With no August friendly scheduled and too late to arrange one, I was thrown right in the deep end of World Cup Qualifying. And rather than let me warm up a little against Iceland or Liechtenstein, our first two matches were crucial ones.
Ranked 33rd, Northern Ireland is, on paper, our main competition for second place in the group. It was important to get at least a point here, preferably three, but alas it wasn't to be. We would have deserved a point, and possibly three, but in truth we didn't do enough with our chances. Lukaku missing the early penalty didn't help either. It was one of those matches where you could feel the kick-in-the-teeth late goal coming from a mile away. Disastrous start to our qualifying campaign.
A much better showing against Germany, though in the end we can have no complaints about the result. We created several good chances and managed to stay (and come back) alongside Germany for large parts of the match. With Thibaut Courtois voted man of the match, though, it's clear that Germany created just a few more good chances than us, and if any team deserved to win it was them. A point here would have been useful, but this won't make or break our campaign.
And so we're looking at a chase already. Switzerland's six points were against the two small teams, and N.Ireland only managed a draw against Liechtenstein in their second match, so our bad start is far from decisive. We can't afford too many more screw-ups though.
As for the question whether to continue with the veterans or make this campaign a transition period towards a younger generation, that one was easily solved. There really isn't much of a younger generation yet. A few decent players here and there, but for the foreseeable future, the old timers will keep having to produce the goods.
Looks like the 2022 World Cup is a bit of a last chance for Belgium's "golden generation". After that, a slide back down the world ranking seems almost inevitable.
A bit wasteful with our chances at times, but in the end a convincing enough win. We broke the deadlock just after half time through Mario Mulder, one of the very few regens in our squad. At least, from now on; in our previous two matches, last month, I still kept Nacer Chadli in the left midfielder position. I think that issue is settled now though. We can use some young guns in the squad so Mulder - who I still remember from my Standard and even Belgium U21 days - will play a larger role in the squad from now on. Toby Alderweireld, our third oldest center back (after 34yr old Kompany and 33yr old Vertonghen) added a late second goal off a corner kick, to make the score adequately respectable.
Another must-win match, obviously. We managed a dominant enough display, and managed a reasonable three goal difference thanks to a nice hattrick by one of our other very few regens: Paulo. Born in Brazil, but now in his seventh season at Anderlecht, so he took the Belgian nationality. He's not exactly our big hope for the future; I'd say he's our 4th striker at the moment, but through some minor injuries and match fitness issues, he's been in the starting eleven in three of our last four matches, and had a storming game today.
Obviously these two wins were needed all along, so this doesn't do much to make up for the lost points against N.Ireland.
The other results in the group, however, make it clear that N.Ireland will probably not be our main concern. After only managing a draw in Liechtenstein last month, they only managed a draw in Iceland now, and lost at home to Switzerland. So it looks like the Swiss will be the ones to watch out for.
Yep. 8 of the 9 "second placed teams" qualify for a playoff. But there's a caveat: since one of the nine groups only has 5 teams, the "second placed teams" table only takes the results between the top five teams in every group into account. Which, I think, means that it's technically possible (though unlikely) to qualify for the playoff while finishing 3rd in your group. (if, for instance, you do poorly against Liechtenstein)
Oct. 28, 2020
Well, quite a decent set of league results - only one defeat so far. That one defeat illustrates that we're not the favorites to win the title this season though. Defending champs Ajax have clearly stapled that label on their foreheads. They're 10-1-0 so far, we're 7-2-1. (To put the table in perspective: We played 10 matches so far, Ajax and a few other teams 11, most teams 12.)
We started splendidly, scoring 11 and conceding 0 in the first two matches, but then we had to settle for two bore draws and we were left chasing since then. Our trip to the Amsterdam ArenA became a painful Sunday afternoon. Three goals down after a half hour, only some shouting in the dressing room kept the score from getting worse.
Looks like we'll need a near-perfect season and then hope Ajax slip up somewhere along the way.
We're certainly not having a near perfect season in Europe, so far. Qualifying for the Euro Cup group stage was easy enough - NK Domzale, from Slovenia, was no match for us.
We were drawn in a tricky group though, with Parma, Almeria and Rubin Kazan. Granted, none of them top teams exactly, but when in a group with an Italian, Spanish and Russian opponent, there won't be any easy matches. It makes for a very open group: after two matches, all four teams had 3pts.
The result of our third match, at home against Parma, was quite disappointing. We should have gotten more from that match. We'll need to step it up a notch if we want to survive the group stage. And, to be clear, we do want to survive the group stage; the board expects it as well.
It turned into a question of how we can handle going a goal behind early in the match. The answer: against Mexico, not very well, against Norway, much better.
Mexico was surprisingly strong. We had a few stretches where we tried to find a footballing solution, but there were more and longer stretches where they simply dominated us. Eventually we found the equalizer, a nice goal by Raymond Zuiderwijk (one of my stars from back in my Standard days). But we only managed to stay level for a few minutes before we were behind again, and they finished us off late in the match on a counter attack, when we were pushing for the late equalizer.
Norway, who survived the group stage in the European Ch'Ship last summer, were not as strong as I expected them to be. At least not after their early goal. It took a lot of hard work to undo that early deficit, but we dominated almost the entire match, and eventually our patience paid off.
Since the average age of the squad is an issue which I can't ignore forever, I gave three players their international debut in these matches:
- Toquinho - a very welcome gift from the Brazilian heavens, this lad recently took the Belgian nationality and thereby solves one full back issue, at least. Until now, we had 32yr old Denis Odoi as our right back, with no real viable alternatives. Toquinho will immediately take his place in the starting eleven.
- Similar situation for the left back position: 32yr old Derrick Tshimanga fills that position now, and apart from him it's slim pickings. Upon the U21 manager's suggestion, I gave John Smits his first caps. He's really not ready yet for an important role in the national team though, so this was mainly to try and speed up his development a little. When competitive matches start again, he probably won't be called up.
- Our four center backs are between 34 and 29 yrs old. From old to young: Kompany, Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Boyata. And Boyata turns 30 next week. Urgent time to let someone a wee bit younger get a taste of international football; these oldtimers won't last forever. So I called up Yannick Janssen, another kid I remember well from my Standard days. For now his input will be limited to the occasional sub appearance when one of the old timers is injured, but unless some top class youngsters arrive on the scene pretty damn soon, Janssen will eventually have the ungrateful task of trying to fill Vincent Kompany's shoes.
Yeah, Ajax have won the title the past four seasons, and six of the past seven. Ending their domination will not be easy.
Dec. 18, 2020
And ending Ajax's domination might not be for this season. We're 18 matches in (16 to go), and they have a six point gap. The gap was nine points until recently, when they finally lost their first match of the season, against Feyenoord.
