budget and lowest average attendance in the league had held tight and cancelled out the threat of the champions of the previous four years for more than 80 minutes each time.
They also ran Feyenoord and this year’s title winners PSV close. A 90th strike was all that denied them a point against the latter. In total, the club dropped a staggering 29 points from leading positions this season in the league. In fact, the team would’ve finished 6th if games had ended after the 75th minute. While this might appear a negative, it is only testament to how Dijkhuizen got a mediocre group of players outperforming themselves for large parts of games. A close look at the squad would identify the aforementioned Tom van Weert and free-scoring midfielder Jeff Stans as the only ones fit for regular Eredivisie football.
With limited resources, Dijkhuizen achieved a great deal at the three clubs he has been at. However, it’s one thing to succeed in the lower ranks of Dutch football and the bottom part of the Eredivisie, but Dijkhuizen is taking a big leap in joining Brentford.
Excelsior took an educated risk with Dijkhuizen, but that gamble is much greater given that Brentford have ambitions and objectives to get into the Premier League. So far though, despite his inexperience, he has shown that he can work wonders with limited resources and brings the best out in players who have otherwise been underrated.
His hard working nature, his devotion to learning and improving as a coach and his man managing abilities will see him become a quality appointment for Brentford in their fight for a place in the Premier League.