Worth the Buzz – Berghuis will add sting to the Hornets
As he stood in the middle of the room and addressed his squad in an impromptu team-talk, AZ coach John van den Brom announced to his players that star winger Steven Berghuis was leaving the training camp to sort out a transfer to Watford. The trainer then turned to the 23-year-old he had coached for less than a year and wished him success in his next venture. Amidst applause of congratulations from the room, Berghuis took the floor to thank and say goodbye to his comrades.
The summer has brought many high profile and public departures across Europe. Xavi went out amidst a backdrop of glory as a treble winner yet again at Barcelona, the perfect way to say goodbye to a club he had been with since he was 11-years-old. Weeks later, though, his good friend Iker Casillas was shamefully forced to sit alone in Real Madrid’s press room and tearfully announce an end to a glorious 25-year spell at the club. Closer to home, Jordy Clasie, a graduate of Feyenoord’s youth academy, left the club to join Southampton, returning a week later to play in De Kuip for the final time. Despite lining up in the away side this time, he was given a huge farewell from the Rotterdam natives, a reception which proved overwhelming as he burst into tears before beating Feyenoord 3-0. Weather it’s in acrimonious circumstances or after wonderful achievements, the departure of a legend is tough to take for everyone involved.
On the other side of the spectrum, this is a time where too many players tweet screenshots of bland, pseudo-emotional statements written on their phones, declaring their undying love for the club they spent a season with before seizing the first opportunity to make a bigger step.
Berghuis’ goodbye was very different, of course, and perhaps somewhere in between. By no means a club legend, the Apeldoorn-born player was not raised through the youth academy and indeed only spent three years there. However, that interesting scene of his announcement, caught on camera and posted onto AZ’s Facebook page, provided a rare glimpse into the intimacy that accompanies such moments. It showed that AZ has become important to him, having carved him into the player he is, while it was evident that he is well respected and admired by team-mates and staff members.
There were no tears or over-dramatic reactions to the news. It was a quiet farewell, apt for a winger who has a subtle effectiveness to his game as he evades markers with quiet but intelligent runs. It was an authentic and somewhat emotional team moment.
There seemed a genuine sense of loss in Van den Brom’s tone. Berghuis is choosing a good time to move on and his departure was expected, but it did not look easy for him to shake off his surroundings and take the next leap without them. It will feel particularly difficult given that, when Berghuis joined AZ from FC Twente, he was a talent with question marks surrounding his maturity and mental toughness. Yet he leaves three years later as a very promising player with a bright future. Indeed, expectations were very high in the start of his career, when his manager Co Adriaanse told the press that Berghuis reminded him of Messi. From then on though, Berghuis had struggled to live up to expectations at FC Twente so much that a loan to minnows VVV-Venlo was arranged.
“I know where I come from, really this deal makes me very happy,” he told De Telegraaf. “At FC Twente and on loan at VVV-Venlo, I did not show enough.
“In one or two training sessions each week I was great, but more often I was just bad. At one point the penny dropped and I realised that I have to work hard every day to move forward.
“I’m indebted to AZ. The club bought me in 2012 for €500,000 from FC Twente, yet I was worthless when I was on loan at VVV. It really surprised me that AZ came in for me.”
With the likes of Roy Beerens, Maarten Martens and Johann Berg Gudmundsson ahead of him, Berghuis struggled to get any game time initially. However, a knee injury to Martens ended the Belgian’s season early on and from there the youngster began to play more frequently.
The following season, amidst a bright start to the campaign, he still found a starting spot hard to come by under Gertjan Verbeek. But the sacking of the now Bochum boss saw Dick Advocaat take over the Alkmaar club and from there Berghuis emerged as a very bright prospect.
“My best memories at AZ are of working with Advocaat,” Berghuis said. “When I started playing more and more from the bench. Everything started to go better and my game showed an upward trend. Those were the best moments.”
Berghuis went on to score seven goals in the 20 Eredivisie games he featured in that season under Advocaat, having mustered just one in over 30 appearances during Verbeek’s reign, while he also made six assists.
Proving himself as a quick winger with a good cross who can act as a direct threat, Berghuis was now showing to be a player of real quality. The 2014-15 campaign was set to be a big one for the attacker and as he scored in each of his first three games of the season, it was certainly shaping up to be. However, an injury picked up in September ruled him out for 10 games and after his return it took a few weeks to find his rhythm again. When he did, though, he played a key role in a bright end to the season for AZ.
Berghuis scored eight goals across the final 15 games as AZ caught up with Feyenoord in the race for third place. With a goal in each of the last two games, he helped his side overtake the Rotterdammers and capture the automatic Europa League spot on the final day.
The player emerged from the campaign a more decisive and rounded winger. He can be a direct threat on goal with his powerful left foot, but he is not completely trigger happy. With his close control and his ability to play with his head up, Berghuis shows his intelligence and quick thinking as he either decides whether to pick out a neat pass or have an attempt in a short space of time. Otherwise, he will stay outside and whip an accurate crosses in, showing his roundedness and versatility.
The Netherlands Under 21 international can play on either side but is more at home on the right, giving him more options. But with a mobile striker in Aron Johannsson playing beside him, he often found himself coming inside and finishing off a central attack.
He has a great awareness of his surroundings and when that is combined with his anticipation off the ball, it allows him to ghost in behind markers and help create space.
Once an uncommitted player at Twente, then a benchwarmer at AZ, Berghuis was now a star in Alkmaar and one of the most convincing wingers in a Dutch league full of talented wide men. But while players like Memphis Depay, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordy Clasie were the main talking points, Berghuis slipped under the radar for those outside the Eredivisie.
For an Eredivisie player, the timing of making a step up to another league is crucial. If it happens too early, it can set them back a long way in their development. While there are cases like the aforementioned trio, who had already outgrown the league and it could be argued that spending another season in Netherlands would be counterproductive to their development.
Berghuis, though, was somewhere in the middle.
The 23-year-old is one of those cases, like last season’s team-mate Nemanja Gudelj and Vitesse’s Marko Vejinovic, who would still benefit from another year in the Dutch top flight, but who don’t necessarily need it.
While Ajax and Feyenoord snapped up Gudelj and Vejinovic respectively, Berghuis was, for a while, expected to join PSV to succeed Memphis and reunite with former AZ team-mate and good friend Adam Maher. A transfer to the Eindhoven side would have presented him with a new challenge, whereas staying at AZ may have been slightly too comfortable. So when a switch to the Philips Stadion did not materialise, Berghuis opted to look beyond Netherlands to find his next step.
Although a step down from AZ, it was no surprise that Watford’s interest was enough to convince him to leave. The Hornets can certainly offer him a lot more money, but sporting-wise it gives him a whole new level of pressure and tests. His qualities will transfer over to the Premier League well, meaning it is a good place to help him continue his development.
That there is no room for error in the lower parts of the league means he must be at his best at all times, too, but he’s ready for it.
His rapid development has been very impressive, but he has been lucky to find a positive environment at AZ in which to do it. While his time was short, it’s clear he feels immense gratitude to the Alkmaar club.
“At AZ I actually had everything I wanted. Saying goodbye is hard for me. But if you want to further your career, you have to dare to go forward,” he said.
“I’m almost 24 now and it has always been my dream to play in a big league,” he said. “I must adapt to the Premier League and physically I will have to make steps. But when I’ve been in the Dutch national team I have shown that I could keep up with other class footballers. I am going to London with confidence. ”
Indeed, Berghuis has every reason to be optimistic about this next step, because more will surely follow.