As for us, we're doing quite well, but not well enough to challenge Ajax just yet. We're just a bit too inconsistent for that. Unless we somehow get into a major winning streak, it looks like we'll be battling it out with Feyenoord for the second Champions League spot.
That inconsistency was clearly apparent in our Euro Cup games as well. A poor match in Almeria, then two quite good matches against Parma, but somehow we ended up losing both, which meant it was no longer in our own hands. We won our last two matches quite convincingly, but needed Parma to win their last match against Rubin as well, which they didn't.
And so, disappointingly, we're out of Europe a bit sooner than hoped/expected. I suppose that means we can focus on the domestic challenges now, but since Ajax and Feyenoord are out of Europe as well, that's hardly an advantage.
I guess the most positive news of the season so far is that we just completed an 11k stadium expansion, giving us a 55k all-seater stadium now. As we were constantly selling out the old capacity, this should translate to a bit more income every month.
Latvia invited us for a February friendly, and that seemed like a suitable opponent to start the year on a high. We won even more convincingly than I had hoped. Mainly thanks to the new guys.
Well, not so much a "new guy" in the case of Arnaud Sutchuin, who's pretty much our 3rd right midfielder, so more of a temp guy. He celebrated his first call up under my reign with two goals.
More promising in the long run, however, was the performance of Henry Solou, with a goal and two assists on his debut. Though Lukaku still has a few good years in him, young Henry here is Belgium's hope for the future. With some progression in him still, I purposely haven't rushed his debut, but as he just turned 21, it seemed time to bring him into the squad. After two seasons out on loan, he has recently been getting some play time at Real Madrid as well, but too little too late, as he has his heart set on leaving on a Bosman in a few months, wanting more first team football. Unfortunately, even after being profusely grateful to me for his first cap, he doesn't seem interested in joining PSV.
An awesome stretch of form, with the exception of the Cup Quarter Final against Ajax, but we really can't have any complaints about that result - Ajax was clearly the better team. Not so in the league match a few weeks later though, which we dominated nicely. Under the circumstances it's a trade-off I can live with; the league is more important than the cup.
Ajax's form has been sketchy - their loss in our stadium was their 3rd of 4 league matches in a row which they failed to win - and after the winter break they dropped from clear favorites to 3rd place.
Feyenoord seem our most dangerous contenders now. Their form is very consistent, and we still have to play them at the end of the month (we lost in De Kuip back in November.) With a 5 point lead at the moment, that match will undoubtedly be the most crucial of our 8 remaining matches.
An absolutely crucial match for us. Anything except a win simply would not have sufficed.
We had the match firmly under control from the start, but our strikers were kept in check by the Swiss defense. Just as I was contemplating what offensive changes I'd have to make at half time, Eden Hazard finally, for the first time in this campaign, played the decisive role he's capable off. First he snuck through the defense and finished off a one-on-one, and just before half time he delivered a corner kick onto the head of center back Dedryck Boyata.
Halfway into the qualifying campaign, this keeps us on course, but obviously the decisive matches are yet to come. Germany just lost their first points, a scoreless draw at home against N.Ireland. I suppose that's mainly good news for us, as it keeps the top spot somewhat within reach. Then again, it may not matter much either. For now, we're mostly keeping an eye on Switzerland in the battle for second place.
Our next match, in June, will also be a crucial one, at home against N.Ireland.
We started the season quite well, but it looked like Ajax was going to run away with the league. They had a 9 point lead at some point, but then their form crashed around mid-season, and we took over.
We had a 5 point lead on Feyenoord heading into the final stretch...
The home match against Feyenoord was a crucial one. When we narrowly lost that and the gap was reduced to 2 points, it looked like we were headed for a tense last few matches. But Feyenoord made it easy for us. They lost their last three league matches, so even though we had a minor stumble at the end ourselves, we easily made it across the line.
We finished with the same amount of points as last season. This time it's enough for the title.
It's PSV's first title since 2012. That's the longest they had gone between titles since the 1963-1975 gap.
Not a particularly remarkable cup season for us; in fact, it was rather on the poor side.
In the Dutch Cup we went out in the Quarter Finals. Granted, against Ajax, and after extra time, which makes it feel a bit more "acceptable," but it was still a disappointing performance.
Our Euro Cup performance was even more disappointing. Well, we made it to the group stage, but that was the absolute minimum which could be expected from us. Even though we were drawn in a very open group, our failure to reach the knockout rounds was simply inexcusable. We'll have to do better in the Champions League next season.
We stuck with the same tactic as last season - the trusty 4-4-2 diamond - and stuck with pretty much the same squad as well. I suppose it's only fitting, then, that we finished with exactly the same amount of points (achieved by getting the exact same win-draw-lost record,) and almost exactly the same goalscoring record. 79 for and 25 against this season, 77 for and 24 against last season.
It's a very balanced squad, without real "key" players who stand out significantly more than the other players.
Tomas Zajac - GK
The Slovakian keeper which I brought in at the start of last season for a record €8.5M. (a record for me, not for PSV) While it's clear by now that that price was a bit excessive, one can't deny that Zajac has done quite well for the club. Division GK of the year this season, runner-up last season. Obviously our whole defense plays its part in that, but Tomas is one of those reliable goalies every title contender needs.
Jean Marie Dongou - ST
Our Spanish striker had a very similar season as last year, contributing with almost as many assists as goals. He's not at all a "hattrick" type striker, but he's very consistent. Very fit, as well - no injuries at all this season, only missing the very occasional match for fatigue reasons.
Andreas Sotiriou - ST
Our new Cypriot striker, on the other hand, had two medium-length injuries this season, meaning he only played in just over half of the matches. Despite that, he finished 2nd in the league's topscorer ranking. Sotiriou does feel much more like a "hattrick" type striker (or a "man of the match" type striker, perhaps that's a better description.) Curious to see how far he could get if he stays healthy for an entire season.
Christos Alexandris - AMC
Christos isn't new, this was his 4th season at PSV, but I hardly made use of him last season. This year, however, he gradually battled his way into the team and became our regular first team AMC around mid-season. Like Sotiriou, I'm curious how far he can go next season.
Speaking of next season... I'm far from certain I'll still be in charge of PSV. That said, I still have a contract for the next two seasons and have no concrete plans to leave. I don't even plan to actively apply anywhere, but having just won the title, it's not inconceivable that an interesting out-of-the-blue offer might come along. If that happens, I'll have a serious think about that. If not, however, I certainly won't mind another season at PSV either.
