Dubbed “the Dutch Chelsea”, AZ Alkmaar, its owner Dirk Scheringa, and it's manager Louis van Gaal didn’t win any popularity prizes the past two seasons—spending millions and boasting about imminent success.
Having missed the Dutch title on the final day on goal difference back in the 2005-06 season, AZ invested heavily and announced to challenge for the title once again last season.
The season turned out to be a horror season for AZ and Van Gaal. Plagued by injuries, poor morale, and new signings not gelling with the other squad-members, AZ had to battle against relegation for a while, before ending the season with an anonymous mid-table finish.
Louis van Gaal, the stubborn, arrogant yet brilliant manager, initially refused to take the blame for the team's decline. He blamed referees, the blamed the media, he blamed the weather, he blamed the Dutch FA, but never himself or his players.
As amusing as his rants often were, they were pissing off other managers, players, and fans to a point were people actually enjoyed AZ’s and Van Gaals losing streak. Many people were criticizing chairman Dirk Scheringa for not sacking the unsuccessful manager.
Van Gaal had considered pulling out, but he was convinced by his own players and chairman to stay. He had been served his own serving of humble pie, but he stuck to it and continued. Credit where it’s due, not many managers would have. Hell, not many chairmen would have given him the chance to stick to it for that matter.
Much to the amusement of his critics, Van Gaal and AZ lost the opening two fixtures of the current season as well. NAC Breda beat AZ 3-2 in Alkmaar and ADO Den Haag overpowered them 3-0 in the Zuiderpark in Den Haag. It looked like AZ had continued where they left of last season.
In the third league match, Van Gaal sparked what we can now describe as the turn-around. His motivational speech inspired AZ to pull of a shock 1-0 win over reigning champions PSV Eindhoven. This again underlines the importance of morale.
Keeping morale high amongst players is crucial (haven’t I mentioned this before?) and managers have many ways to play with their player's minds, whether they criticise to get a performance, or they encourage and tell them bluntly just how it is.
It’s the way a manager deals with his players' morale that determines the success of the team as a whole.
Ever since that win, AZ have started playing like the potential title winning team they are. Free-flowing attacking football, spectacular goals, and intelligent plays, Van Gaal's trademarks are once again becoming visible to all.
AZ has been playing very impressive, so can they bounce back to clinch the Dutch title this season? They sure stand a realistic chance. Their current squad is well balanced and talented and the main rivals PSV, Ajax, and Feyenoord have failed to impress so far.
Still, Van Gaal likes to look at his own squad and his own qualities, so I’ll do the same. When we look at the AZ squad, he have to conclude their squad is just very good in every line. Goalies, defence, midfield, offence—no real weaknesses.
Goalkeeper Sergio Romero has won the 2008 Summer Olympics with Argentina and is developing into a class act in the capable hands of Van Gaal and his staff.
The defence is also looking sturdy. Gill Swerts and Niklas Moisander are attacking full-backs in the Ajax tradition, covering the entire wing and playing impressively both on offence and defence. The heart of the defence is formed by veteran Kew Jaliens and the talented young Mexican Hector Moreno.
In midfield, Van Gaal can select Dutch internationals like Demy de Zeeuw and Stijn Schaars, as well as Belgian internationals Maarten Martens and Sebastien Pocognoli. Australian international Brett Holman is also available. The true revelation in midfield so far has been Nick van der Velden, who came in from minnows FC Dordrecht.
Upfront, Van Gaal and AZ have a luxury problem. Belgian powerhouse forward Moussa Dembele is being coveted by several European top clubs. His style of play and physical build is similar to that of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so he could be a future star. Just have a look at this goal he scored against Willem II. He impressed the world with the Belgian Olympic Team this summer and he has taken this superb form back home to Alkmaar.
Paired up with Dembele is Moroccan-Dutch technician Mounir El Hamdaoui. After an unsuccessful stint at Spurs, Mounir returned to Holland. After a season at Willem II, he was signed by AZ, where he’s turning into a prolific goalscorer, scoring several spectacular efforts over the past few weeks.
As back-ups, Van Gaal can rely on Brazilian target-man Ari and former Italian U-21 international Graziano Pellé.
So from my point of view, this could just be AZ’s lucky season. Their own squad is looking very impressive so far and their main rivals have all lost key players this summer, whom they haven’t been able to replace so far.