On Saturday, December 5, AZ Alkmaar announced the dismissal of manager Arne Slot, sending shockwaves across the Netherlands and throughout Europe. “As a club, we have chosen to say goodbye immediately,” director of football Max Huiberts said in a statement on the club’s website. “We want to have a head coach leading the team who is fully focused on AZ.”
The troubles began on Tuesday, when Feyenoord manager Dick Advocaat announced his decision to step down from his post at the end of the season. After taking charge of the club on October 30, 2019, Advocaat had led Feyenoord to 12th place to third in the league when the 2019/20 Eredivisie season was permanently annulled, with De Trots van Zuid finishing six points behind AZ, whilst also taking them to the KNVB Cup Final, which was cancelled in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, following the Eredivisie’s return, Advocaat’s side failed to regain the same form that saw them claim 36 of a possible 42 points prior to the league’s suspension in March. Feyenoord dropped points against RKC Waalwijk, Twente, and Sparta Rotterdam in the league, and a 1-1 draw against Utrecht on November 29 saw them fall to fourth in the league.
Citing disagreements with sporting director Frank Arnesen and a lack of trust over the club’s recruitment strategy, the 73-year-old announced that this season would be his last in management. “The club has a big name, but unfortunately they haven’t done anything for ten years,” said Advocaat. “There is something wrong. We have not been able to do the same things that Ajax and PSV do.”
To add insult to injury, Feyenoord lost 0-2 to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday, a result that, combined with Wolfsberger AC’s victory against CSKA Moscow, saw the Austrian side leapfrog Feyenoord in Group K of the UEFA Europa League group stage. Anything less than a victory in Wolfsberg next week would see Advocaat’s side eliminated from Europe, with Dinamo Zagreb and Wolfsberger AC moving onto the next round.
In the wake of Feyenoord’s loss, rumors began to circulate that Slot was being considered as the frontrunner to replace Advocaat at the end of the season, despite the fact that his contract tied him to AZ through the 2021/22 season. Club legend Dirk Kuyt was also mentioned as a potential successor, having spent the past two years managing Feyenoord’s U-19 side following his retirement in 2018.
By Saturday morning, AZ’s board learned that Slot had gone behind their back and was in advanced negotiations to take over at De Kuip at the end of the season, and sacked him. Pascal Jenssen will take over as manager until the end of the season, whilst Robert Franssen will leave his position as manager of AZ’s U-19 side and serve as Jenssen’s assistant.
Since the Eredivisie’s founding in 1956, three clubs have ruled Dutch football with an iron fist: Ajax (34 league titles), PSV Eindhoven (24 league titles), and Feyenoord (15 league titles). However, in recent years, that historical triopoly has turned into a duopoly; since 2000, Feyenoord have only won one Eredivise title (2016-17).
After narrowly edging Ajax to their first league title of the century, Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s Feyenoord finished a distant fourth in the Eredivisie, and following a third-place finish in 2018/19, Van Bronckhorst stepped down from his position. Jaap Stam replaced his former Netherlands teammate as manager, but he would last just four months before resigning on October 28, 2019.
Whilst Feyenoord have faded in prominence, AZ have established themselves as a credible threat to Netherlands’s “Big Three.” Under the tutelage of Louis van Gaal, the club won the 2008/09 Eredivisie title, ending a 28-year-wait for Dutch football’s most cherished trophy.
Photo: @GabFoligno / Christof Koepsel – Getty Images
Although they have been unable to recapture that same magic since Van Gaal’s departure to Bayern Munich in 2009, AZ have reached three KNVB Cup Finals and finished within the top six for nine of the past 11 years. It would come as little surprise, then, that Slot’s reported decision to leave AZ for Feyenoord would seem like a horizontal move rather than a vertical move.
Born in Bergentheim, Netherlands, Slot began his career as a central midfielder for PEC Zwolle (then known as FC Zwolle), racking up 50 goals in 164 appearances for the Blauwvingers before departing for NAC Breda, where he would spend the next five years until heading for Sparta Rotterdam. After a brief spell in South Holland, he returned to Zwolle in 2009, where he would remain until his retirement in 2013.
After hanging up his playing boots, Slot immediately delved into management, working as a youth coach at PEC Zwolle for a year before taking a job as an assistant coach at Cambuur. In 2017, Slot was hired as John van den Brom’s assistant coach at AZ Alkmaar, a position he would hold until Van den Brom’s departure to Utrecht in 2019.
