Feyenoord’s search for success: A dream that keeps getting shattered
What is happening at Feyenoord? Just a few months ago, enthusiasm and optimism engulfed the traditional Dutch giant and once again they were dreaming of Eredivisie glory. Now, the club is in the midst of a record breaking losing streak, taking just one point from the last seven league games, including six losses in a row.
How times change. As in almost every year, Feyenoord started the new season in a sphere of hope and confidence. Feyenoord fever flourished when Dirk Kuyt returned after nine years abroad, club legend Giovanni van Bronckhorst was appointed as new coach, and the club had more than ten million euros to spend in the transfer market. Finally, it looked as if Feyenoord were ready to step up to national glory again and be a serious contender for the Eredivisie title.
It has been a while. This April marks seventeen years since the last time the club filled the Coolsingel, the central avenue in front of the city hall of Rotterdam, with hundreds of thousands fans eager to see the Eredivisie trophy. Historically, there has been only one longer wait for the league title than the one the Dutch powerhouse is currently in. Between 1940 and 1961, Feyenoord lived through years without prizes, cups, or any glory. But there’s a tragic historical factor at play there: the successful 1920s and 1930s, when the team won five domestic titles, two national cups, and twelve regional league titles, abruptly ended with the bombing of Rotterdam and the start of the Second World War.
The demise of a stronghold
After the last league win in 1999, a lot has changed. At the time, Feyenoord was financially strong, playing in a recently renovated stadium which adapted to the demands of the time, which hardly compare to today’s demands after more than a decade of rapid modernisation and commercialisation of international football. The club owned a football school in Ghana, had affiliated teams from Brazil to Japan and from Sweden to South Africa and commercial enterprises in Asia and Africa. Every week, it published a newspaper filled with the latest news and background stories. It was the first Dutch club with its own television show which broadcasted every week on a main commercial station. President Jorien van den Herik was an autocratic yet charismatic and successful leader of the club, taking it from the trenches of financial disaster and near bankruptcy in the late 1980s to two league titles (1993 & 1999), four domestic cups (1991, 1992, 1994 & 1995), and finally the UEFA Cup in 2002. Now, the game for the European Super Cup against Real Madrid in August 2002 feels ages ago.
The 2002 European glory marked the end of the long 1990s, when Feyenoord rose back to the national and European top after the decades of crisis in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Like in the early 1970s – after Feyenoord’s historic Europa Cup I victory against Celtic in Milan’s San Siro, the club invested in the wrong players to replace the retiring or sold cup heroes and too many risks and gambles too big to make its success structural.
Danko Lazovic, bought in the summer of 2003 after the departure of Pierre van Hooijdonk and still the most expensive club signing in history, was no Pi-Air and hardly compared to his tall predecessor. Anthony Lurling, who arrived from SC Heerenveen as one of the most promising wingers of the Eredivisie in 2002, could not match the skills of Bonaventure Kalou. Alfred Schreuder was no new Paul Bosvelt, and Peter van den Berg not fit replace Kees van Wonderen.
It is in these years that Feyenoord missed the financial boat that both Ajax and PSV, who starred in the knock-out stages of the Champions League in 2003 and 2005, boarded. The club took on growing deficits and debts, which were first kept secret and finally publicised in the autumn of 2006, leading to the fall of Van den Herik’s power and presidency. In 2007, the club took huge risks when Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Roy Makaay, Kevin Hofland and Tim de Cler were brought in as an attempt to win the Eredivisie, play Champions League football for the first time since the 2002-2003 campaign, and earn back the millions spent on the squad. Except that the club didn’t: under Bert van Marwijk, who left after the season to become coach of the Dutch national team, the Rotterdammers finished the season at a disappointing sixth place, and despite winning the Dutch cup for the first time in thirteen years, the season had little glory.
For years now, the club has been struggling to get back to the financial situation prior to its latest crisis. In recent years, there has been success in making small, yet growing, profits again (which are expected to fall this season again due to the lack of participation in the Europa League). Yet with a budget of around 45 million euros, it can hardly compete with PSV and Ajax, who both have an annual budget between 60 and 65 million euros. The annual revenue of Ajax is twice that of Feyenoord. This year, the gap between the team from Rotterdam and PSV is likely to grow, with the Eindhovenaren reaching the knock-out stages of the Champions League again. The financial divide between Feyenoord and the other two is big, and barely narrowing on a long-term basis.
A squad not good enough
This means that it’s unrealistic to expect Feyenoord to compete for the league title every year. Yet this doesn’t explain the historic and awful losing streak Gio’s team is in at the moment.
Bad luck plays a role, obviously. It is not as if Feyenoord has the worst squad in the league and therefore should lose week in, week out. Actually, according to the Goalimpact model, the third place in the Eredivisie would precisely fit the team’s qualities.
