PSV v Feyenoord Preview: Visitors out to bring Cocu’s high-flyers back down to earth
The brevity and confidence in his voice was surprising, yet somewhat understandable. As Feyenoord prepare for Wednesday’s Eredivisie clash with PSV – who sit top of the league, are unbeaten in eight games (seven wins, one draw) and appear to be in the best shape they have been in under coach Phillip Cocu – Fred Rutten sat down in front of the press and gave the kind of solid assurance which is a rarity in football media conferences.
“We’re going to Eindhoven to beat PSV,” the 52-year-old coach insisted.
Coming up against a team consisting of exciting talents Memphis Depay, Jetro Willems, Georginio Wijnaldum, Luuk de Jong, Adam Maher and Luciano Narsingh and who have already disposed of the likes of Ajax, Vitesse, Twente and AZ, it is a brave call to make, but Rutten has his reasons for believing in his team. and his statement neatly sums up the incredible turnaround in the attitude and performances of the ex-PSV boss and his team make in recent weeks. Just a few months ago, the thought of this Feyenoord team beating one of the title favourites was unthinkable.
Taking over from Ronald Koeman in the summer and faced with restoring a team which had lost a host of star players in the shape of Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Daryl Janmaat and Graziano Pelle, the task ahead of Rutten was great. Too great, it seemed, in the early stages.
Rutten faced serious issues and doubts from the early weeks of the campaign. From the Champions League qualifying defeat to Besiktas, the side won just two of their first 12 games in all competitions and the calls were already growing for him to leave the club.
The results were somewhat misleading in that the club from De Kuip were creating plenty of chances but were poor in front of goal, although the lack of cohesion in the squad and tendency to give away cheap goals saw the new boss put under immense pressure.
Since then, though, there has been a noticeable improvement in the team. Rutten’s decision to play attacking midfielder Jens Toornstra, signed from Utrecht before the close of the transfer window, on the right side paid immediate dividends. He has scored seven and set up three in the 18 Eredivisie and Europa League appearances in the more iconic red and white jersey.
Furthermore, the decision to move 20-year-old Terence Kongolo from left-back into the centre of defence alongside Sven van Beek, also 20, has been a massive boost. Kongolo has now permanently displaced 34-year-old Joris Mathijsen in the team and is developing a strong and effective bond with his fellow Varkenoord graduate in the heart of the backline. Since that switch, Feyenoord have lost just one Eredivisie game – a 1-0 defeat to Ajax which they were incredibly unlucky to fail to win.
Kongolo and Van Beek have been strong, commanding, sturdy and effective in cutting out attacks. If they slip up, though, they can remain confident that they will be saved by reliable goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer – signed from close rivals Ajax in August. The 28-year-old has been incredible for his new side and as a strong presence, he leads from the back.
On the right side of defence, the work rate of Luke Wilkshire has been very impressive. Although defensively sound, he offers a great attacking threat too and has filled the void left by Janmaat remarkably well.
Jordy Clasie and Karim El Ahmadi have been patrolling the midfield spectacularly well, pitching in with excellent defensive work and boosting attacks from deep areas. Even Lex Immers, largely a figure of fun in the Eredivisie, has looked effective for the most part.
It is up front, though, that remains a problem for Feyenoord. They continue to create chances through Toornstra, the increasingly impressive Elvis Manu, who has done well to recover from a slow start to the campaign, and Jean-Paul Boetius whose performances have picked up again as he looks to regain his place in the first-team. However, they are still lacking a quality striker to round off chances. Colin Kazim-Richards has been brought in and become the immediate replacement for Pelle, but while the Turkey international is mobile and quick, his finishing leaves a lot to be desired, although his record of 10 goals and five assists in 16 appearances in all competitions is admirable. Despite having not started a game since mid-September, Mitchell te Vrede remains the club’s joint highest goalscorer in the league, with Kazim-Richards drawing level with him on Sunday with his fifth Eredivisie goal.
That wastefulness remains a problem, but the improvement in the team overall has been incredible. In the 14 games they have played in all competitions since their Cup defeat to Go Ahead Eagles, Feyenoord have lost just once; a 3-1 Europa League defeat to Rijeka – in the nine games since then they have conceded four goals – in the 5-2 win over Excelsior and the 2-2 draw with AZ on Sunday. A 0-0 draw against Vitesse is the only other one they have failed to win in that time.
While the profligacy needs to be lessened, that they are working their way into strong positions and dominating opponents is a remarkable sign and it stands them in good stead against PSV, even considering the absence of Toornstra, who is out with a hamstring injury.
Boasting the likes of Depay, Narsingh, Luuk de Jong, Wijnaldum, Maher and Andres Guardado, Cocu’s men may have scored 39 goals so far in the league, 13 more than Wednesday’s opponents. However, they have real weaknesses elsewhere and they have been on display throughout several games this season.
In matchday 12, they were lucky to pick up the three points against then second-bottom Heracles, relying on a late goal from defender Karim Rekik to steal the 2-1 victory. It hasn’t been PSV’s only unconvincing win, though. In the opening game of the season Willem II ran them closer than the 3-1 scoreline in the perennial Dutch giants’ favour suggests. They relied on incredible gifts for the opening two goals and the newly-promoted side had them on the ropes until a goalkeeping howler saw him sent off and gifted Depay the chance to kill it off from the penalty spot. He did.
Their two defeats in the league and solitary draw have come against teams who have looked to cut them off in midfield and put pressure on the defence. Crucially, those teams, PEC Zwolle, Heerenveen and Groningen, had the quality to take advantage.
While the wins have continued to roll in, the luck has remained, the quality has been unpredictable and the consistency has been elusive.
PSV have immense quality up front. Electrifying talents who can threaten any defence and a front three in De Jong, Depay and Narsingh which is developing as a trio and becoming effective, while the midfield offers ample support. However, if there is one defence which can keep them at bay, it is certainly the one consisting of the quick, intelligent and proactive Kongolo and Van Beek, especially when protected by Clasie and Tonny Vilhena, as it will be on Wednesday.
The weaknesses of the PSV defence, on the other hand, are both plentiful and obvious and at the moment it seems that Cocu lacks the tactical nous to improve the situation.
Offering up far too much space in front of the back four with the inability to track runs and close the ball down, they are constantly at risk and the lack of a strong defensive midfielder means the defence is almost completely unguarded. Wijnaldum and Maher will retreat and look to help out, but a hard-tackling ball winner is required and playing a creative midfielder like Guardado deep is certainly not the answer.
“The midfield battle is crucial,” Cocu told reporters ahead of the clash. “If we win that and the fight for the second ball, our chance of getting a good result is great.” The coach is right, but it’s difficult to give his team the upper-hand heading into the game in the Philips Stadion.
Had this game been played on 30th November as was originally planned, with Feyenoord coming off the back of a win over Sevilla and PSV underwhelming against Estoril, the Rotterdam side would have been incredibly confident of getting the victory. Following the reschedule, PSV have begun to look even more dominant and are better prepared for this crucial clash.
Their lack of balance remains, though, and will play right into the hands of Feyenoord when they travel to Eindhoven for the big clash. Toornstra’s tendency to cut in from the right will see him afforded plenty of space between Willems and Rekik, while one of Manu or Boetius will pile a great deal of pressure on right back Santiago Arias, who has a tendency to get caught out. Kazim-Richards’ mobility and runs will make it very difficult for the unconvincing Bruma and Rekik, too.
With the ever-improving Feyenoord coming to town, we could see a PSV which flatters to deceive left completely exposed.
Either way, the match is set up to be a thoroughly exciting and entertaining match between the two perennial Dutch giants.