The remarkable season of PEC Zwolle

The scenes were somewhat underwhelming. As the final whistle blew in the Goffert Stadion in Nijmegen last Sunday, the reaction was surprisingly mild and reserved. Zwolle had recorded a 3-1 win over home side NEC to all but secure their safety in the Eredivisie. In reality it had been a long time coming, but the battle to avoid relegation has been so fierce that several teams have fallen in and out of danger throughout the season and no one could be sure of safety until it was confirmed. One mainstay throughout this gruelling battle, however, has been Zwolle. While the players walked over to thank the small pocket of travelling fans after the game, the atmosphere was more one of relief than joy. But coach Art Langeler insisted that the players were over the moon to have ensured their Eredivisie future: “Now we are just very happy and elated. We have done a tremendous job,” he told reporters after the game.

It wasn’t official quite yet, but the three points gave Zwolle a nine point gap over Roda, currently occupying the final relegation playoff place, and a much better goal difference with just three games to go, meaning the job was essentially done.

Zwolle players thank their fans

Zwolle players thank their fans

It’s a fantastic achievement to bring an end to a thoroughly exciting season which has included some major league scalps as well as a remarkable cup run.

Zwolle were promoted to the Dutch top flight as last season’s Eerste Divisie champions, winning the league for the first time in ten years. Langeler’s side have attracted an average attendance of just 10,727 in Eredivisie this season, the fifth lowest in the league.

Attacking intentions

With a relatively thin squad and, in Langeler, a coach completely untested at the top level, the expectations of the Blauwvingers were minimal heading into this campaign. However, they immediately made it clear they weren’t just going to grind through the season and try to cling onto safety. In their opening game away to Roda they attacked from the very first whistle, putting on a thoroughly enjoyable display of passing and attacking football. An early lead was cancelled out by a second-half strike from Roda striker Sanharib Malki and, despite numerous chances from the visitors, they couldn’t regain their lead.

From that first game, the tone of Zwolle’s season was set. Although they were often well outclassed by the league’s bigger sides and put on the back foot, they continued to play positive, attacking football. Langeler’s side have stayed true to themselves and, barring a few alterations to prepare for certain opponents, have refused to change the overall attacking focus of their style. However, their inefficiency in front of goal at various points of the season has hindered them immensely.

In their opening 12 games they picked up just eight points, scoring ten goals and conceding 23 (four fell in one game in which they went down to nine men). However, Langeler and his charges couldn’t be too disheartened by this stuttering start as they came up against the likes of Vitesse, Utrecht, Feyenoord, PSV, Ajax, Heerenveen and NEC in that period. At the end of that run, Zwolle were sitting second bottom in the league, just two points above Willem II.

Despite the threat of a gap opening up between them and the rest of the league, Zwolle kept passing and kept attacking and soon enough they began to see the benefits as their season was turned around. In the 19 matches they have played since that 4-2 defeat to reigning champions and current league leaders Ajax, Zwolle have lost only five and won and drawn seven. A run in which they claimed the scalps of Dutch giants PSV and Feyenoord in spectacular fashion. In the case of the former, they recorded a resounding and thoroughly deserved 3-1 win over Dick Advocaat’s free-scoring side, who sat top of the league, in Eindhoven. The result gave them a real boost as they prepared for a hard run in to the end of the campaign.

Fred Benson has scored six goals for Zwolle this term

Fred Benson has scored six goals for Zwolle this term

Adjustments needed

A draw at home to Heerenveen followed that result and then Joey van den Berg left to join the Frisians just days after the two sides met. The loss of the captain, who had been used as both a centre-back and a defensive midfielder and had grabbed three goals and two assists for the club, looked to be a huge blow for Zwolle, but Langeler covered for the loss very well. Joost Broerse moved back to partner Darryl Lachman in the centre of defence and Arsenio Valpoort joined in an exchange from Heerenveen, who has chipped in with two goals in his 12 games. Also, the coach has utilised the versatility of Jesper Drost and Giovanni Gravenbeek by moving them into the centre of midfield alongside Wiljan Pluim, playing a much deeper role than before Van den Berg’s departure. Mateusz Klich has also proved a good attacking acquisition upon his arrival from Wolfsburg in January. The Poland international has been used on the wing, behind the striker and deeper in central midfield and has managed to score two and set up two in his ten league appearances.