Not the greatest financial situation at PSV, but certainly nothing to be concerned about either. On the contrary, the season balance is only in the red because of a €17M stadium expansion. With that expansion now complete, and with Champions League football next season, it should be fairly straightforward to get back (and stay) in the black. Provided I don't go overboard with transfers, at least, but that shouldn't be the case.
Several players are leaving the club and will need to be replaced, but most of them fall in the "backups nagging for first team football" category. This season's first eleven should be pretty much the same next season. I might have to spend a little bit of money to replace the backups, since I'm hoping to bring in one or two half-decent Dutch players (we had to fill out our Euro squad with half a dozen reserves and youngsters to meet the quota this season.)
One other minor concern is the chairman, who sold off our 2nd choice right midfielder in January, for a price which wasn't significantly higher than his transfer value. It wasn't an immediate disaster and we could cover it without bringing in someone new right away, but still. Several of our best players are obviously desirable, so if the chairman gets trigger happy again, it's possible that I'll be looking at a bigger rebuild over the summer than anticipated.
We shall see, though. Who knows, maybe it won't be my concern much longer...
For the neutral observer, this match started very promisingly, with an early goal for N.Ireland and an immediate corner kick reply by us. After that, however, the match fizzled out completely. The visitors were clearly happy with a point, and we were unable to break through their defense with any sort of sharpness. But just as I was about to grab my cigarette lighter to throw it at the computer screen in frustration, Juan Mascia broke the deadlock, even if he didn't get credit for the goal (post, keeper, goal!) A few minutes later Hazard added another, from distance, to make the score look a lot more comfortable than the match actually was.
But a win is a win, and another crucial one at that.
Still on course. A few more crucial matches coming up in September and October.
A bit of a chill-out friendly after the tense N.Ireland match, which played out in somewhat similar fashion: it took a long time for us to break through their defense, before an own goal finally gave us the lead. It was a proper own goal this time though, "cleared into corner" but on the wrong side of the post.
All in all a rather un-memorable friendly. Basically a chance for a few of our veterans to get a little bit closer to the 126 caps of Vincent Kompany, who missed these two matches because of injury.
No move abroad for me this summer. I was named as the favorite for two jobs, one I expressed interest in: French champs Olympique Lyonnais. I almost certainly would have accepted that job had they offered it to me, but they didn't. Shortly after that I was mentioned as the favorite for the OGC Nice job as well - after their manager moved to Lyon - but I wasn't particularly interested in that one. If I had really been in need of a new challenge, it would have been a very suitable option, but after only two seasons at PSV it felt more right so stick around and defend the Dutch title than to move to a French mid-table club.
So that'll be the task at hand: win the title again with PSV. The board expect nothing less.
A rather unimpressive set of transfers over the summer.
There really wasn't all that much to do though. A handful of backups left, and we replaced them with new backups, most of them youngsters. Ivan Rosero is our most expensive signing, for one of them tribunal fee thingamajigs of €1M, but he's basically a kid for the reserves who may or may not get a few appearances from the bench this season.
So in essence we'll be playing with the exact same squad as last season. Barring serious injury issues, I'm perfectly comfortable with the squad, at least for the domestic competitions. For Europe, that's a different matter. We were hardly impressive in the Euro Cup last year, and we can expect the teams we'll be facing in the Champions League to be a bit tougher. Surviving the group stage (for which we're seeded) will be the goal.
We started the season on a positive note, with an insignificant li'l trophy:
The numbers are slightly deceptive. If there was one team which deserved to win the match after 90 minutes it was certainly us, but not by all that much. Only in extra time we really took control and overwhelmed Ajax somewhat, turning the match stats clearly in our favor.
After three lost Super Cups in the past decade, this was the first time PSV won it since 2008, so it was overdue. But obviously this isn't more than a nice little bonus. Like last season, the title will be the main goal.
Nope. Two Belgian ex-internationals left this summer - veteran Dries Mertens and striker Divock Origi, who had a handful of caps for Belgium but all friendlies, because he switched to Kenya at some point last season. Neither were in danger of being called up by me though.
We do have a Belgium U21 kid in the squad: Chris Groenendaal, who gets to keep the PSV bench warm almost every match due to his versatility. Probably won't get a senior cap any time soon, though the full backs are a bit of a trouble area, so it's not entirely impossible that he'll get there eventually.
For our August friendly we traveled halfway across the world, and although we won easily enough, it was a bit of a jet-lagged performance. Most noteworthy event of the match: Kevin De Bruyne, who got a rare chance to start instead of Hazard, doubled his international goal tally.
Yuck, bad week. And we can hardly blame it on jet-lag this time.
The Germany result isn't a disaster, but I'm quite disappointed with our level of play. We were outplayed pretty much from start to finish, and the only positive is that we managed to keep hope alive until deep in the second half. And that we managed to finish the match with 11 on the pitch, I suppose. It looked touch and go there for a while.
The draw in Reykjavik was even more disappointing, since that really is the kind of match where we can't afford to lose points. While we would have deserved three points, we really didn't play well enough against an opponent of this caliber. Our first half in particular was a total snooze-fest. Some dressing room grumbling produced a better performance in the second half, but it wasn't enough.
At least young Henry Solou scored his second goal of the week. Though his club career hasn't at all taken off yet, he really seems to be Belgium's big hope for the future, especially since none of the other strikers seem able to score in international matches. We've played 7 matches so far this calendar year, and Solou is our only striker who managed to hit the net. Lukaku's performances have been particularly disappointing - he hasn't scored at all yet under my reign.
Despite our disappointing results, Switzerland made this actually a pretty good week for us. They only got one point from two home matches: a loss against Iceland and a draw against N.Ireland. Worst case scenario we could have gone 5 points behind, instead we stay ahead of Switzerland on goal difference.
We travel to Switzerland next. Even though our last match is against Liechtenstein and theirs is against Germany, we really need to win the Switzerland match. Anything less and there's a really good chance that we'll end up as the worst second placed team of all the groups, thereby missing the playoffs anyway.
After a poor showing last month, our last two qualifying matches were much better. Obviously the Liechtenstein result doesn't raise any eyebrows, and that result didn't matter much either, but the Switzerland match was absolutely crucial. We came out guns blazing and pretty much dominated the match until the 3-0. After that we took our foot off the gas, but were never in any real trouble.
Young striker Henry Solou continues to manifest himself as our key player, with a brace in each of this week's matches, even if one of them was an easy tap in after a missed penalty by Marouane Fellaini.
Fellaini becomes the second Belgian to reach the 120 cap barrier. Still in the lead, of course, with 129 caps: Vincent Kompany, who contributed a goal against Liechtenstein as well, a nice direct free kick. Close behind those two: Jan Vertonghen and Eden Hazard, both on 119. So it looks like Hazard is on course to become Belgium's most capped player eventually. At "only" 30, he still has a few years of "first name on the team sheet" ahead of him, while the other three are starting to struggle a bit and are at the point where I'll have to make a real decision whether to take them along to the World Cup or go for younger options.