At just 40 years of age, Slot took charge of AZ and quickly built a name for himself. Under Slot’s leadership, AZ beat Feyenoord, PSV, and Ajax (twice), scoring 54 goals in 25 league matches and finishing second behind Ajax on goal differential, despite being tied on points. Whilst neither team were awarded the championship, Ajax sealed qualification to the UEFA Champions League group stage; AZ would have to book their ticket via the qualifying round.
In their first competitive match in nearly six months, AZ defeated Viktoria Plzeň at the AFAS Stadion in Alkmaar. Club captain Teun Koopmeiners equalized in the 95th minute via a penalty goal, whilst a brace from Albert Guðmundsson in extra time put them through to the third qualifying round. However, Dynamo Kyiv would eliminate them in the following round, denying AZ the opportunity to play in Europe’s premium competition for the first time since 2009.
Photo: @GabFoligno / ANP Sport – Getty Images
That feeling of ‘So Close, Yet So Far’ hung over their heads for the first few weeks of the season, as AZ drew their first five matches to PEC Zwolle, Fortuna Sittard, Sparta Rotterdam, VVV-Venlo and ADO Den Haag. To add salt to the wound, AZ sold left winger Oussama Idrissi to Sevilla on deadline day for €12 million rising to €3 million with potential bonuses.
AZ bounced back with four consecutive victories to climb to seventh in the league, whilst also beating Napoli and Rijeka in their first two matches of the UEFA Europa League campaign. However, after taking two points from their next three fixtures, they will need to beat Rijeka on Thursday to ensure qualification to the next round. A draw in Croatia would only suffice if Napoli beat Real Sociedad at the San Paolo.
Despite his abrupt divorce, Slot leaves Alkmaar as one of the most exciting young managers in Europe, having amassed 2.11 points per game at AZ — the highest total in club history — and wowed spectators with his high-pressing, attacking style of play.
“Slot uses strong and organized pressing to force his opponents into making mistakes,” wrote John Zuidema in August. “His use of inverted fullbacks is one of the main similarities with Bayern Munich teams of old. Jonas Svensson and Owen Wijndal both tuck inside to come level with the pivot, helping to create a passing lane for the wingers as they go wide.”
Upon his hiring in 2019, Slot opted for a 4-2-3-1, with Marco Bizot starting in goal, Ron Vlaar partnering Stijn Wuytens in the heart of defense, and Fredrik Midtsjø playing alongside Koopmeiners in the double pivot. Calvin Stengs typically cut in from the right flank, exchanging positions with Dani De Wit and Idrissi, whilst Myron Boadu operated as the lone striker.
Following the departure of Idrissi to Sevilla, Slot has turned to 22-year-old Jesper Karlsson — who joined from IF Elfsborg in September for a reported fee of €2.5 million — at the left wing position. With Wuytens joining Lommel SK on a free transfer and Vlaar sidelined due to injury, Slot has paired Bruno Martins Indi with Pantelis Chatzidiakos in central defense this season.
On the other hand, Advocaat has gone with a 4-3-3 at Feyenoord this season, with Justin Bijlow starting in goal and Bart Nieuwkoop and Ridgeciano Haps starting at the fullback positions. Having arrived on loan from Krasnodar, Serbia international Uroš Spajić has partnered Marcos Senesi in defense, whilst 19-year-old Orkun Kökçü offers creativity and technical prowess on the left side of midfield.
Going forward, Feyenoord are far too reliant on the individual brilliance of captain Steven Berghuis in attack. The winger registered 22 goals and 11 assists last season, but with his contract set to expire in 2022, it’s likely that the club will cash in on Berghuis next summer, having previously seen a move to Roma break down on deadline day.
It remains to be seen where Slot’s next opportunity will come. Ajax have been linked as a potential destination, with current manager Erik ten Hag being tipped for a move abroad. Netherlands have drawn three matches and lost one match under Frank de Boer, and if the ex Atlanta United coach fails to muster a strong showing in next summer’s Euros, he too could be replaced by Slot.
As PSV Eindhoven and Ajax consolidate power atop the hierarchy of Dutch football, Feyenoord have gone from behemoths to mere also-rans. A mooted stadium project has driven a wedge between the club and its fanbase, and as they sit fourth in the league table, the glory days of the 1970s are farther in the rearview mirror than ever before.
If there is something, or someone, that can mend the divide and awaken the sleeping giant of Dutch football, it is Arne Slot.
By: Marc Lamberts
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images – Getty Images