PEC Zwolle – a small team to admire
It’s the perfect, almost biblical, setting.
On Easter Sunday in De Kuip, Rotterdam – much more a Coliseum than a football stadium – a behemoth will meet a minnow. Yes, it’s very much that old cliché – Goliath will stare down upon David.
AFC Ajax, with all its glory, appeal, titles, personality, world fame and acclaim, will face PEC Zwolle, a team rarely heard of outside of the Netherlands and one without a major title to its 103 year history.
In many ways, it’s a meeting which will capture the true essence of a Cup Final.
While the differences between these two teams are plentiful, the similarities are obvious.
Regardless of the difference in size, muscle, resources, wages and talent, the giant will meet a midget with a very similar fighting style and almost equal strength.
Ajax and Zwolle both have a penchant for playing attacking, progressive and entertaining football. For the Amsterdam giants, it’s an obsession. Philosophy is a word often misused in football these days, but for the Godenzonen (Sons of the Gods) there is no other word to describe it. They are synonymous with attractive attacking football.
While that ‘philosophy’ isn’t necessarily a cornerstone nor constant theme throughout the history of PEC Zwolle, it makes up a huge part of their doctrine now.
However, with this tiny club from the province of Overijssel, it’s only one part of something much bigger.
What they have makes them almost a template for teams big and small looking to build success and maintain it.
These days we are used to seeing a club sack one progressive, exciting and talented manager after only a few months, sometimes weeks, and replace him with another with completely different ideas. It’s a tendency which can bring down an entire blueprint and set a club back years.
Zwolle, however, are one team to go against the grain. How typically Dutch of them.
The Blauwvingers are not susceptible to myopia. They are very much far-sighted.
So far, they have reaped the rewards, particularly this season.
They sat proudly in pole position of the Dutch topflight for the first six weeks of the campaign after Ajax had inflicted their first defeat of the season upon them in the Amsterdam ArenA, with Zwolle putting up a good fight against the champions of each of the last three season.
However, in the return fixture, Zwolle were on top, coming close to grabbing the winner but ultimately sharing the points with a team used to winning it all.
That was just one of the great results the Zwollenaren have enjoyed this year. They also beat Feyenoord, drew with PSV and Twente and came close on one occasion with Vitesse.
Zwolle, only in their second season in a row in the top tier in Dutch football, are rubbing shoulders with the big-guns.
They currently sit ninth in the league, not far behind the Europa League playoff spots, but their league position has been rendered irrelevant. They cannot be relegated, unlike quite a lot of teams, they were never in any trouble of being so, and their mere participation in the KNVB Beker final ensures they will play in the Europa League next term – a first for the club.
This is all a huge step for a side who, throughout recent history, have very much been a lower league team.
These are the benefits from their long-sighted vision.
These are the benefits of having a system.
A coach with good ideas, a squad of technically proficient players, a style to which they can all play and, importantly, the time to let things take shape.
Coaches can leave, players can leave, but the Zwolle heart remains. Departures leave holes, but holes can always be filled and, if the materials are right, filled seamlessly.
Before they won the Eerste Divisie in 2011-12 to make the step up to the Eredivisie, they had spent only two seasons in the top division since their relegation in 1988-89 – two poor campaigns from 2002.
The Overijssel side were able to build some stability in the years preceding the aforementioned promotion as Eerste Divisie champions with coach Jan Everse before, after three years at the helm, he was replaced by Art Langeler in January 2010. Langeler proved to be the perfect replacement, however. Exceeding expectation, the fledgling coach, originally hired as a youth coach, finished the season with the team in fourth place, improving that further the next year by taking them into the promotion playoffs with a second-placed finish. They narrowly missed out that year, but the disappointment of losing the playoffs didn’t affect them too much as they went on to win the league outright in 2011-12.
Not much was expected of Zwolle in their maiden Eredivisie season. Their first few weeks were rough as they descended into the bottom three. It seemed nothing had changed since their previous spell in the league – they still didn’t have it in them to stay for any noticeable length of time, but they progressed steadily with a versatile, exciting group of players, an entertaining style and a coach who knew how to use them.
They began to steadily rise up the table as they settled into a very competitive league. Despite being often well outclassed and put on the back foot by the Eredivisie’s bigger sides, they stuck by their principles and continued to play positive, attacking football. Refusing to change their style.
Their inefficiency in front of goal at various points of the season proved a massive stumbling block, however, they persevered and were able to climb to a respectable 11th place by the time the season reached its end.
There were some fears as the season drew to a close that the wheels would fall off as they entered the current campaign. Captain Joey van den Berg had departed in January a big loss for the team and it seemed Youness Mokhtar would follow suit (he did, joining Twente early in this season). Meanwhile, in the summer, loanees Mateusz Klich, Denni Avdic, Arsenio Valpoort and Wiljan Pluim were all returning to their parent clubs after an excellent season and Arne Slot, a club legend, was retiring.
