The Cooling Down: Utrecht shining with Guardiola disciple Ten Hag

“You can clearly see that the team is growing and that the players are growing,” FC Utrecht coach Erik ten Hag said with pride as he reflected on Sunday’s 2-1 win over Vitesse. “But we will have to grow in order to achieve something.”

The former Bayern Munich II boss is right to be pleased with the early promise his side have shown this season.

The last two years have been difficult for Utrecht. They have a bizarre tendency to jump from exciting and prosperous to mid-table mediocrity year after year, but following their European adventure in 2013-14, the last two seasons have been an extreme case of the latter as they turned into one of the league’s least captivating teams.

This campaign, however, they look much more exciting and so far have been one of the Eredivisie’s most interesting sides to watch.

While they have not picked up any consistency in their results in the opening weeks, it is clear to see how they have benefited from the new direction under the 45-year-old.

From the first game of the season – a 3-2 defeat to Feyenoord – they have looked like a better organised team than in recent seasons. The most obvious change is that they now have a back line which is adept at holding its shape – something they lacked over the last two years under Jan Wouters and Rob Alflen.

Sunday’s clash saw Utrecht come up against another curious side, with the exciting Peter Bosz taking his youthful Vitesse team to the Galgenwaard.

With short passing players like Lewis Baker and Marvelous Nakamba in their rank and Nathan and Rashica further afield, Vitesse certainly had what was required for a patient build up before a sharp attack when required.

Utrecht, however, were well placed to deal with Vitesse. Compact and resolute in their own half, their tracking of runs and comfortable defensive base allows for roams forward from players like Timo Letschert and Sean Klaiber and limiting the chance of them being caught out.

With Willem Janssen and Bart Ramselaar moving around ahead Yassin Ayoub, their midfield was fluent enough to pick out spaces between the lines and keep possession circulating as they occasionally strung together short, quick passes when denied space high up the pitch.

With the extra room on the flanks, it allowed them to get around Nathan comfortably and open up a chance such as that which led to Ramselaar’s winning goal.

This all combines to make a team which is difficult to keep track of when they charge forward. They do not need to dominate possession, they try to be effective and quick in their attacks with well drilled passing moves and taking advantage of any space afforded.

Playing with two up front, which is a rarity in the ideological world of Dutch football, is an interesting setup and it is working well so far. Nacer Barazite joined last summer looking to get his career back on track after failing at Arsenal and Monaco. It took him some time to get his fitness up and it seemed he was not effective enough to play as a regular No.9, so the partnership with Sebastien Haller has allowed him to put his creative ability to use and give Utrecht a solid presence through the middle. It is a duo which is well supported and is looking sharp so far this term.

Shot positioning is another example of how effective Utrecht were. Vitesse had more attempts on goal throughout the game and were in complete control for the last 20 minutes after Klaiber’s withdrawal through injury forced a change of set up.

Ten Hag himself was not happy about how easily his side surrendered control of the game in the final quarter and they will need to be better at adapting to new styles during matches. However, for most of the game Bosz’s men were limited to shots from outside the box or Utrecht were so compact they blocked off their efforts. Ten Hag’s team, on the other hand, were very good at getting close to goal and unleashing shots from more dangerous positions.

Utrecht had enough opportunities to score more and the goal they conceded had more than a shade of luck to it as a corner struck Janssen and landed well for Guram Kashia to knock in from inside the six-yard box with two attempts.

They have not had an easy opening few weeks, but have recovered well from the defeat to Feyenoord to draw with ADO Den Haag and Heerenveen before convincing against Groningen and Vitesse.

Utrecht had a decent start to last season, which included a win over Feyenoord, but they look much more potent and better constructed under the man who was inspired by and impressed Pep Guardiola enough to collaborate in Munich. It did not take long for them to start slipping in 2014-15, culminating in an 11th-placed finish. But if they can build on this positive opening, they could be targeting a Europa League playoff spot.

On Saturday they come up against a Willem II side who are lacking any kind of effectiveness up front, so Utrecht will be fancied to build on their first two wins of the season. After that, they have a manageable run of fixtures leading up to their clash with PSV in Eindhoven, which will give Ten Hag’s system a really good test. With the way things are shaping up, this team should be confident of a more prosperous and entertaining season than the past two years. Things are looking up for the team from the fourth largest city in the country.

De Jong on fire ahead of Champions League encounter

A perfect hat-trick from Luuk de Jong helped fire PSV to a 6-0 win over Cambuur on Saturday. A header and a finish with each foot in the first half with no goals coming in between, it was a predictably dominant display from a team who have adapted their style this season against an immensely struggling opponent.

The league champions remain unbeaten and are looking sharp ahead of their return to the Champions League. Phillip Cocu’s men take on Manchester United in Eindhoven on Tuesday and it will be a big test for the home team. Louis van Gaal’s team beat Liverpool 3-1 on Saturday and have a squad of immense potency, but have been underwhelming for the most part of the first few weeks.