At least, if we qualify for the World Cup, because we're not quite there yet.
2nd placed teams:
In the end, we did what we had to do: finished 2nd in the group and qualified for the Playoff, but it was a bit too close for comfort. The win against Switzerland was crucial - a draw would have seen us drop below Romania and out of the playoffs.
One more hurdle, then: Turkey. Have a feeling that could turn out to be a tricky opponent...
We were on course for a storming start of the season, but then a loss at Twente put a stop to that. In itself, no big deal, but then we followed that up with a very sluggish cup win against a lower league team, only avoiding extra time by a minute or two, and then an inexcusable league loss against MVV.
I hope that was the end of our little mini form dip, though. We played quite well against Juventus, at least, and I was pleased we managed to bring home a point from there.
Apart from Juventus and Maccabi Haifa, Olympique Lyonnais is in our group as well. So finishing 3rd in our group should only be a formality, and the goal will be to do better than that.
Despite our two slip-ups, we're still on course in the league, though it's a bit too early to draw major conclusions. One conclusion I can make already though, is that the injury gods are not being so kind on us as last season. One of our star strikers, Sotiriou, came back from a Cyprus international with a broken leg and will be out for most of the season. And one of our DCs, Thurk, just picked up a hernia, out for seven weeks. Since our Champions League squad is still filled out a bit with rather mediocre guys from our reserves to make up the homegrown numbers, those two injuries already stretch us rather thin in Europe.
Domestically we should be fine, at least squad depth-wise. I was counting on Sotiriou's scoring prowess to help us defend our title though. So far our other striker - Dongou - has been picking up the slack, but if his numbers start dropping a bit, I might have to consider bringing in an extra striker in January.
Bah. Disappointing. I had a feeling Turkey would be a tricky opponent. They weren't that tricky though. Over the two legs combined, we felt like the stronger team. Not by a huge amount, but still, this very much feels like a missed chance.
We had some injury issues, especially for the first leg, with a few players in the selection still at a just-recovered 75-ish % fitness. All our regular DMCs were out as well, so I had to call up two guys I hadn't called up yet in the entire campaign. That wasn't the problem though, as they both did well enough, and both scored, in fact. Lucas Zen (ex-Standard when I was there) put us on the right course with an early goal in the return leg, while Gerard Collin's debut goal at home reduced the deficit to 1 goal, which at least kept us in with a chance.
It was in the home match where we threw it away, though. It was one of those matches where, though "dominating" would be an exaggeration, we were by far the better team, but they got a goal from each of their good chances, while we were a bit unlucky and more than a bit wasteful with ours.
In Turkey they had the slight edge, but it was one of those thrilling up and down games where it felt like anything could happen. Unfortunately our late "this is it!"-moment ended with me punching the pillow because Solou placed the one-on-one wrong side of the post, and a few minutes later they scored a close range scramble goal to avoid taking the match into extra time.
Bummer. It would have been nice to give Belgium's "unfulfilled promise" generation a final World Cup send-off.
The Belgian FA decided to keep me on board for now. Job status is "insecure," so I can't screw up too much, but unless our next few friendlies go horribly wrong, I should stay on for the Euro24 qualifying campaign.
Obviously there will be some big changes for that one. Everyone aged 32 or older will be dropped from the selection, effective pretty much immediately. That's about a dozen spots which will need to be filled with fresh blood.
Maybe one more than a dozen:
He did the same thing after the 2020 World Cup, days before I took charge. I managed to convince him to come back then. As he's only 30 now, I'm hoping I can convince him a second time. I'll let him stew on it for a few months though, our next friendly won't be until March anyway.
Mid-season, pretty much. At least as far as nr. of league matches goes - still a few matches to play before we get a few weeks off. So far it doesn't look like we'll be winning the title again this season. Seven points behind Ajax is a significant gap.
Then again, Ajax had a spectacular crash of form last season as well. That crash had already started at this point of the season though. But who knows.
If we had won our last match, against them, or even held on to a point (they scored a late winner), I might be a bit more optimistic - obviously. But probably still not overly optimistic. The Ajax match wasn't the problem. We played fairly well there - just one of those matches between two good teams which can go either way. Basically we don't quite feel like a title-winning team this season.
Obviously we're not a million miles off, but we've had just a few too many matches where things didn't quite go our way. We're 12-0-5 so far, and 5 losses in half a season is simply too much at this level. It's not really one identifiable issue, just a red card here, a late penalty there, plus the odd match where our strikers are cross-eyed. Unless we manage to turn those few % of luck our way and go pretty much undefeated for the rest of the season, it looks like we'll be battling for the European places.
Those few % of luck did go our way in the Champions League, so far. Well, except for the 4-4 against Haifa, but heck, that was just one of those crazy matches. Didn't quite expect to stay undefeated in the group though, so we're looking good there. Hopefully we can stick it out for a few more rounds, though of course it's very likely that we'll get a tough opponent next.
Edit: we drew Liverpool in the next round, current Premiership leaders
The start of a new era for Belgium. After failing to qualify for the upcoming World Cup, almost all our veterans have been dropped from the selection to make room for a younger generation. Which means that, in the short run, we won't be playing with our strongest possible line-up. Even at a ripe age, guys like Kompany, Nainggolan etc are still among the better Belgian players of the moment, but since we're working towards Euro24, almost two and a half years from now, it's time for a new generation.
Not that we're suddenly a "young" national side, though. The average age dropped from 29 to 26.9. The amount of caps dropped much more significantly though. Don't remember what the average was before, but now it's at 22 - still kept at a fair number by a couple of experienced guys, like Hazard, Lukaku, Courtois. But more than half the selection has less than 10 caps, with a few set for their debut, even though most of them are in the 25-28 age range.
I managed to convince Eden Hazard, for the second time, to come out of retirement. At 31, he's our oldest player now, together with center back Boyata.
The draw for Euro24 Qualifying:
We lost points against Iceland in the previous campaign. Slovakia and Ukraine certainly won't be walkovers either. But with the top two qualifying directly, and a few 3rd placed teams going into a playoff, even the drop in average quality of our national side is no excuse to miss out on qualification here. Second place in the group will be the goal, anything less will be a disappointment.
Qualifying starts in September. Considering the big changes in our squad and the slightly disappointed Belgian FA, I arranged our next few friendlies against not-too-difficult opponents. Looks like we'll need that, heh.
