Clasie and Koeman: Reunited in red and white

Tears in football are a common occurrence. When a team goes deep into competitions like the Champions League, Europa League or domestic cup tournaments only to be eliminated, it is normal to see players balling on the pitch and being consoled by coaches and team-mates.

However, to see a player with tears streaming down his face because his coach of three years is leaving is a rare sight. But that is exactly what happened during Ronald Koeman’s farewell speech to 50,000 fans in Feyenoord’s De Kuip stadium in April 2014. Jordy Clasie, the captain, could not contain his despair and had to use his shirt to wipe away the tears.

Speaking to Fox Sports afterwards, Clasie was full of praise for his mentor.

“I will never forget him,” he said, with a croak in his voice as he held back the tears – successfully this time. “He taught me to be a leader and showed me how and when I could put pressure on the ball and the opponent, he explained how I could get the best tactically.

“He basically raised me!”

Now, Koeman and his protege are to be reunited in a red and white jersey once again. Koeman’s Southampton is very close to reaching an agreement with Feyenoord for the small Dutch midfielder for a reported €12 million. After four years of first team football in De Kuip, it is a deserved and wise step for the 24-year-old once dubbed the Dutch Xavi.

As little as nine years ago, though, the idea of Clasie heading to England to continue his development in a potentially great career in the Premier League seemed ludicrous. In 2006, like all other academy players, Clasie had his post-season meeting with his coaches to evaluate his season. And, like every other year during his journey through Feyenoord’s prestigious youth system, Clasie was a matter of doubt for most coaches.

He joined the academy as a nine-year old in 2000, and somehow made it to the next team every year. But he was small, didn’t seem to grow alot, and lacked any kind of physical presence. Midfielders like Ricky van Haaren, Osama Rashid and Shabir Isoufi were way ahead of him and looking ahead to bright futures in the first team. But academy director Stanley Brard decided to give Clasie another chance. Just one more year.

It might just have been one of the best decisions ever made at Feyenoord’s academy. Under the leadership of coaches Cor Adriaanse in the U17s and Jean-Paul van Gastel in the U19s (now assistant coach of head coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst), Clasie grew into a small playmaker who went on to lift the youth championship trophy three years in a row. He was the captain of a gifted generation which included the likes of Luc Castaignos, Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi and Kostas Lamprou. In 2009 he was given his first professional contract, and was sent out on loan to affiliate team Excelsior Rotterdam one year later.

There, in the smallest of Rotterdam’s three professional football stadiums, Clasie was surprisingly turned into a regular starter by coach Alex Pastoor, who valued his tactical understanding and passing abilities, while at the same time realising that Clasie still lacked the physical qualities required to make it to the top. Either way, he impressed enough and was brought back to Feyenoord in the summer of 2011.

It was a return with few prospects for first team football though, but after Georginio Wijnaldum and Leroy Fer were sold to rivals PSV and FC Twente respectively, Clasie was given a chance by newly appointed coach Koeman. Just like Pastoor, he valued Clasie’s potential and realised that his oversight and football intellect made him an ideal controlling midfielder. Clasie was given a regular spot in the team and just like all those other Feyenoord youngsters, developed at such a surprising rate that he played an important role as they qualified for the Champions League at the end of the 2011-12 campaign, just one year after they finished as low as 10th in the league. He was substituted regularly as he had trouble playing the full 90 minutes, but he slowly got stronger and physically more equipped for playing first team football.

Eventually, Clasie’s footballing qualities saw him become a regular in Louis van Gaal’s Dutch team – although he was barely used as a starter. While Ricky van Haaren, once rated as a great deal more talented than Clasie, left Feyenoord as a free agent (he recently moved to Dinamo Bucharest after being released by ADO Den Haag), Clasie turned into a pivotal player in Koeman’s Feyenoord. A small, controlling midfielder, media and supporters regularly started comparing him to the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, a comparison that was generated after Clasie and Van Haaren told Voetbal International that the Spanish midfielders were their role models.

When Koeman left after taking the team to three consecutive top three finishes – two as runner up, Clasie was expected to follow. At the end of August, Porto were ready to pay €8 million, but Feyenoord declined the offer. After qualifying for the group stage of the Europa League, Clasie surprised everybody by signing a new four-year contract with Feyenoord, putting an end to all rumors.

Now, having signed a five year deal with Southampton, he leaves De Kuip at exactly the right moment for him and both clubs. In the past year, as a captain, Clasie learned to take the lead – sometimes a difficult task for someone known as quiet and introverted outside of football. He developed himself into one of the best players of the 2014-15 campaign, and was praised by many as “too good for the Eredivisie”. Staying in Netherlands any longer would stagnate his career.

In Southampton, he finds exactly the right club for him; not the absolute top, which is still too early for him, but a team playing European football, and known for its development of young players. With Koeman, he reunites a coach who knows his qualities – and flaws – and knows how to use him best; as a controlling midfielder, playing in front of the two centre backs. At times, Clasie will intercept balls out of nothing, sometimes even when the two centre backs have failed to do so, bailing his team out of trouble. And at other times, his through-balls will create attacking opportunities for his own team out of nothing. Clasie is a modern defensive midfielder, an intelligent footballer with great passing ability, the ones often undervalued by many but recognised by scouts, managers and the football connoisseur.

For Feyenoord, it is also the right moment to sell. A transfer fee of around €12 million is a good price for the midfielder who, despite making it to the knock out stages of the Europa League last season, lacks international experience at the highest stage (for example: when Daley Blind left Ajax for Manchester United for approximately €18 million, he had played in the group stages of the Champions League for three seasons in a row).

With Marko Vejinovic from Vitesse, the club has already bought Clasie’s replacement and one who is more of a goal threat (Clasie scored only six goals in 131 games for Feyenoord). On Wednesday, before Clasie completed his transfer, 20-year old Swedish midfielder Simon Gustafson joined Feyenoord. A deal between the young international was reached several weeks ago, and this week Feyenoord finally reached an agreement with his club Häcken BK for a €1.5 million transfer. Selling Clasie gives Feyenoord more financial space and, with Vejinovic and Gustafon, they already have two talented successors.

This summer, Clasie was chased by big clubs like Schalke 04, AS Roma and Lazio. But returning in the arms of the coach that left him in tears one year ago was never a hard choice for the small midfielder.

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