Player Focus: Important Season Ahead for New AZ Captain Gouweleeuw


An unfortunate ramification of football's globalisation and its ongoing commercialisation, accelerated by the infamous Bosman ruling, has been the systematic decline of those competitions outside of Europe's biggest television markets effectively turning them into feeder leagues. One such example is the Eredivisie, among those who depart each year are the most seasoned, but every once in a while there's an exception, which brings us to Jeffrey Gouweleeuw.

Eleven days after turning 24, in July, and partly due to his 'experience' – amassing well over 100 league games – the central defender was announced as AZ's new captain. The mentality 'if you're not plying your trade abroad by the age of 24 there's something wrong' ignores the notion that young footballers, who are more prone to dip in form, develop at different rates. The schizophrenic nature of modern football, quick to praise but even quicker to write off, doesn't help. Gouweleeuw is far from being a busted flush and it would be a mistake to completely write him off. Nevertheless this season, his sixth in top-flight football, is arguably his most important to date.

So much was promised when he burst onto the scene. A graduate of Heerenveen's esteemed developmental program, he was described by de Volkskrant, after an eye-catching performance against FC Groningen in March 2012, as having a "touch of [Franco] Baresi" whilst his former teammate Michel Breuer favourably compared him to Lúcio. Many observers were confident they were in the presence of a future international. He's yet to be capped.

As regards to his career since, it's a case of standing still rather than going backwards, what have not helped though are constant changes around him. If he can embrace and revel in a newfound responsibility as leader then contention for a place in the Dutch national squad could become a reality. To his advantage Marco van Basten, former manager/coach at both Heerenveen and AZ, is again involved with the national set-up (as Danny Blind's right-hand man). He more than anyone knows what Gouweleeuw is capable of. 

From a technical standpoint the Heemskerk native is an archetypal Dutch 'number three' or playmaking central defender. So naturally Gerard Piqué is an example and like the Spaniard he would rather his ability as a "footballing defender" – insight, skill on the ball, technique and passing – be recognised first and foremost.

Frank de Boer, who mastered the position the AZ skipper is attempting to make his own, has two rules of defending; never to tackle and never turn around to block the ball. Concerning the former Gouweleeuw rarely resorts to physicality, instead choosing to resolve situations through good spatial and positional awareness. His reading of the game may never reach the level of Paolo Maldini, who once said "the best defenders don't get their shorts dirty", but he is beyond adequate. A case in point last season saw him make more interceptions (119) than any other player in the league.


Player Focus: Important Season Ahead for New AZ Captain Gouweleeuw


In possession he is of value to his team too, averaging 45.8 passes per game in 2014/15. His pass success rate of 78% was the highest of any AZ player to make 30 appearances or more. In fact he was the only player to feature in every league game – which adheres to the Cruyffian principle of the central defender needing to have the "best ball handling skills". To borrow the words of Pep Guardiola, "they bring you out of trouble and set up the forwards".

Despite a managerial merry-go-round last year at the North Holland club Gouweleeuw never compromised his playing style. The role he undertakes allows a few liberties to be taken which plays to his strengths, a player dictated by kinetics. His natural instinct has always been to start, continue and if possible finish the attack – mobility and fleet of foot enables him to effortlessly move between the lines – last term scoring once and providing three assists from 21 shots and 14 key passes respectively.

Such is his comfort stepping into midfield, Van Basten - during their period together at Heerenveen - hinted at the possibility of converting him into a deep-lying playmaker. That could still be a future likelihood. If he existed in a previous generation chances are he would be utilised as a libero. Looking back more recently, in his first year as a professional, he announced himself as a one-man wrecking ball, making last ditch tackles and popping up at the other end. His exuberance and unhealthy obsession to attack gave the impression of being controlled by a remote control in the crowd. Ron Jans, the manager who oversaw his professional debut, breathlessly labelled him as the "star of tomorrow".

Since those halcyon days Gouweleeuw has lacked genuine consistency, his concentration and positional discipline coming under scrutiny, however at the back-end of the season that has just gone things started to turn around, which factored heavily in John van den Brom's decision to make him his leader on the pitch. AZ ended third under Van den Brom and they fancy a repeat if the top two is beyond them.

Gouweleeuw is central to their pursuit, not only marshalling the defence but acting as a reference for his teammates. Compared to his formative years there's maturity and calmness to his game. He knows exactly when to move into midfield, the right pass to make and without possession his positioning is more disciplined. Under Van den Brom's brief tutelage he's improved the defensive and tactical side of his game too. If this upward momentum continues, and for his sake it must, then reaching the next level shouldn't be too far off.


Will Gouweleeuw earn a call up to the Dutch national side this season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below

Player Focus: Important Season Ahead for New AZ Captain Gouweleeuw