Klich played a key role in Zwolle’s other higher profile victory of the season, the 3-2 win over then title contenders Feyenoord. It was their typical pressing and attacking straight from kick-off which lead to an early Zwolle goal. A defensive error from a Klich corner saw Feyenoord striker Graziano Pelle putting the ball into his own net. Five minutes later, veteran Arne Slot played a wonderful through ball to put it on a plate for Lachman to make it 2-0. Feyenoord fought back with two quick goals from Pelle later in the half and began to see more of the ball. The side in blue and white could have crumbled, as so many have done against the Rotterdam side this season, but they remained resilient and continued to attack. Their persistence paid off as a 75 minute corner was whipped in and again the defence fell apart and Denni Avdic was there to slot in comfortably at the back post. Feyenoord’s inability to defend corners helped the hosts, but it was the minnows’ insistence on attacking from the early stages as well as their bravery, perseverance and tenacity which allowed them to recover from the equaliser and steal the three points.

The Nestor of Zwolle

It was a wonderful performance from the team, with Arne Slot playing particularly well. The midfielder was a member of the team to lift the Eerste Divisie title last season and, remarkably, he was also there when they did so in 2002. The 34-year-old has spent a total of 11 seasons with the club across two spells interrupted by periods with NAC Breda and Sparta Rotterdam. He is a club icon, but, unfortunately, injuries have kept him out for all but 11 games this season. Nevertheless, his performance in the Feyenoord match made him just as important as any other player in the squad. Those three points saw Zwolle claw their way out of the relegation playoff zone and towards safety. It instilled belief in the fans and the players, significantly boosting their chances of staying up. Slot played just two more games and, due to injury, will play no further part in his side’s campaign and will bring an end to his career this summer before joining the club as a youth coach and scout.

Ensuring survival

Since the win over Feyenoord, Zwolle have lost only three games, first to a Groningen team who have broken into the Europa League playoff spots, champions elect Ajax and a Vitesse side trying to maintain their title challenge. Victories over bottom side Willem II, Roda and a draw against RKC widened the gap between them and their fellow relegation strugglers, which was then further enhanced after last Sunday’s match against NEC. A 3-1 win over Alex Pastoor’s men had severe implications for both sides. The Nijmegen side’s hopes of achieving European football were dealt a severe blow as Zwolle outplayed them throughout the game. A goal and an assist from each of Klich and Youness Mokhtar and a strike from Benson ensured the three points and all but confirmed Zwolle’s safety.

A remarkable Dutch Cup-adventure

What has proved truly exceptional is that the club have managed to compete beyond expectation in the league while maintaining a staggering KNVB Beker run. Wins over Roda, RKC, Go Ahead Eagles and Heracles carried the side to the Cup semi-final. Langeler refused to sacrifice the cup for their league performances and his squad managed to juggle both competitions and were drawn against league giants PSV in the penultimate round. Unfortunately, this time, Advocaat’s men proved too strong for Zwolle, with teenager Jurgen Locadia netting his second hat-trick of the season, stunning the hosts with an early goal before essentially finishing the job before half-time.

The coaching staff integral to the success

There have been many key components to Zwolle’s, overall, successful season. Mokhtar, Achenteh, Slot, Benson, Van den Berg, Broerse, Drost and goalkeeper Diederik Boer have all been integral to the team and Zwolle achieving safety. However, no aspect of the team has been as important as Art Langeler and his assistant Jaap Stam.

