Tomasson, Van Nistelrooy, Huntelaar, Finnbogason?
Heerenveen striker Alfred Finnbogason is coming to the end of a truly incredible season in the Eredivisie.
With 24 goals in 29 Eredivisie appearances, he is the third highest scorer in the Dutch league, behind Feyenoord’s Graziano Pelle and Vitesse’s Wilfried Bony. The fact that only the top scorers of two title contending teams have hit the net more times than the former Lokeren striker suggests just how impressive he has been in his maiden season the Dutch top flight. Combine that with the fact that Finnbogason has scored 50% of Heerenveen’s goals in the league and provided three assists shows just how important he is to Marco van Basten’s side, who are currently seventh, occupying a Europa League playoff spot, with two games to go.
The campaign wasn’t supposed to go like this for Heerenveen, however. Under Ron Jans last term, the blue and whites challenged the likes of Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV and AZ to the title until the final few weeks. Propelled by the goals of the magic trio of Bas Dost, who scored 32 league goals, and wingers Luciano Narsingh (8 goals and 22 assists) and Oussama Assaidi (10 goals and 7 assists) with the backup of Filip Djuricic (10 goals, 12 assists), Viktor Elm and Daryl Janmaat, Heerenveen were a thoroughly entertaining and majestic side worthy of challenging the big guns.
It was a truly remarkable season for the club in the Abe Lenstra Stadion and it seemed to be one they could build on in the future, however, the team was swiftly broken up. All but one of the aforementioned players (Djuricic) were sold in the summer and coach Jans departed, seemingly setting Heerenveen back years.
Van Basten was recruited to lead the team into the current campaign and try to recover from the loss of so many key players. The former Ajax and AC Milan legend picked a fight with the board quite early on in his tenure, complaining that less than 15% of the total money raised in transfers was reinvested into the first-team. However, Van Basten was told to get on with the job with the relatively small budget. Because of the large dip in quality, the expectations for the new coach in his first season were minimal. No one expected a repeat of the previous campaign, but the opening half of the season was a slip too far for many.
After their opening 17 games, Heerenveen sat in 13th place with just three wins, holding a four point gap over bottom club Willem II. It was a disaster. The coach was under immense pressure to turn it around quickly, and, luckily, he did. In this second half of the campaign, Heerenveen have lost only four matches and drawn three, collecting 27 points from their last 15 games.
Key to this form has been Finnbogason and the partnership he has developed with Djuricic and winger Rajiv van La Parra, as well as Yassine El Ghanassy in the later stages following his arrival on loan from Gent.
While Heerenveen have been infuriatingly inconsistent this season, Finnbogason has been in impressive form throughout. He introduced himself to his new fans with two goals against reigning champions Ajax in his first home game in a 3-3 draw. From then on, he hasn’t stopped. No matter how big the occasion or the opponent, Finnbogason has always been a reliable source of goals for Van Basten, even when he hasn’t been playing well himself.
One particularly memorable match is the 2-1 win over NAC Breda. A turgid first-half performance from Heerenveen and Finnbogason was followed by a poor start to the second period in which the Breda club took the lead. The Icelandic forward was given a chance to pull his side level with a penalty in the 75th minute, but his poor attempt from the spot was kept out by Jelle ten Rouwelaar.
It wasn’t Finnbogason’s day, it seemed.
But the striker didn’t shy away, he persevered and eventually popped up to score two quick-fire goals to steal the three points in the crucial clash against the fellow relegation candidates.
Following that clash, Van Basten said he felt he could rely on Finnbogason to pull the side out of trouble, no matter how poor he has been throughout the match, and he has a point. Heerenveen have only lost three games in which their star striker has scored, and 19 of his goals have come in the second-half of a match, eight of those in the final 15 minutes.
That performance followed another very important one, in the match against Twente. The score was tied at 1-1 and Twente had been the better team throughout the second-half, until Finnbogason jumped up to head in a Van La Parra cross in the 79th minute. It was a game between two coaches under pressure, and the forward’s late goal seemed to seal the fate of Twente boss Steve McClaren, who resigned days later.
“It was clear that the third goal would win the game,” he told me in our interview a few weeks after the encounter in Enschede. “Like always, I was waiting for my chances, getting into good positions and waiting for the ball to come and I was in the box when none of the defenders were awake and, fortunately for me, that was the winning goal.”
That statement seems to sum up the key aspects of Finnbogason’s playing style. Even when Heerenveen aren’t playing well, or the majority of the action is taking place at the other end, he is always sure to make himself available and always confident that he can make the difference for his team. That, combined with his remarkable ability to pop up in the right place at the right time and his incredible killer instinct and technique, makes him the perfect striker for the club. He does it in the big games and he does it in the small games. Recently, he drew his side level with Ajax in the Amsterdam ArenA to delay Frank de Boer’s side’s title party and he was even given man of the match, a rarity for an opposition player in the home of the Dutch powerhouse.
In short, he’s the perfect replacement for Dost, which the player believes himself. “[Dost] did fantastically well here and earned his transfer to Germany, but I haven’t heard him mentioned a lot recently so maybe that’s praise to me that I’ve replaced him well.”
The wins over NAC and Twente were followed by three more, including one over PSV which saw the Eindhoven giants surrender their place atop the Eredivisie. Those three games completely turned Heerenveen’s season around. They had gone from fighting for survival to becoming contenders for a Europa League playoff spot and the following week they were to play NEC, who, at that point, occupied that final place. Heerenveen came from behind to win 3-1, with Finnbogason getting on the scoresheet. A week later, he would score one and set up another as his side dealt a crucial blow to Feyenoord’s title challenge in a 2-0 win.
Those results, added to the more recent win over Willem II and draw with champions elect Ajax, have played a huge part in Van Basten’s charges going from a team fighting for dear life in the Dutch top flight (although they never seemed likely to drop, they were hovering dangerously close to the relegation playoff spots) to one looking worthy of securing a place in European competition next season via the encore to the Eredivisie season.
Although he is responsible for half of his side’s goals this season, he rightly praises the work of Djuricic, El Ghanassy and Van La Parra when discussing his form as they suit his style perfectly in the speed of their play and their delivery of the ball.
Central to all of it, though, is Finnbogason. Not only has the Reykjavik-born striker done incredibly well to step in and replace Dost, he has managed to remain consistent throughout the season and score an abundance of important goals for his club. In his link-up play, goals and tenacity, he has been vital to the cause for Heerenveen. And his manager thinks he can grow even further. “I put Finnbogason in the category of strikers like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Jon Dahl Tomasson,” Van Basten told the Sunday Mirror. “All started their career at Heerenveen. “Finnbogason could become a fabulous striker. He has fantastic vision, an eye for goals and is of massive value to this club.” Praise from someone who knows of strikers to say the least.
While another year of development in the Dutch league and working under a legendary striker like Van Basten would do the striker no harm, if an enticing offer comes his way this summer, no one would blame him if he were to head off for pastures new. It seems a summer of great contemplation awaits the Heerenveen front man.