It was said that the departure of Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum was going to lead to completely derail any hopes this PSV side had of impressing in Europe this term. However, they have dealt with the loss of Memphis so far quite well, while the midfield is still trying to achieve a balance. With Jorrit Hendrix expected to line up at the base of midfield, it could at least give them a more permanent defensive presence beside Andres Guardado in the centre of midfield which may help quell United’s attacks.

It will of course be a a tough game for PSV, but with Lestienne and Narsingh performing well and spearheaded by the impressive De Jong, they could run them close in the Philips Stadion.

Maduro at ease in Groningen derby win

Taking the lead after just 38 seconds and dominating from then on, Groningen were thoroughly impressive throughout their 3-1 win over Heerenveen.

Danny Hoesen, who opened the scoring, has looked a completely different player this season than the flop who arrived at the Euroborg a year ago, while Bryan Linssen is beginning to look sharper in the Groningen first team.

The biggest sensation however was Hedwiges Maduro, who after coming on against FC Utrecht two week ago now made his full debut. The 30-year-old made some lovely neat passes to help keep Groningen ticking over in midfield alongside Simon Tibbling, helping supply Linssen, Michael de Leeuw, Albert Rusnak and Hoesen in the big game.

The ex-Ajax player also chipped in defensively to add some steal to a midfield which has been lacking in deep areas despite having a lot of talent ahead of it. Beating their close rivals with such a positive performance gives Groningen enough to build on and they hopefully have enough to put in a more resolute performance ahead of Thursday’s clash with Marseille in the Europa League.

Veldwijk the hero as PEC Zwolle remain unbeaten

Lars Veldwijk finally impressed for PEC Zwolle as he fired three past Filip Kurto in a sound win against an Excelsior side who ended the game with nine men.

Zwolle’s good structure is again allowing them to deal with some key first-team losses this season and allowing them to overcome opponents such as mis-matched Twente and an Excelsior side who have altered their style under new coach Alfons Groenendijk.

The Blauwvingers are still unbeaten and sit just two points behind Ajax and it will be interesting to see how far they can keep up yet another bright start to the season.

A decline is imminent, of course, but just how heavily they are affected by the big summer changes is yet to be seen and it will be a testament to the fantastic set-up they have if they can get near to last season’s sixth-placed finish.

Ajax underwhelm against coachless Twente

Despite losing their coach Alfred Schreuder and key winger Jesus Corona, FC Twente terrified Ajax on Saturday in Enschede, taking a two goal lead to be the first team to put the ball past Jasper Cillessen this season. Of course, Hakim Ziyech was at the heart of it with an assist from a corner and then a lovely Panenka penalty.

However, in typical Twente fashion, they surrendered the lead in Rene Hake’s debut as interim boss, with Viktor Fischer finding the net before a Nemanja Gudelj spot kick.

With the likes of Davy Klaassen and Anwar El Ghazi effective so far this term, Ajax were expected to dominate and pick up a convincing win, but the Amsterdam side were again disappointing to watch and underwhelming. Twente were perhaps revitalised by the change in coach, but Ajax should have made an easier afternoon of it.

Given how poor Celtic have been in Scotland so far, Thursday’s Europa League game might not a particularly exciting affair between two teams who have fallen dramatically in stature when it comes to continental football.

Elia off the mark with Feyenoord

As the dominated completely against a flat, toothless Willem II side, it seemed quite remarkable that it took 70 minutes for Feyenoord to break the deadlock in De Kuip.

The magical moment came from substitute Eljero Elia who vented his frustration in his celebrations after taking on a nice Rick Karsdorp pass and firing home past Kostas Lamprou.

Elia’s career has been fairly hectic and the 28-year-old insists he has nothing to prove, but his on field manner and that he still has not started a game suggests Giovanni van Bronckhorst thinks otherwise. Another player who has struggled to reach the heights expected of him, Elia needs to take advantage of his time on the field if he is to break into the first-team and rescue his career.

De Graafschap 1 – 3 AZ
Roda JC 0 – 0 N.E.C.
FC Twente 2 -2 Ajax
SC Cambuur Leeuwarden 0 – 6 PSV
PEC Zwolle 3 – 0 Excelsior
FC Groningen 3 – 1 sc Heerenveen
Feyenoord 1 – 0 Willem II
ADO Den Haag 0 – 1 Heracles Almelo
FC Utrecht 2 – 1 Vitesse

# Team Games Points +/-
1 Ajax 5 13 12
2 Heracles Almelo 5 12 9
3 Feyenoord 5 12 4
4 PSV 5 11 10
5 PEC Zwolle 5 11 7
6 Roda JC Kerkrade 5 10 1
7 FC Utrecht 5 8 2
8 Vitesse 5 7 3
9 FC Groningen 5 7 0
10 N.E.C. 5 7 -3
11 sc Heerenveen 5 6 0
12 ADO Den Haag 5 5 -2
13 AZ 5 5 -2
14 Excelsior 5 4 -3
15 Willem II 5 2 -5
16 FC Twente 5 2 -6
17 SC Cambuur Leeuwarden 5 1 -16
18 De Graafschap 5 0 -11

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