Perhaps most worrying of all, though, was that the coaching partnership of Langeler, who was nominated for the Rinus Michels award for coach of the season, and his assistant Jaap Stam were to depart.
For fans of the club, the news was a crushing blow. Not only was the technical heart of the club, the very purveyors of the message of good football, to leave, a significant part of those who delivered and embodied such an admirable style were on their way too.
The way the club moved to replace Langeler was vital. Here they had built a very good system and a set way of playing which needed to be considered when reviewing candidates for the job.
They chose perfectly, though, bringing in Jans.
As the baton was passed on, there were few more suitable to carrying it on from Langeler than Jans.
A gentleman who seems so happy it borders on the preposterous, Jans has shown throughout his tenure at FC Groningen and Heerenveen that he is fully committed to fast-paced attacking football, in which the wingers play a key role and the ball is kept on the ground.
The coach wasn’t just a good choice, he was arguably an improvement on Langeler, but many holes in the squad had to be filled.
The club managed to pull off a masterstroke and secure Klich on a permanent deal from VfL Wolfsburg. The nifty, quick, technically superb midfielder with a good eye for a pass, has been a fantastic player for Zwolle over the last two season.
There were also the potent acquisitions of Stef Nijland from PSV and Guyon Fernandez on loan from Feyenoord. The former hasn’t been anything special, making most of his appearances as a substitute, while the latter has filled in across all front three positions and has had minor battles with injuries and fitness, but has served the team well overall.
Later in the season came the marvellous young winger, Ryan Thomas, whose speed and skill have shown him to be a teenager with great potential. Especially when you consider his recent revelations that his first season has been well beyond his expectations, so much so that he seems to be developing years beyond his own schedule.
The best signing the club made last summer, perhaps the best signing any club in the Eredivisie made in the summer, was the acquisition of Kamohelo Mokotjo from Feyenoord. The midfielder’s reading of the game is exceptional, his passing is not only accurate, but very intelligent, and the way he can keep the ball circulating throughout the team is magnificent. He keeps the team ticking over and ties everything together.
The team clicked together remarkably well from the beginning of the season.
Not only did they win all but one of their pre-season friendlies (a 2-2 draw with Werder Bremen the only black mark), they opened the campaign with four straight league wins, beating Feyenoord, Heracles, NEC and Cambuur, scoring 12 goals.
A dismal period followed, however, as they picked up just one victory from their next 15 league matches, however, the seven draws they picked up in that time as well as the inconsistency of other sides in the league was enough to keep them in a good position.
Since then, they have been inconsistent, but much more positive, as they have won, drawn and lost an equal share of their last 12 games. However, their league form has been rendered irrelevant by their excellent cup form.
Last year, the Zwolle reached the semi-finals of the KNVB Beker as a remarkable journey saw them set up a tie with PSV in the last four, but they succumbed to the might of Dick Advocaat’s men, losing 3-0.
This season saw the team in blue and white go on a similar journey, and this time they progressed even further, setting up Sunday’s ultimate fixture with Ajax. They have been lucky with the draw as the only Eredivisie team they met was NEC in the semi-final, but to minimise the achievement is to ignore the context.
But this is why Zwolle is such an admirable case. While the changes over the last season have been plentiful, the system, the style, dare it be said, the philosophy, has remained the same. What has it brought? Success.
Of course, this is only over two years, it’s what statistical analysts label “a small sample size”, but where Ajax and Frank de Boer consistently lose their best players yet still reap success, Zwolle have done something similar and are building something sustainable. That’s very difficult to do for a team with an average attendance of about 12,000.
This summer, they will lose the likes of Giovanni Gravenbeek, Fred Benson, Leon ter Wielen, and Furdjel Narsingh, but they’ll recover, perhaps improve, and so will some of those already in the team as they develop a deeper understanding with another season together.
Again, the system will prevail.
And so, Sunday’s final comes as a momentous occasion for them, but it comes as such for Ajax too. Zwolle have never won a big domestic trophy, but have reached the final twice in their history. Furthermore, they have never played in European competition before and perhaps they can take encouragement from the fact that AZ, who qualified for Europe through winning the cup last year, were the most successful Dutch club in Europe this season, having reached the quarter-finals of the competition.
With Frank de Boer set to become the first ever Ajax coach to win four consecutive league titles, the KNVB Beker remains the only domestic trophy he has never won as a coach. Securing the double with a victory over Zwolle will see him complete his collection and further cement his status as one of the most promising coaches in European football.
It won’t be easy though. This Zwolle team are desperate to write history with a win over the Eredivisie powerhouse and secure their first major piece of silverware and they will feel they deserve it after such an exceptional journey over the last two seasons.
Regardless of Sunday’s result. Zwolle won’t disappear any time soon. This is a model, a team and a coach which has much more to offer beyond this cup final.
The trip to De Kuip is a huge, monumental one for Zwolle, but it’s not the climax of their labour.
This isn’t the end of the journey.
It’s just the beginning.