By Leo Linden
Though they have only been around for 50 years, AZ Alkmaar have made quite the impression on the Dutch football system. They haven’t been rewarded with a plethora of titles by any means, but in a short time, they have ascended into the ranks of the Netherlands’ top-flight stalwarts.
This season presents another opportunity for AZ to mix it up with the Dutch elite. If they can keep up the form that has buoyed their strong start to the season, they just might find themselves returning to the Champions League for the fourth time ever next season.
The club was founded in 1967 as AZ ‘67, a merger between two older sides from the northern region. The merger saved both clubs from peril, but those problems carried over as Alkmaar initially was far from a well-run organization. The Cheeseheads, as they are known, brought in a heap of talent from outside the Netherlands and literally paid the price as the club descended into financial uncertainty. However, they were bailed out by two of the team’s owners, brothers Cees and Klaas Molinaar, who heavily invested into the side and turned the tide.
Unsurprisingly, the cash influx helped Alkmaar rise to become one of the most prominent clubs in the Netherlands, capturing KNVB Cups in 1978, 1981, and 1982. That run also included the Cheeseheads’ first ever Eredivisie title as they stormed past the league in the 1980-81 campaign, losing just once all season while scoring more than 100 goals and posting a plus-71 goal differential, more than twice as large as their closest competitors. The following year, Alkmaar competed in their first ever European Cup, where they were narrowly defeated by Liverpool in the Round of 16, losing 5-4 on aggregate after conceding a late winner at Anfield.
However, right after their best run in club history, Alkmaar began to stumble down the table. By the late 1980s, Cees Molinaar had passed away, and Klaas divested from the club, with Alkmaar finally paying the price with relegation in 1988. They would spend most of the ‘90s in the Eerste Divisie before popping back up in 1996 before a subsequent relegation the following season. However, in the 1997-98 season, Alkmaar won won the Eerste Divisie for the second time in three years, and they haven’t looked back since.
Entering this season, AZ was in a tenuous situation. On one hand, the club finished a respectable sixth place last year and made a run all the way to the KNVB Cup final. However, AZ faltered in the final, losing to Vitesse, and to make matters worse, in the Europa League playoff final against Utrecht a few weeks later, AZ blew a 3-0 first leg lead and went on to lose on penalties, meaning there would be no European football on the docket this season.
Still, however, it was clear that Alkmaar were banging on the door, and their young squad gave reason for optimism. In the offseason, the club kept most of its talent sans its starting center and right backs, who left for traditionally bigger Eredivisie clubs. Though they didn’t bolster their ranks with any major incoming players, manager John van den Brom still had plenty to work with.
The season — and more worryingly the defense — started out rocky with a 3-2 loss to PSV Eindhoven, but the Cheeseheads immediately picked up their play. Four straight wins were followed by two more losses and a draw, but since October 15, the date of that draw, Alkmaar have been deadly. The Cheeseheads have rattled off an impressive six league wins in a row (and have advanced in the cup in that time) and have rocketed up the table into second place. Their plus-9 goal differential isn’t nearly as strong as the plus-27 and plus-29 put up by leaders PSV and third-place Ajax, but at the moment, that doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that Alkmaar are finding a way to win. During their winning stretch, they are outscoring opponents 13-3, flexing their muscle at both ends of the pitch. The squad’s leading scorer is Wout Weghorst, who is leading the way with seven Eredivisie goals. Youngster Gus Til isn’t far behind, chipping in with five of his own at the ripe age of 19, but the key cog for the side has been 24-year-old Iranian Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
There is tons of youth elsewhere within the budding side as well. Joris van Overeem, 23, patrols the center of this pitch for Alkmaar and has chipped in two goals and two assists as well while shining next to 24-year-old Fredrik Midtsjo. Behind them are 21-year-old left back Thomas Ouwejan and 20-year-old Greek center back Pantelis Hatzidiakos. Of all the side’s regular starters, center back Stijn Wuytens is the oldest, and he is only 28.
It’s a great setup, to say the least, but the current situation likely won’t last too long. Alkmaar has a reserve of young talents who are producing tangible results, but as with most sides in their position, they will soon offload some of their brightest players to bigger clubs just as they did this past offseason. That will bring in money, but it won’t necessarily help the side improve. The club will certainly be able to hold onto some key players, and if they can make some shrewd additions or convince their top figures to stay, the Cheeseheads have a serious shot of capturing another Eredivisie title with their current core. It might not come this year, but Alkmaar are again in the hunt in the Netherlands, something they hope to sustain for quite some time.