Granted, Israel is not exactly an easy opponent - like us, they reached the playoffs of World Cup Qualifying a few months ago - but I was hoping we'd be able to do better against them, especially at home. But we were pretty much **** poor all over, especially at the back.
The left back position is one of our weak spots at the moment. John Smits seems to be one of our best options for the future, but he's really not at the required level yet.
The only bright spot of the match was the debut goal for Mitchell Muller - making his international debut at 26 because he basically plays in a position where we had/have better options, Eden Hazard for one.
Our next friendlies, in June and August, are against Cyprus and Canada - hopefully we'll be significantly better then.
Our first half of the season was okay, but not brilliant. Just a few too many losses here and there put us 7 points behind Ajax, which meant we'd need a close to perfect second half of the season to catch up.
For a while we managed that. Ajax lost their last league match before the winter break, bringing us back to within 4 points. The gap stayed that way as we won seven in a row, but in February/March, right around our Champions League face-off against Liverpool, we were the ones who crumbled first. After the draw against AGOVV and the narrow loss against Vitesse it was clear that we were out of the title race, and finishing in the second Champions League spot became the goal after that.
We had built up a bit of a lead on the team in 3rd place by then. A few more not-wins along the way made that we weren't sure of 2nd place until after the very last match of the season, at home against Ajax, where we battled hard to get the point to make sure, but the result didn't turn out to matter.
In the end it certainly wasn't a bad season. We scored 4 points less than the previous two seasons. Quite respectable, but this season not enough to keep up with a dominant Ajax team.
The Dutch Cup was a total bust this year. We went out in the 4th Round, in one of our poorest matches of the season, against second-tier mid-table team RKC. The board didn't care at all about the Cup, so it's no disaster, but obviously I wasn't too pleased to go out that early.
The Champions League was a success in the sense that we played well, even if we don't have much to show for it. Out in the 1st Knockout Round isn't exactly a massive over-achievement - at all. But we did very well in the group stage, topped our group undefeated, and then went out against Liverpool in a manner which allowed us to keep our heads held high.
For a moment there it looked good, as we opened the score at Anfield, but they quickly went up and over us. Losing by two goals was a bit harsh on us, a 2-1 or 3-2 score would have been a much fairer result, but at least the fact that we were so competitive gave me a little bit of hope for the return leg.
That hope was quickly dashed as they scored their away goal less than 3 minutes into the second leg, but then we did what they had done and went over them with three goals in quick succession. The extra-time score stood for quite a while, but when they scored again in the second half, we didn't manage a second response.
I would have liked to have lasted another round or two, but in essence it was one of those cup defeats one can live with - a competitive pair of matches against opponents who were slightly better, on another day we could have beaten them, but in the end we could have no complaints about the outcome.
Pretty much the same squad as last season. And the season before, in fact. At least as far as the starting eleven was concerned.
Probably the biggest change compared to last season was the injuries. Not that we were anywhere close to an injury crisis, but simply the fact that two of our starters broke a leg this season was already enough to have an influence. (striker Sotiriou early in the season, and left mid Diego Jara in early February.)
Again, a very balanced squad. As we only won the title once in the three seasons that we've played with this squad, there's obviously room for improvement, but it's at the point where the price for improvement would not be cheap. Given our finances last summer, I suppose this was a bit of a season of consolidation. For next season, we already have a bit of spending and a bit of fresh blood lined up.
Tomas Zajac - GK
And this will be one of the players who'll be replaced. After three very good seasons at PSV, Slovakia's nr.1 wants to move to a bigger club. So we'll see if we can find that club for him this summer. It's highly unlikely that we'll be able to recover the entire €8.5M we paid for him three years ago, but that's ok. He has served us well.
Jonathan Mensah - DC
Another splendid season by our captain, whose future at the club is sorta hanging in the balance, as we have a big name center back lined up for next season, and at 31, with one year left on his contract, Jonathan would be the logical choice to make room for him. That said, though his attributes aren't all that impressive anymore, he keeps performing very well, so I'll probably let him see out his contract rather than sell him.
Our two absolute key players, offensively, each picking up a 2nd and 3rd place in the league topscorer and Golden Boot awards (behind an Ajax striker who was on fire and won both.)
Christos Alexandris - AMC
Christos cemented himself into the first team halfway through last season, and more than reaffirmed that position this season. With 27 goals and 11 assists, he helped to make up for the broken leg of our most prolific striker.
Jean Marie Dongou - ST
I called Dongou a consistent but not "man of the match" type striker last season, and he clearly took that to heart. His productivity dropped at the end - he's on a 12hr goal drought now, last scored in early March - but nonetheless, 32 goals and 21 assists, both breaking club records, makes for a splendid season, his best to date. Another one like this next season, please!
No trophies this season - well, except for the Dutch Super Cup, but that doesn't really count. The goal will be to do better next season.
At least, if I'm still in charge of PSV. I suppose my attitude hasn't changed much compared to last season: very much open to interesting offers, but not opposed to staying another season in Holland either. And since offers tend to be a bit more frequent/better on the back of a trophy, it's not unlikely that I'll be at PSV a bit longer.
I actually did get one concrete job offer this season, back in January already:
It was certainly an offer which gave me pause, as their manager left to take charge of... AC Milan, I think it was. In other words, this wasn't after a sacking because the club was down in mid-table. They were 2nd at the time, in a close title battle (which they ended up winning.)
On the other hand, I saw it as a step sideways rather than up - one could even argue it would be a small step backwards. Had this offer showed up in between seasons, I might very well have accepted it, as a new challenge, but under the circumstances I chose to remain at PSV.
As mentioned already, we barely spent anything last summer, and this combined with our Champions League appearance translates to our bank balance. That said, a cool €8M will be deducted on June 1st, as I figured it was time to bring some fresh blood into the squad.
Most of that money goes to the transfer of one high profile DC. A new quality goalkeeper has also been lined up already, but for free. I'm not sure if there will be other high profile signings (which would have to happen with next season's budget.) If I happen upon the right player, I'll certainly consider it. After three very similar seasons - one could say "standstill seasons," though standstill at a very acceptable level and with financial responsibility an important factor - it's time to try and step it up a notch.
This is getting pretty damn close to embarrassing. We started brilliantly with an early goal - even if it got cataloged as an own goal - but after that we were pretty much nowhere again. Still a few months to go until qualifying starts. Hopefully we shape up right quick.
On the bright side, the Belgian immigration office has been busy lately. Several foreigners have taken up the Belgian nationality. They'll need to play in competitive matches before they're locked in, but I gave a few of them their debut in this match.