Langeler’s entire professional playing career consisted of a two year stint at De Graafschap in which he never played for the first team, before he spent a further nine years playing at amateur level. At just 31-years-old, the Lochem native left AGOVV and returned to his former club Colmschate ’33 as a coach. His four years there were followed by a three year spell with Rohda Raalte before he joined Zwolle as a youth coach in 2008, which he juggled with his second job as a sports instructor at a local college. Following the departure of Jan Everse, Langeler was quickly promoted to coach of the first-team in January 2010. The club were accused of using him as a front while Stam and Claus Boekweg ran the team but neither could be appointed coach because they didn’t have the correct qualifications. This was denied, however, and the then 39-year-old plodded on to prove himself as a head coach in his own right.

Art Langeler: Rinus Michels Award nominee

Art Langeler: Rinus Michels Award nominee

In finishing fourth that season, Langeler exceeded expectation with the club and his contract was subsequently extended by a year. He continued to prove himself and develop the team with the attacking and passing football, while turning them into title contenders. In January 2011, he signed a two and a half year deal and guided the club to second place, earning a chance to gain promotion into the top league via the playoffs but losing out to VVV, who stayed in the top league. Arguably, the missed opportunity turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Langeler’s Zwolle would continue to develop in the Eerste Divisie and go onto win the league outright the following season for the first time in ten years.

The extra season in the second-tier had them better prepared for the gruelling and excruciating season which awaited them in Eredivisie. It may have taken the team a while to get used to the league and some adjustments had to be made, but Langeler and Stam have ensured the style remains as positive and entertaining as ever. While slight alterations to the style have been made at various points, the side have always set out to attack their opponents, never accepting their label as underdogs and rarely trying to grind out a draw or a narrow win. This perseverance has drawn praise from Ajax coach Frank de Boer, who said: “I find it amazing that they stick to their own philosophy. The basic technique and ideas are good and you find that it produces results.”

While their playing careers couldn’t have been any different and although on coaching terms one is currently operating a level or two above the other, there are parallels to be drawn between Langeler and De Boer. Two coaches who adhere to a philosophy of playing enjoyable, attacking and effective football. They are each achieving positive things with their clubs. De Boer is on course to become only the third Ajax coach to lift a third successive league title, Langeler has all but confirmed safety in the Dutch top flight with a relatively thin squad and a small budget.

It is no surprise then to see Langeler nominated alongside De Boer and Ronald Koeman, as well as Jan Wouters (Utrecht) and Fred Rutten (Vitesse) for the Rinus Michels Award, which is given to the best coach of the season. Each of the other nominees are coaching in the league’s top six at the moment, while Langeler’s Zwolle sit in 11th place. There is no clearer indication of the quality of the job he has done throughout this season than to be placed on the same platform as such coaches who have much greater resources than he.

The future of PEC Zwolle

The foundations are there, one would think, for a legacy to be built at Zwolle. That may be so, however, it will not be with the current coach, nor his assistant. Langeler and Stam announced in January that they would not be renewing their contracts with the club and will leave in the summer. The great partnership will come to an end as friends become enemies (in a professional sense) as Stam will team up with De Boer, Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar at Ajax to become a youth coach with the Amsterdam giants. Langeler, on the other hand, will become head of youth at rivals PSV.

While it is a shame to see this fantastic coaching duo depart this exciting team, there is no reason to suggest the club itself will begin to decline. Langeler’s successor has already been named. Local boy and ex-player Ron Jans will take over as coach in the summer. Jans, who spent seven years in the Zwolle first team, is highly experienced in the Eredivisie, having coached Groningen for eight years before joining Heerenveen for two.  His reign at both clubs were very successful, although his latest with Standard Liege wasn’t a resounding success, many have said he was unlucky with the Belgian club.

In Jans, Zwolle are gaining a coach who obviously knows the area and the club but also has a passion for good football. His Heerenveen side of last season was at times simply astounding. With Bas Dost, Luciano Narsingh and Oussama Assaidi leading the lines, Jans turned the club from Friesland into genuine title contenders and missed out on a place in the Europa League spot to AZ by one point, having to settle for the qualifying playoff place.

As one thoroughly admirable and talented coach leaves, another comes in to take his place. Hopefully, the 54-year-old Jans can continue to develop this thoroughly admirable and talented side in the way Langeler has throughout his three year spell.

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