This is one reason Feyenoord isn’t competing for the league title, contrary to popular belief prior to the season that it would. The squad simply doesn’t compare to the likes of Ajax and PSV. In Dirk Kuyt and Eljero Elia, two experienced players and World Cup finalists have been added to the team, but after an exciting start, the latter has been struggling with his form in recent months, like he did at Southampton last season. The young Swedish midfielder Simon Gustafson has great potential and while being dropped recently, is likely to improve even further in the upcoming years.
But Marko Vejinovic, signed from Vitesse for 3.5 million euros as a replacement for Jordy Clasie, has struggled to live up to the expectations. He brings balance to the midfield, but has made important blunders costing the team points, and has been in and out the team for months now. Jan-Arie van der Heijden, signed as a free agent from Vitesse as well, is barely the defensive stronghold Feyenoord needed and is an average player at best. Eric Botteghin, signed from FC Groningen, does bring defensive qualities to the backline, but doesn’t immediately improve the team. And striker Michiel Kramer struggles with the pace of top football, and misses the qualities the striker of a team pretending to fight for the title needs. He lacks football intelligence, doesn’t see the spaces, has trouble passing and doesn’t score as much as people (falsely) expected.
For the second summer in a row, football director Martin van Geel was able to enter the transfer market with a purse. In the past two summers, he has spent around twenty million euros, but few of his expensive signings have proved their worth. Jens Toornstra had a good first few months under Fred Rutten last term, but has barely impressed ever since. Bilal Basacikoglu was bought from SC Heerenveen for 3.5 million euros after a great first six months in the Eredivisie, but looks nothing like the daring winger he was in Friesland. Hence, for the second season in a row, Van Geel has failed to shape a squad able to surprise, impress, and perhaps finally win something again.
Yet even if the players are not good enough to be a serious contender for the title, it doesn’t explain losing six games in a row. A main underlying problem is that Feyenoord did not perform as well as it seemed in their first 17 league games. There was some luck, for example against FC Utrecht in the first game of the season, but never impressed even in victories. Gio’s tactic, relying on crosses from the flanks to tall centre forward Kramer, has proved ineffective. There’s no other team in the league making as many crosses, yet Feyenoord ranks sixth in the league in terms of chances created and shots on target. The defensive man marking has proved dangerous and unstable, leading to conceding stupid and unnecessary goals in many games, as was the case in away games against FC Groningen, NEC and AZ. Feyenoord’s positional play has often been a pain to the eyes.
Personally, I had expected a more progressive, intelligent football from Van Bronckhorst, who presents himself as pragmatic and is little outspoken about his football philosophy, but in his Barcelona days told interviewers that fluid possession football based on quick, smart passing was “fantastic to play”. With players like Karim El Ahmadi, Gustafson, Elia, Anass Achahbar, Kuyt and Vejinovic. Gio has a team capable of playing to that style, but he has adhered to a conservative, static 4-3-3 for most of the season so far. In last week’s games against Roda JC (1-0 win, Dutch Cup), he chose a 5-3-2, and against Ajax (2-1 loss) a quite fluid 4-4-2, sometimes even 4-5-1 with Kuyt as lone striker and Vilhena behind him. It didn’t prove very effective, but at last was a step away from the useless and ugly football Feyenoord has been playing for months.
For Van Bronckhorst, pressure is building up with six defeats in a row, and face a tough away game against PEC Zwolle on Sunday. He had never coached a team prior to his appointment as manager last year. No doubt he needs time to learn and adapt to his new role. Even if Feyenoord does not really have the time to stand still for another season, it won’t change that much in the long-term. The club is miles behind Ajax and PSV, both financially and in terms of facilities, and it is hard to imagine them being able to compete with them again any time soon.
A conservative club
Precisely because Feyenoord is stuck behind its rivals, the club needs more progressive and innovative methods. Financially, the club won’t win the battle for years to come, making the need to invest in facilities, both in bricks and computers, pertinent. Feyenoord needs to step out of the conservative, sometimes even reactionary, mind set it has been in for years now. Sometimes, it feels as if the club looks at innovation and change with anger and suspicion, rather than a way to develop new methods.
While the Great Leap Forward a (re)new(ed) stadium could be for the financial position of the club can take another five to ten years, the club should invest in new training facilities for both its first team and youth academy right away. It has the money to do so, but seems hesitant to act. Methodically, it should more eagerly embrace performance analysis and other smart uses of sport science as a way to improve the performance of its first team and individual development of talents at the academy. If Feyenoord can’t beat the others financially, beat them intellectually.
Conservatism is a strong blockade of the mind, politically and culturally as well as in football. Yet innovating and improving its methods, minds and movements might be the only option left for Feyenoord.