Ibrahim Idahor - a Nigerian striker who most likely won't be a regular starter, but he could definitely be useful from time to time because of his pace. Marcão - this Brazilian will certainly be a regular part of our selection, as he's our new nr.2 right midfielder (and not all that much behind our nr.1)
We got a few new left midfielders as well, one certainly useful, the other only in case of major injury crises. Unfortunately no new full backs, we could really have used a left back in particular. I did spot an 18 year old left back who looks promising, but didn't call him up yet; I let him do the French Invitational tournament with the U21 lads. Instead I gave PSV backup Chris Groenendaal his senior debut from the bench. Very doubtful that he'll become a regular, but this seemed like a good moment to call him up.
World Cup 2022 (Hosts: Qatar)
Meanwhile the big boys did their thing in Qatar. So far England and France have dominated the big tournaments in this career. Nice to see a new contender breaking that domination. Granted, easy-ish Quarter and Semi Final for Mexico, but they got past Brazil and England, so they certainly didn't get it handed to them on a platter.
As sorta-expected, no job offers this summer, so I start my 4th season at PSV. In the previous three seasons I won one league title and one Dutch Super Cup; time to add at least one more trophy to that list this season.
That won't be the Dutch Super Cup again: Ajax - PSV: 3-2
Since Ajax won both league and Cup last season, we got a shot at this again on account of finishing 2nd. Last year it was all tied after 90min. and we waltzed over them in extra time; this year we didn't manage to hang on to the draw long enough.
It seemed as if our players were still on vacation as Ajax quickly took a two goal lead. After that we recovered well and eventually managed to battle our way alongside them deep into the second half, but a few minutes later they finished us off. We deserved a bit more from this match, but a few sub-par individual performances did us in today. Our new goalkeeper in particular didn't look particularly impressive.
No huge disaster, obviously. We'll just have to win one of the bigger trophies this year, then.
A bit more transfer action than last season. With our 55k stadium selling out every home match, the club is financially quite healthy again, so I knew I didn't have to count every penny before spending it. Obviously I didn't go overboard at all, but we needed a bit of fresh blood, so I brought in a few players who can expect to feature regularly:
Rasoul Bayat - GK
Last season's goalie wanted to move, so we brought in this guy to replace him. He's Germany's nr.2 at the moment, and spent the past seven seasons at Feyenoord, joining us on a free. He didn't impress at all in his first official match for us, but hopefully he'll quickly get into the swing of things.
Joshua Aksoy - DC
Our big, expensive signing also comes from Feyenoord, where he played for his entire career so far, so it's understandable that he needed a new challenge. Our fans are a bit peeved that he joined, Feyenoord being a rival club and all, but I'm hoping he'll put that to rest soon enough. He's been a regular in the Dutch national squad for years now, and got off to a good start at PSV as well, with a debut goal in the Super Cup.
Andrew Ayres - ST
Our striker who broke his leg last season looks but a shadow of his former self. I'm hoping he'll still approach his former level of play, but wanted some fresh blood up front to take his place if needed. This explosive lad seemed very reasonably priced at €2.7M from Man Utd. He already spent last season in Holland, on loan at FC Twente, so at least the language is no issue.
While our transfer spending was well within limits, we're spending a chunk more on wages this season (as a number of our other key players got new contracts as well.) That puts a little bit more pressure on us to win a trophy, and also to reach the Champions League group stage - no direct qualification this time. Salzburg is our first opponent. Not as easy as it could have been, but we should be able to handle them.
Well, after the matches against Cyprus and Israel, I suppose this is an improvement - at least we didn't lose. And we were the better team as well, but really not nearly dominant enough for a home match against a team like Canada.
Just a few days before our first qualifying match, finally a performance we can be pleased with. A nice four goal winning margin, and it could have been more.
The second one, off a corner kick, was the first international goal for Busão, one of our numerous Brazilians-turned-Belgian. After trying out a few other options in the previous matches, I think we settled on him now as our regular center back alongside Boyata.
This was only against Kazakhstan, so this nice result was no reason to get overly optimistic all of a sudden, but at least it gave the lads a bit of a morale boost.
We took that morale boost into our first "must-win" qualifying match, and raised it. A splendid match, not just for the Belgian spectator, but for the neutral as well. Despite the heavy scoreline, Slovakia didn't exactly roll over either and they got several very good chances as well. The score could easily have been 6-3 or something. I don't mind that the woodwork helped us out a little though; never know if goal difference becomes important at the end of the ride.
Mostly, however, it's good to see our key attacking players finding the net again, with Eden Hazard bagging one both against Kazakhstan and Slovakia. There was also a very big "finally"-moment for Romelu Lukaku, new Belgium captain since this summer, who scored his first international goal since I took charge in the summer of 2020.
A massive contrast to Lukaku's goal drought is the continued productivity of Henry Solou, who really is our first name on the team sheet despite the assistant only rating him as our third best striker. But 14 goals in 16 appearances, 4 of them against Slovakia, stats like that simply don't lie. His form might very well turn out to be the deciding factor in our qualifying campaign.
Obviously too early to draw any conclusions at all, but with Ukraine snatching a point in Portugal, we take the lead in the group. We'll be aiming to stay there for a while.
A fairly standard start of the season for us - mostly green, li'l bit of red. I'm pretty damn pleased with that, considering this is our worst season so far when it comes to injuries. Granted, nothing nearly as serious as last season's two broken legs. Mostly 2-6 weeks stuff, but lots of them. We've just about managed to get by so far with some creative position-shifting from time to time, but it's been far from ideal. The results are still good though, so hopefully we can ride it out relatively unscathed.
We got one major ass-whooping in the league so far, by a surprisingly strong AZ. Must be the effect of their new manager. Looking at their squad, however, I doubt that they'll be able to maintain their current run of form for the remaining three quarters of the season. Still fairly tight near the top, but we're only 8 matches in. The situation should be a bit clearer by Christmas.
It's been a slightly busier first few months for us, as we didn't qualify directly for the Champions League group stage this time. We had to get past Salzburg first, which went quite a bit smoother than I expected. Anderlecht put up a bit more of a fight. After the first leg I figured we'd have to settle for the Euro Cup, but we were on fire in the second leg, turning a 2-0 deficit into a 6-2 agg win.
We're in a group with Maccabi Haifa again so, like last year, finishing 3rd is pretty much a given already. I figured we'd be battling Schalke for second place in the group, but after our splendid home win against Barcelona, anything is still possible.
One little cutesy thing in the Dutch Cup as well, as we got drawn against our own reserves, heh. They gave us a nice run for our money as well, as we only managed the winning goal in injury time. Embarrassment narrowly avoided, there.
Holy iron curtain batman! Those chenko dudes sure whooped our pale asses. Of course the referee didn't help, sending off Lucas Zen after two "surely a dive!" yellow cards. We were already quite poor before that, though. Especially at the back, with our defenders just standing around in "hey look, that dude with the ball is running right by me" fashion.
