Koeman fails to inspire Dutch champions
It's been a troublesome season for AZ Alkmaar, the current Dutch champions, who find themselves languishing in seventh place in the Eredivisie and in need of a win away to Standard Liege in the Champions League just to claim a place in the Europa League.
AZ sacked coach Ronaldo Koeman at the weekend after he failed to live up to the expectations set by title-winning boss Louis van Gaal. The struggling club have turned to former Zenit St Petersburg boss Dick Advocaat, who looks set to combine his role as coach of Belgium with that of revitalising Alkmaar.
The club's 2009-10 campaign was over almost as soon as it had begun, despite winning the Johan Cruyff Shield - the traditional champions v cup winners curtain raiser - in scintillating style over Heerenveen (5-1). The team fell apart in Almelo against Heracles in the Eredivisie opener, a 3-2 defeat compounded by red cards for Gill Swerts and Graziano Pelle. They never recovered.
Captain Stijn Schaars said at the weekend: "We are the ones who have to execute what he [Koeman] wants from us and we have not managed to do so. We found it difficult to react to his style of management. Maybe we were not mature enough as a group to pick it up. We should all look in the mirror but we need a strong man in front of us."
Indeed they do. AZ have become a peculiar club. After Dirk Scheringa became president during the 90s, the club put good players on enormous salaries. They underperformed for years under many coaches, making a furious chairman once say that the players should work as rubbish collectors for a week to learn about the real world.
Then came hard man Co Adriaanse in 2002. Whatever methods he used, they worked and AZ became part of the elite in the Eredivisie. After three years of progressive improvement, Van Gaal took over and drilled the team even further, to the top of the table in 2007. With only struggling Excelsior to beat on the last day of the season, the title seemed a certainty, but on a heart-stopping afternoon they choked miserably and even missed the qualifiers for the Champions League.
To bounce back from such a disappointment is not easy. Scheringa decided that a injection of capital should do the trick. However, the multi-million euro arrivals unbalanced the squad, which suddenly headed towards the relegation play-offs instead of European football. It even left the fastidious Van Gaal nonplussed on how to turn the tide. With a couple of games to go, he handed in his resignation, which was accepted by the board. Then, in an unprecedented move, the senior players took the blame and begged the coach to stay on. They probably feared that under a new, less capable man, the mood within the squad might slump further.
Van Gaal caved in and stayed. During the summer more money was spent, while several of the bad apples were offloaded. Without the tiring midweek European games, AZ suddenly got results and raced to the title. Not with the swashbuckling style of Adriaanse or the interesting pressing game of Van Gaal's first season at AZ, but a tight defence and rapid counter-attacking forwards. It worked, but maybe the coach felt his time was up and took the offer from Bayern Munich this summer.
With the exception of Demy de Zeeuw, who left for Ajax, the squad stayed together and new coach Koeman seemed to have everything going for him. Yet several players returned to the complacent displays of the 2007-08 season.
While most opponents stepped up a gear when playing the champions of Alkmaar, AZ took their foot off the gas just enough to fail. Koeman cuddled, jumped, smiled, cried, shouted, embraced, fined, praised, cursed - did whatever it would take to get things going again - but fought a lost cause.
He was not helped by the bankrupcy of the club' s main, almost only, sponsor, the DSB Bank of chairman Scheringa. What would become of the club, the players wondered. Almost all of them are on long-term contracts. Might there be a fire sale during the mid-season transfer window?
The turbulence over the bank's demise - with big repercussions on the region as a whole - seemingly did not affect matters on the pitch. The team did not do any better, nor any worse. The second round of the Champions League is out of reach now, but the Europa League still is not. All seemed okay, until this weekend when AZ lost 2-1 at home to Vitesse.
Suddenly, the directors decided Koeman had to go. Another bad season, maybe two, might mean the players are no longer saleable assets. If Koeman could not turn the tide around now, why wait until the team has sunk into mid-table obscurity, or even lower?
Somehow this AZ squad looks like a big oil tanker. Once it is steaming in one direction, it is almost impossible to turn it around. As it is heading for another disaster, so the directors probably think the only option is to remove the boss and bring in an experienced, hard-line coach to save their season and with it the re-sale value of their star players.
Enter Advocaat. He'll be cleaning out the dressing room of those who do not want to be there. Better spending several million euros to replace the coach than sit back and hope things turn around - that's what the directors probably think.