This summer saw no fewer than 54 players leave the Eredivisie. Someone who remained, albeit changing sides, was the mercurial 20-year-old Adam Maher. His rapid ascent over the last eighteen months attracted attention from a host of clubs across Europe, but he consciously made the decision to remain in the Netherlands to continue his development, leaving AZ for PSV.
Expected to hit the ground running, it’s been anything but simple, however there are enough signs to suggest Maher can grow into the darling of Eindhoven.
“It is a long-cherished desire to get Adam,” sporting director Marcel Brands – who previously worked in Alkmaar – delightfully announced.
“We have a very talented player that fits into the philosophy of PSV Eindhoven,” On arrival Maher was handed the number six jersey worn by outgoing captain Mark van Bommel. “Mark thought it was a good idea,” as Brands explained; though very distinct in style Maher can also be considered a ‘technical leader’ in his own right. Wim van Zwam, who coached him when playing for the Dutch U15s, describes him as “unperturbed” and “takes responsibility”.
He’s not one to shout or point, instead through his actions galvanising his teammates. It was plain to see at AZ (though like every teenager, he would occasionally struggle for form) and it should come to the fore in a relatively young team at PSV.
After a relatively impressive start, winning their first three league games, PSV froze; three consecutive draws was followed by their humbling of Ajax, only to then lose four of their next six games. In what has been an anarchic season they nonetheless find themselves five points off the leaders. Their instability, unquestionably going through a transitional phase, has impacted on Maher, who is adapting to his new surroundings, and with it a new position.
Capable of playing anywhere across midfield or as a wide forward his favourite position is in the hole behind the striker – a deep-lying forward – where his direct style and quick feet is used to its fullest effect with the ball seeming glued to his toes as he races into threatening positions.
Last season (in AZ’s 4-2-3-1 formation) it brought out the best in him – linking up with forward Jozy Altidore – as he constantly found space, much of which he created himself, also drifting out wide too.
At his new club, manager Phillip Cocu has utilised a more traditional 4-3-3, using Maher as an advanced playmaker; while AZ leaned towards a counter-attacking style, Cocu wants his side to dominate possession. Even so he’s shown the wherewithal to adapt.
In what has been a tentative start, he has obtained an average rating of 6.7, but he is second only to winger Memphis Depay in key passes made (20), whilst his 37.3 passes per game isn’t as high as he would like but is still a reasonable return given the changes around him.
It’s hard to get carried away with an emerging talent in the Netherlands, given there are so many around many of whom are now little more than household names, but there’s something special about Maher. He’s not the biggest; and can often be knocked off the ball (dispossessed 19 times), however what he lacks in physicality he makes up for in clever positioning, interceptions (14) and movement.
He glides between the lines – the “dancing butterfly” as he’s been called – spatially conscious, and he shows adeptness for eye-of-the-needle passing and close control. Only Heerenveen’s Hakim Ziyech (6) has played more accurate through balls than Maher (4) in the Eredivisie this season.
“When he receives possession things start to happen,” as his former youth coach at A.V.V. Zeeburgia Mike Kolf puts it. “In terms of creativity he reminds me of Cesc Fàbregas,” Martin Haar his former coach at AZ said. Huge praise indeed, but it doesn’t stop there. Incredibly many observers disagree; instead suggesting he’s more akin to Andrés Iniesta, on the grounds being a similar type of playmaker: intuitive, vertical, fast, fleet-footed, adventurous and intelligent.
Maher translates from Arabic as “skilful”, and he is exactly that. He doesn’t control the ball with his first touch – he sets up his next move. His ingenuity, coupled with his sharp brain, is his greatest asset. Like many Dutch footballers he was immersed in street football where much of his technical ability was honed. “He always had the solution before the ball arrived,” Aloys Wijnker, head of youth development at AZ recalled.
It wasn’t long before he alerted the attention of AC Milan, Manchester City and Lyon; after excelling at a youth tournament held in France, but any move was rebuffed by his father. His humility, with the world at his feet is a trait instilled by his parents who advised him to “stay humble and be patient.”
Born in Diemen, east of Amsterdam in 1993, Maher joined AZ’s youth academy in 2004 after turning out for SV Diemen and AVV Zeeburgia. He could have moved to Ajax “I had trails there. It wasn’t like I rejected them.” They were again linked this summer, a union was expected – the ideal successor to Christian Eriksen – but a difference in valuation saw a potential deal collapse.
He made his senior début in December 2010, coming on as a substitute in a Europa League tie against FK BATE Borisov – where his impact was instant – grabbing his side’s third in a 3-0 win. At the age of 17 years and 147 days he became the youngest Dutchman to score in European competition. His final season was the most productive: 7 league goals in 31 games.
His last goal in an AZ shirt was, coincidentally, against PSV, in the KNVB Beker final; which demonstrated his guile – picking up the ball in his own half before sprinting towards PSV’s goal – and poise, shifting it onto his left foot before calmly slotting past Boy Waterman. He has not scored in the league for PSV, despite attempting 19 shots, but you feel his first strike can’t be far away.
Another positive is his intuition; there’s a childlike enthusiasm about the way he carries himself on the pitch, football is enjoyment first and foremost. Although striving to be the best he occasionally gets carried away. “I’m sometimes careless,” being allowed to express himself paid dividends for AZ and will do for PSV.
In time that nonchalance will subside as he becomes a polished footballer. Having to develop his versatility – showing the discipline to play in a deeper role as a controlling playmaker with added defensive responsibilities – is a blessing rather than a curse as it will mould him into a more complete player.
A stop-start season has reduced his involvement with the Dutch national team. A short time before Bert van Marwijk announced his Euro 2012 squad Maher – who is also eligible to represent Morocco – pledged his allegiance to Oranje.
“It’s good for my personal development to play World Cups and European Championships. I’m making a lot of progress when I’m surrounded by these players,” he told De Telegraaf.
He didn’t make the Euros squad but Van Marwijk’s successor Louis van Gaal has capped him five times (although four of them have been substitute appearances). He arrived to his first squad meeting in August 2012 as the reigning Dutch ‘talent of the year’ – a prize Johan Cruyff votes on. From those currently available to Van Gaal he offers something different and there’s no doubt, if he doesn’t make the trip to Brazil, he’ll be heavily involved in the Euro 2016 campaign.
Brands sees Maher contributing “massively to the future success of PSV” and few disagree. However, it’s fair to say we haven’t seen the Maher of last season, only glimpses of the “unquestionable quality” Guus Hiddink professes to, but that is logical with the team – as well as the player himself – still finding their feet. Maher remains special and you’d expect, as the season progresses, that he will illuminate the ‘City of Light’.