We did have to make do without several injured key players here (which gave our 3rd choice right mid Diederik Holtkamp the chance to score his first international goal.) Still, didn't expect Ukraine to come out this strong.
Run of the mill home win against the weakest team in the group. Juan Mascia scored his one goal per year. Another moment of poor defending gifted them a goal, but we scored enough to make up for it this time.
With Ukraine also scoring a point in Portugal and three points in Slovakia, it looks like they might become the team to beat here.
Obviously we still have every chance of finishing top two, but after these two matches - and especially the one in Donetsk - I'm suddenly a lot less optimistic about our chances. Our defense in particular feels incredibly shaky.
I have the feeling that we're pretty much in between golden generations here. Most of the Kompany, Vertonghen and Vermaelen type players retired this summer. Hopefully they'll all "regen" soon - if the game still works that way, I don't even know. Meanwhile though, we're having to get by with half a selection of Brazilians who played in Belgium for five years. And I don't even want to consider where we'd be without those guys.
A few more friendlies up next before we head to Portugal in March. Maybe a few more good Brazilians become available by then.
A couple of friendlies to get/keep the automatisms into the team. Not much evidence of that against Wales though. A completely lackluster performance, especially in the offensive department. Zero shots on target, and nine of our ten shots in the vague direction of goal were long shots. Pretty damn hard to win a match that way.
One more debut in this match: Gökhan Capar, a Turkish lad with some ancestral ties to Belgium. He certainly won't become the savior of our leaky defense, but he's one of a handful of roughly equal DCs who may or may not be part of the selection depending on form.
A much better performance against Guatemala, though the first half was still very Wales-like, with the exception of the first international goal - we get a lot of those lately - for André, one of our recently-turned-Belgian Brazilians.
It wasn't until the second half that we really started to play well though, with nice goals by Hazard and Solou deciding the match, and a spot kick and scrappy own goal making the scoreline too harsh for Guatemala.
On paper this heavy result may seem quite logical, but Guatemala is actually ranked well above us after their Quarter Final appearance in the latest World Cup. They didn't really play like Quarter Finalists in this match though, but still, considering some of our previous friendlies, this was a good win for us.
As usual, mid-season being 17 out of 34 league matches played, still a few weeks to go until the winter break.
And we have more points in the league than ever at this stage of the season. Not by much - 1 point more than in my first season here, and the other two seasons we were in the high 30s - but still, any improvement is good.
Obviously that doesn't mean we're anywhere close to home. It's turning into a very tight season, with the top four still within 4 points. And it's been tighter for most of the way; our three point gap is very recent, as AZ lost their last match, and Ajax the one before that. Hopefully we can keep hold of our good form and gradually build on that lead. At least our injury worries have settled down mostly from November-ish onwards.
We didn't manage to stay undefeated in the Champions League group stage like last season. Since we were in a group with Barça, that's not a big surprise. It did turn into a much more open group than I expected though. We won at home against Barcelona, but lost against Haifa. If not for that slip-up in Israel, we would have won the group. As it was, we still had to beat Schalke in the last match by more than 1 goal to jump over them into 2nd place, which we managed by scoring in the 76th and 86th minute - pretty close call. I wouldn't have minded terribly if we had finished 3rd in the group, but at least this way the prize money is a bit better, even if we go out in the next round.
Pretty damn close call though. But in the end I had to go with my gut.
It was pretty much a short term vs long term decision process. Obviously joining Inter was incredibly tempting... the budgets, a 4.5 season contract... But they're out of Europe, 5th in the league - not disastrous, but their entire squad is depressed. No Italian Cup either (hasn't been scheduled in years, a bug since I added Italy to the game I assume.) So it would be a "try to rescue" the rest of the season thing, with the real project starting next season.
While at PSV, we're in the lead, still in the Cup and in Europe... If we'd been a few spots down in the league, I might have gone for it. If I'd have had the option to renegotiate to join at the end of the season, I certainly would have gone for it. But switching clubs now just didn't feel right.
Which doesn't mean I'm stuck on staying in Eindhoven for many more seasons. In fact, my contract expires at the end of the season, and it would be ideal to win another title and then move on to a bigger club. Inter's offer just came six months too soon.
I guess this does put more pressure on me to win another trophy with PSV this season. But such is the risk.
For our February friendly we invited another doable opponent - keeping morale up is more important than a true test of strength at this stage. A decent enough result and performance, bagging two goals and keeping them almost entirely away from ours.
Our left back for the future, Youssef Benali, finally got his senior debut, but it wasn't his lucky day - he had to go off after 15 minutes with a broken arm.
Our young left back's second appearance was a bit more productive as he provided the through-ball assist to our left midfielder for the early goal.
A penalty and corner kick goal early in the second half looked to turn the match around, but we got a corner kick goal of our own not long after to bring home a valuable point from Portugal. A deserved point too, despite what the stats suggest.
This point doesn't exactly put us in the driving seat, but it'll certainly help - perhaps even more because of the two points Portugal "lost" than the one we gained. At least this keeps us very much in the race.
Just the one point from our matches against Ukraine and Portugal. We'll have to do better than that in the second half of our campaign, but at least we'll face them both at home then.
Not a perfect season by any means, with a few missed chances along the way, but as far as our performance in the league goes, we can be quite pleased.
We had a small lead on several teams at the halfway point, but as it turned out the team which was 5th in December - Feyenoord - emerged as our main challenger. Then again, that's kinda relative.
Relative, because we were never really in trouble. We gradually increased our lead throughout the second half of the season. We remained undefeated for 16 league matches, until Ajax kicked our butts in March (our previous league defeat was against Ajax as well, back in October.)
By then we had built up a nice gap already though. The little dip to 2nd in the position graph was only because of delayed fixtures. That did put a small amount of pressure on us, but we dealt with it without too many problems. We clinched the title with two matches to spare with a narrow 3-2 win in De Kuip.
Missed chances in the domestic cups. We lost the Dutch Super Cup against Ajax early in the season. In itself no big deal, but it set a trend, as Ajax beat us twice in the league as well. We did manage to beat them once though, and it was an important one: we trounced them 7-1 in the semi final of the Dutch Cup. (Granted, they got three red cards in that match, but we were 2-0 up already before the first one.)
That gave us a great opportunity to win the Cup again for the first time since 2005, but we choked in the final.
Well, "choked" is a bit of an exaggeration; it was a very even match with chances on both sides. But AZ managed to convert one of their chances into a goal, and we didn't. Very much a missed chance.
