In the Eredivisie, the battle of the title contenders can be of vital importance. As Feyenoord look back at the four point gap between them and league champions Ajax at the end of last season, they may ponder what might have been had they not lost both games to their fierce rivals.
The previous year, PSV had their title chances in their own hands until they suffered a second defeat of the season to Frank de Boer’s men, who went on to lift a third title in a row.
This Sunday, Ajax and PSV, the two teams seen as the only real contenders for the Eredivisie crown this year, go head-to-head in the Amsterdam ArenA, looking to gain the upper hand in what promises to be a close fought battle. The two giants of modern Dutch football share the top spot with PEC and FC Groningen as all four have won their first two games, with PSV and Ajax leading the charts on goal difference.
Both teams can be extremely confident heading into the match. Ajax are the four-time reigning champions and have already disposed of Vitesse and AZ in games they lost last season. PSV, on the other hand, have been excellent in their first two games and have a lot of options in their squad.
Overall, they appear evenly matched, but there is one key factor which could tip the battle in PSV’s favour – Memphis Depay.
This time last year, PSV had shown themselves to be a real force in the Eredivisie once again. The Eindhoven giants seemed certain to challenge Ajax until the dying weeks and perhaps finally end the era of dominance the Amsterdam side have enjoyed in recent years. However, after building on their opening of a 3-2 win over ADO Den Haag and a 5-0 demolition of NEC, Phillip Cocu’s team completely capitulated, following a 4-0 demolition of Ajax with a run of one win in nine games.
This season has started in much the same way for them, with the Boeren beating newly-promoted Willem II 3-1 before demolishing NAC Breda 6-1. So far, the displays have been equally electrifying and, while neither team posed any considerable threat, there is a feeling that this time PSV are here to really push Ajax to the brink. One of the main reasons for the new found confidence and threat of PSV has been the incredible development of the young attacker of Ghanaian descent.
The 20-year-old has returned from a magnificent World Cup campaign with the Netherlands national team where he benefited from the experience of working with Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Nigel de Jong and Louis van Gaal. Depay left as an unknown name but returned to Eindhoven a highly-sought after figure, with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United having shown an interest in him.
Since his return, he seems to have developed a great deal in his mentality as well as his ability. In his first two games of the new campaign, Depay has been nothing short of brilliant. With four goals he is already the league’s top goalscorer, but to focus on that tally is to ignore the real excellence of his displays.
His two goals in the Philips Stadion last week were impeccable free kicks, while his goals against Willem II were by way of a gift and a penalty. But what has been most devastating about Depay so far is his movement, his link up and his preposterous skill.
Lining up alongside Luuk de Jong and Jurgen Locadia in a front three ahead of Adam Maher and Georgionio Wijnaldum, the revelation of last season covers a great deal of ground, swapping flanks with Locadia, dropping deep to retrieve the ball and even tracking back to help his team defend.
His pace and skill are unmatched in the Eredivisie and given his exceptional work rate his potential is seemingly unlimited. There is not another player in the league who has the same extreme blend of skill, technical ability, eagerness and determination.
What’s most impressive about Depay, though, is how quickly he has developed.
This is not a player who has steadily developed himself into the absolute star player of the Eredivisie like Christian Eriksen did before his move to Tottenham Hotspur. In fact, this is only his second season as a regular starter for PSV and for the first half of his first season he did not appear to be the versatile and intelligent youngster that shines through now.
While his ability was clear, his desire to take all of the responsibility and try and make the difference for his side was often counterproductive. Thrust into a young and fresh squad of players who were essentially alien to each other and lead by a coach in his first full season in charge of a senior team, Depay felt that, after a bright start to the season, he had to pull them out of the hole they had fallen into.
Despite his best efforts, he was powerless to stop his side losing to Groningen, NAC Breda, Roda JC, Feyenoord and Vitesse, yet in many ways he was a hindrance. His skill, talent and attacking threat were undeniable, but Depay’s only thought when getting the ball appeared to be drive forward and shoot, regardless of other options ahead of him or the unlikelihood of him hitting the net.
As a result of this rather wasteful mentality, he ended the season having hit more shots than anyone else in the league, 28 more than the next trigger-happy player, Graziano Pelle. Of his 132 shots, less than half were on target and only 12 hit the back of the net.
The end of 2013 was the turning point for Depay and PSV. The youngster began to take his time on the ball more often and think before simply pulling the trigger. As a result, his link up with Locadia improved a great deal and he became a much more efficient player. From the away victory over Utrecht and beyond, he scored eight of his 12 goals and helped PSV win 13 of their final 18 games.
This year already appears to be completely different to last season. He has started the new season the way he ended the last and 2014 has seen him improve in so many areas and is certainly the most talented and brightest prospect in the league. Following the departures of last season’s Eredivisie top goalscorers Alfred Finnbogason and Pelle, there is arguably no clinical out-and-out striker around and it is not unreasonable to suggest that the winger could top the charts this season.
As the Eindhovenaren look to displace Ajax at the pinnacle of Dutch football, this Sunday could be crucial and, heading into it, no player is as important this Sunday, or this season, as Depay.