Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Our Dutch football expert Mohamed Moallim on yet another club pushing the big boys for the title
'No Bridge Too Far' it said on the shirt: a tagline befitting Vitesse under Fred Rutten. There’s something endearing about Rutten: a manager who's there but not really there, a romantic who has often suffered at the hands of reality but who can be more than content with where his side are going.
For the visit of Heracles last month, Vitesse abandoned their famous yellow and black strip, instead wearing maroon and blue. The one-off strip paid homage to the 1st Airborne Division, who 68 years ago fought at the Battle of Arnhem – part of Operation Market Garden, or “a bridge too far” as division commander Frederick Browning called it during planning.
Heracles left with a ‘fair draw’ – only the second time this season Vitesse haven't won, but for club skipper Guram Kashia there were far more important things. At the final whistle he made his way to the side of the pitch, where he spotted Johnny Peters – one of the 20 veterans in attendance, invited by the club. After saluting Peters, Kashia apologised for not winning then stated who the real heroes are. It was a poignant moment.
Kashia and his teammates know the sky’s the limit in Arnhem, but they remain grounded. August marked the second anniversary of Georgian businessman Merab Jordania’s takeover, which made Vitesse the first Dutch club to come under foreign ownership.
Former footballer Jordania immediately set his sights on a title by 2013, but he has since downgraded expectations – hardly surprising considering that in his first season, Vitesse only avoided relegation on goal difference. Instead, Jordania outlined a long-term vision with the aim of bringing Champions League football to Arnhem – but only after consolidating themselves as a top four side.
The takeover created the usual high hopes, but Jordania's wealth is nowhere near that of the owners of Málaga, PSG and Manchester City. Even so, in the cash-strapped Eredivisie he’s certainly an advantage – as will be the impending lucrative shirt sponsorship deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Last season John van den Brom led the team to seventh and earned a Europa League spot via the play-offs. It was their highest finish in seven years, but still short of their 1990s heyday when the Eagles never finished outside the top six.
Vitesse fans get behind the team
That's the benchmark, but the modern Eredivisie is breathlessly competitive – as Rutten knows all too well, having been one of the many that has fallen victim to it. His final two seasons at previous club PSV came against a backdrop of history: the Eindhoven club who had so recently dominated the league weren’t winning games they were supposed to, and another year without the championship was another year of failure.
PSV and Rutten were drifting towards a summer divorce until a crazy week in spring when PSV lost three successive games and his tenure came to a premature end. It seemed harsh – in an unpredictable division, PSV were only four points off the summit with nine games left – but unsurprising in the longer-term context: common consensus considered him lucky to have been granted that third season at the club.
Rutten didn’t become a bad manager overnight. Arnhem, away from the constant spotlight, was the perfect place to restore his image. “I was convinced to take the job after watching the club’s ambition. It is a beautiful club with many promising youngsters, who can certainly shine at the highest level,” he told the club's official website on signing a one-year deal. “I think it was my destiny to work here.”
Rutten looks to the future
Van den Brom left a stable team laced with talent, and Rutten has created an atmosphere where his players can enjoy their football. Second-placed Vitesse are the only unbeaten team beside champions Ajax, having gained 17 points from seven games, but the season was earmarked for taking baby steps forward, and Rutten is playing down the title talk: “It’s nonsense to think we are already at their level.”
That mantra remained in place after last weekend's 2-1 win at FC Utrecht – a club-record fourth successive away victory – but Rutten is aware of the possibilities: "If the season ended now I would be congratulated on finishing second."
They hadn't been at their best a week earlier, in that wartime-commemorating game against Heracles. The visitors had deployed a 3-4-3 system for the first time under Peter Bosz, who noted that “it allowed us to play daring football, which we showed.” Rutten agreed: “Out of the six clubs we've faced I found them to be the best footballing opponent.”
When Vitesse fell behind just after half-time to Ninos Gouriye's strike, it felt like last season all over again for Rutten. But Vitesse probed for the equaliser, and got it through a penalty converted by Wilfried Bony, last season’s top scorer. Rutten wasn’t despondent at dropping points, but noted that “we are now expected to win every game.”
Bony, nicknamed ‘Daddy Cool’, had looked certain to leave on transfer deadline day, and after discovering Vitesse had blocked a move to Aston Villa he made his feelings clear: “This club drives me completely crazy.” His anger subsided 48 hours later, after scoring a very late winner against Feyenoord with a cunning backheel.
The Ivorian is just one of the components in Rutten’s 4-3-3 – a formation used regularly in his final season at PSV after disposing of his tried and tested 4-2-3-1. The attacking formation has enhanced the verve and dynamism of a club known as FC Hollywood on the Rhine.
They display guile as well as style, as shown the week before the Heracles game. Jan-Arie van der Heijden, who’s developed an understanding with Kashia in the centre of defence, was dismissed 30 minutes into the game at FC Groningen; they still ended up winning 3-0.
It was personal revenge for Rutten: on his last visit to the Euroborg with PSV he had left with his tail firmly between his legs, having lost 3-0. “I'm really proud of this team," beamed the boss. “We played well, with courage.”
On this occasion, Mike Havenaar was the difference, opening the scoring after coming off the bench. A Japanese striker Dutch heritage, Havenaar has become a fan favourite: he it was in the photo Vitesse released showing their shirt commemorating Battle of Arnhem.
Expectations will understandably grow as Vitesse progress, and increased competition is healthy for the league. It might not be this season that they mount a full assault on the title, but don't rule it out: the men of Arnhem more than any others are entitled to say "No bridge too far".
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