Reformed Feyenoord have a new lease of life under Koeman and Guardiola influenced Giovanni van Bronckhorst

When Giovanni van Bronckhorst was still an assistant coach to Ronald Koeman at Feyenoord in 2013, he was sent by the current Everton manager to Munich for a sort of two-day ‘apprenticeship’ with Pep Guardiola and his coaching staff.

“It’s very good to see. He has his own vision and he lets the players play the way he wants., said Van Bronckhorst yesterday at the press conference. “For me, he’s a big inspiration.”

Koeman, who mentored Guardiola as part of the famed Dream Team at Barcelona, wanted to get some insight into his old teammate’s training drills and sessions, but equally provide Van Bronckhorst with an invaluable internship with arguably the best manager in the world at the time.

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Two years later, Van Bronckhorst was handed the reins at his childhood club, Feyenoord. Starting his third season in charge now, the former Barcelona defender has already won as many ‘big’ trophies as the club managed in the 14 years previous to his appointment. Eighteen years, if you - like Jose Mourinho - count the Johan Cruijff Schaal (Dutch equivalent of a Community Shield or Super Cup) as a big trophy too.

Three trophies in two years, and having gotten to a 100% winning start in the Eredivisie, things are looking up in Rotterdam after years of hurt and suffering, of trophyless seasons and tumultuous finances. They nearly went bankrupt back in 2010 and were resigned to mid-table mediocrity for years on end, but patient reform behind the scenes, along with smart recruitment, has given Feyenoord a lease of life that once seemed almost impossible. 

For all the plaudits Ajax earned on the European stage last season, Feyenoord were the best, most consistent team over the course of the whole season in the Netherlands, having led the table from the first week. Even if their rivals underperformed, the sheer consistency about which Feyenoord went about their campaign made them deserved champions, and found the perfect conclusion to the fairytale of winning the league after 18 years.

One of the key factors for their title win was their ability to hold down most of the squad that impressed in flashes the previous year, as well as adding a ‘game-changer’ signing in Nicolai Jorgensen, who went on to top both the scoring and assisting charts.

This summer, Feyenoord - in stark contrast to the travails of rivals PSV and Ajax in the transfer market - have done much of the same. Having lost key players in talisman and club legend who led them to the league on the last day, Dirk Kuyt to retirement, and then fullbacks Rick Karsdorp and Terence Kongolo to Roma and Monaco respectively, technical director Martin van Geel managed to not only replace them, but even strengthen the team further.

Feyenoord were accused of being ‘highlights scouts’ to some degree, signing players from Eredivisie sides who were touted in the media of being good and not unearthing unknown talents. That is ironic and ridiculous to an extent, to suggest that the only sign of good scouting was to sign Scandinavian or South American talents the Dutch public had never heard of before. That Feyenoord managed to pinch all of Jeremiah St Juste, Sam Larsson (both from Heerenveen), Ridgeciano Haps (AZ Alkmaar) and Sofyan Amrabat (FC Utrecht) - all seen as some of the best players at their old clubs and young enough to grow even further - is credit to Feyenoord’s recruitment team, and nothing less. 

Furthermore, Steven Berghuis, who shone last season on loan, was signed permanently, and winger Jean-Paul Boetius was brought back after a failed stint with FC Basel, and has impressed thus far.

“I have already seen a lot of Feyenoord matches,” said Guardiola yesterday in his press conference. “They play in the Dutch way, the way of football I grew up with as a young boy. With a good build-up and wingers, it’s a typical Dutch team.” 

He is not wrong, and both Boetius and Berghuis, who are most likely to start wide, will have to bear more of the attack’s burden, especially with striker Nicolai Jorgensen out injured. 

Even then, given that Feyenoord are not a side that place immense emphasis on possession, and given City’s preference for it, it is not hard to see how this match will pan out. 

“We must play compactly and make the most of our moments in the transition.”, said Van Bronckhorst, who is a bit of an anomaly in Dutch football, in as much as not being overly indulgent in long monologues about philosophy and style. When quizzed further on his tactics for the game, he simply said, “I have played the game a few times in my head already. But (in terms of) how we will play, that you will see tomorrow.”

While he admires his opposite number as an inspiration, there is definitely more shades of Koeman’s style of more ‘realistic’ football in Van Bronckhorst than the poetic positional play of Guardiola. Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad even suggest that Van Bronckhorst may play a 3-4-3, not unlike when Koeman used a 3-5-2 to great effect and Van Gaal went on to adopt at the World Cup in 2014. This may pit Feyenoord directly against City, who will look to play a similar, but narrower 3-4-1-2, and if the Dutch side resort to man-marking, they could have a very long night.

City are likely to have much of the ball, by sheer virtue of having better players individually, even if not by game plan. Feyenoord are likely to sit deep and compact, and look to exploit space in behind the defence – particularly with the City fullbacks pushing high up.

City’s key players are undoubtedly in midfield, be it either of the Silvas or Kevin de Bruyne or Ilkay Gundogan. For all that has been discussed about his utilisation of fullbacks, his midfielders remain the foundation of a good, ‘typical’ Guardiola team and De Bruyne showed against Liverpool exactly what can transpire if these midfielders are given time and space to wreak havoc. 

Feyenoord’s own midfield and their balance was integral to their title win, and both Karim El Ahmadi and Tonny Vilhena - who share more of the defensive duties - will have to be on top form.

Incidentally, when City’s neighbours United came to visit De Kuip last season, it was Vilhena who put on a majestic performance and scored the matchwinner - so much so that even Paul Pogba came up to him after the game and said “You’re very strong, my friend.”

The centre-back duo of Eric Botteghin and Jan-Arie van der Heijden will also come under the spotlight vs City. Although they function very well in most aspects, both of them lack pace to a certain degree and this was compensated for substantially by the fullbacks last season. 

The loss of striker Nicolai Jorgensen to injury cannot be understated; the Dane came in last season and provided that extra oomph in attack, and linking midfield and attack, that Feyenoord had lacked with Michiel Kramer as striker. In his absence, Kramer, who is a bit more one-dimensional, is likely to start up front. Feyenoord will also be missing leftback Haps, who had made a great start to the season with his good exchanges with Boetius down the left flank. Miquel Nelom, his likely replacement, is not quite up to the par and Kyle Walker might enjoy a good night down that flank.

“We have shown before that we can play well and win against big teams. So, we go into the match confident and, of course, we will enjoy it too. We have respect for our opponents, without being in awe.”, said captain El Ahmadi. 

Van Bronckhorst also insisted that anything was possible in the Champions League, especially at home. While City are still resounding favourites, Feyenoord would certainly like to add another scalp against an uber-rich Manchester club to the collection.