PSV threatening Ajax monopoly under Phillip Cocu's lead
Going into 2014 the mood in Eindhoven was all doom and gloom with PSV languishing seventh, an eye-watering 11 points behind leaders and eventual champions Ajax. Heading into 2015 as 'winter champions', the Boeren have given themselves a wonderful opportunity to secure a first championship since 2008 under club legend Phillip Cocu. What a difference a year has made.
Every journey starts with a single step and last season was no exception; despite creeping doubts – and supporter anger threatening to spill over – after losing 6 of their first 18 games, there were signs of better days ahead. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the keenest of observers during the bleak winter of 2013/14 predicted a recovery, partly because there was a long-term vision, and you can see what Cocu was attempting. Implementing a style of play – especially for teams who struggle to keep hold of their players – would be gradual.
That promise is now being fulfilled. In terms of mental strength its chalk and cheese compared to last season. There's a sense of togetherness, no longer are they dropping their heads when the chips are down. Aad de Mos, who managed the club in the mid-1990s, credits the arrival of Mexican international Andrés Guardado (on loan from Valencia), their silent force in the middle of the park, as being the catalyst. The experience and warrior spirit he has brought has galvanised teammates who are desperate to break Ajax's monopoly.
After 18 games PSV have tasted defeat just twice (a full four fewer than at this stage last season), won 14 matches (seven more) and scored 48 goals (13 more), but what is most encouraging – and it's been the cornerstone behind their revival – is their defence, which hasn't always covered itself in glory. Cocu's exemplary organisation skills have taken centre stage; no team boasts a meaner rear-guard (14 goals conceded); a stark contrast to 365 days ago when their against column (22) raised questions regarding the quality of their young central defenders – Jeffrey Bruma and Karim Rekik (on loan from Manchester City).
Regardless of external misgivings Cocu kept faith and has started to be repaid. By challenging them to adopt a take-no-prisoner mentality, thus becoming leaders, Bruma-Rekik has developed into one of the Eredivisie's more commanding pairings. They make the most passes in the PSV squad (47.3 and 47.4 per game, respectively), with both enjoying bringing the ball out of defence and starting attacks, while they also fare similarly well when it comes to interceptions. Bruma, the more strategic, is ahead (2.0 per game to Rekik’s 1.6) but is making fewer tackles (1.6 to 1.8). The two are coming on leaps and bounds; they are a microcosm of the club as a whole.
Consistency has been at the heart of PSV's mini renaissance, and it's led to stronger cohesion and better understanding amongst the players. Seven of them have played 15 games or more, including both Rekik and Bruma. Another illustration of their progression is having four players in WhoScored's team of 2014/15 so far – the most by any side. Cocu struggled last term, making the odd rookie mistake here and there, but it was understandable.
His appointment was a gamble, though a logical one given the direction in which PSV were heading. Despite serving on a temporary basis in the spring of 2012 (when he won the Dutch Cup), the fact remains that it was his first permanent managerial gig straight out of finishing school. A new economic reality meant policy shifted, with the focus now on youth and development, illustrated by the first team’s average age being 22.3 (the second youngest in the division). Looking towards Amsterdam, sporting director Marcel Brands knows cultivating a distinctive set of values, such as promoting from within and putting down deep local roots, can lead to a more sustainable future.
History made Cocu the ideal candidate: a former academy coach, with knowledge gained during a successful playing career in which he registered nearly 600 league appearances and 101 caps for the Netherlands over two decades. Cocu, drenched in the philosophy and culture of PSV, is what you could call a student of the game.
"There is no book that can teach you. Ideas are king," as former teammate Pep Guardiola once stated. Guus Hiddink and Louis van Gaal both made the biggest impression on him and subsequently many of their approaches have been incorporated into his own philosophy, notably steadfastness to ball circulation (with 372 short passes per game). However, behind his mission to play dominating football there's pragmatism, borne out of the 'PSV School', which preaches aggression before aesthetics. For example, they have scored at least 3 more goals on the counter (5) than any other team, while only Vitesse betters them when it comes to shots (19 to 18.9) and shots on target per game (7.8 to 7.6).
Arnhem, where he spent his formative years and where his title quest resumes this weekend, holds a special place in Cocu's heart. It was also the site of PSV's improbable championship victory in 2007 – one of the most exciting and closest title races in many years. His goal that day, the last in a 5-1 win (which turned out to be his last game for the club), secured a third successive championship. A small virus infiltrating the club was how the situation at PSV was described when he took office, though the fever has since been reduced. Only lifting the prize that has eluded them for six years will truly mean a full recovery.