We didn't manage to do better in the Champions League either - out in the First Knockout Round against. No big deal either though, considering we went out against Man City, who'll probably end up winning the Champions League (they're in the Final against surprise package Young Boys from Switzerland.) At least we managed to keep the score somewhat respectable, especially since we got a red card in the first half of both legs.
A few more changes compared to last season, but really not that much. A new goalkeeper, a new center back, and a new striker into the rotation. Whether it was those changes specifically which made us take a small step forward this season, I sorta doubt. It was more a matter of some small details here and there, with a pinch of luck thrown in.
Joshua Aksoy - DC
Our new center back, however, was certainly a great acquisition. He was our "winning everything in the air today" guy, both at the back and occasionally up front, getting into the double digits scoring mostly on set pieces.
Diego Jara - ML
Our Argentinian left mid was our assist king this season, despite playing less matches than most. (He was on sort of a 60/40 rotation with our other, up-and-coming left midfielder.) Typical short and pacey guy, just the way I like'm.
Jean Marie Dongou - ST
Our Spanish international was our topscorer yet again, though by significantly less of a margin than last season. In fact, with our two other strikers on a bit more of a rotation schedule and hence playing less matches, they were kinda more productive than Dongou, relatively speaking. So basically, all our offensive players played quite well, with neither of them significantly better than the others. Perhaps that's what made the difference compared to last season.
Despite shareholder payouts and what not, another profitable season:
In other words, PSV's future looks promising. A few players will need to be replaced - Mensah is 32 and Leroy Fer 33, but both have been on sorta-rotation already this season, so their successors are pretty much ready. With just a little bit of work and not too much spending, the squad should be ready to repeat this season's success.
However, I'll be leaving that task to someone else. My contract is about to expire. PSV offered me a 4 year extension recently, and I briefly considered trying to negotiate a 1 season deal, but eventually just rejected it outright.
It's disappointing that we lost the Dutch Cup Final - it would have been ideal to leave the club after winning the double. But still, after four seasons here, with two league titles, it just feels like it's time to move on. Even if that means briefly risking unemployment (though perhaps not, one interesting job just became available for which I may or may not apply, will need to have a closer look at it first.)
In any case, time for a new challenge. Hopefully I'll find a suitable one before the end of the summer.
Time for a new challenge indeed and, as I pretty much expected, it didn't take me very long to find one:
This wasn't the potential job which I mentioned at the end of my previous update. That was AS Roma, but after a closer look at them I let that one slide by. I did apply for the Arsenal job a few days later, but although they were flattered by my interest they gave the job to Markus Babbel instead, leaving me to take Babbel's place at Dortmund.
I'm not disappointed with that chair dance at all - I'm just as pleased with the Dortmund job than I would have been with the Arsenal job. In fact, I think this is pretty much the perfect "small step up" after PSV. A similar type of job as well - from one of Holland's best clubs to one of Germany's best clubs.
Dortmund's recent Bundesliga history - never out of the top five, last winning it two seasons ago. This season they finished second after what looks to have been a tight but "low amount of points" type of battle with Leverkusen and Bayern.
Finances are "secure" - meaning, in the black, so there's some wiggle room, but not enough to go crazy. The current squad does need a little bit of work, but there's a very solid basis. In other words, the key ingredients are there to win trophies with this club in the near future, at least domestically.
In Europe, there's certainly some room for progress as well. Dortmund's Champions League history is not particularly impressive. In the past 13 seasons, they failed to survive the group stage in 7 out of 8 attempts (the one time just surviving one round longer.) Their Euro Cup history is much better, with a few Semi Final appearances in recent years, and this season even better: they played the final of the Euro Cup just two weeks ago, only losing to Real Madrid after a penalty shootout.
The squad looks ok, with a few very nice players, but also a few positions which definitely need strengthening. But I'll go into that a bit deeper in the pre-season update.
Bye bye Holland, time to conquer Germany!
Blah. One of those matches where you could feel it wasn't our night pretty much immediately. Not so much because of the three clear cut chances we missed in the first six and a half minutes - three one on ones. More so because our players, and especially the back five, looked sluggish and were always just a little bit late to get to the ball. Standing around waiting for the slow bouncing ball to get to them and then watching as the more motivated Slovakians snooped it away, stuff like that.
It was almost inevitable that this sluggishness resulted in a sending off for one of our defenders, Busão. They effectively finished us off two minutes later.
The second half was a snooze fest, and Eden Hazard, who became Belgium's most capped player in this match, scrambled one into the net on one of our rare appearances near the Slovakian goal, but we really weren't strong enough to get more out of it - on the contrary, we were lucky not to lose by a bigger margin.
That loss is a bit of a disaster, as this was pretty much a must-win match - though in hindsight, with the other results in the group, a draw here would have been acceptable as well. Slovakia beat Portugal at home a few days before they beat us. Portugal then got their second draw against Ukraine, leaving them in an even worse position than us.
The battle for second place is still wide open, but we really have to be pretty much flawless now. Three matches to go. An away match against Iceland and home matches against Ukraine and Portugal. Make or break time.
It's been a fairly relaxed summer. The Dortmund squad was in good shape when I joined. In fact, it was one of the most balanced squads I've ever seen an AI team assemble. 3 GKs, 2 DL, 2 DR, 4 DCs... and so on. It was almost like they had given it some thought.
The only position which really needed strengthening was the goalkeeper position.
Grégory Collignon - GK
So I brought in this French lad, which was the best available option for free, as he was holding out for a bigger club than Wigan, where he spent the previous 6 and a half seasons - most of those in the Championship. He got one cap for France almost five years ago, but perhaps this big move will put him back on the radar of the France manager.
The rest of the squad didn't really need significant strengthening, just a bit of extra squad depth. And with a transfer budget of only €8M, I couldn't really go far anyway, so I limited myself to squad-depth-y signings - a few youngsters and a few more experienced guys for bench and backup purposes. Like these two:
Georginio Wijnaldum - AMRLC
One of the Holland regulars of the past decade, Wijnaldum is starting to get on a bit in years, but there's still one or two good seasons left in him. And I'm not comfortable unless I have a versatile utility player on the bench, so that will be his main role at Dortmund. His wage for that role is a bit higher than I would have liked, but oh well.
Marcão - AMR
This Belgian/Brazilian was a bit of a last-minute signing, mostly because he's a regular part of the Belgium setup and had found himself without club and without interest after his Anderlecht contract expired. That doesn't mean he's a total waste - he's pretty much our nr.3 MR, not far behind nr.2. In other words, he should see a little bit of action this season, but unless we hit some serious injury issues, probably not a whole lot. Still better than early retirement, I guess.
Of the players who were already at the club, one of them stands out a bit more than the others:
César - DL
Our team captain (since this summer) and our undisputed first choice at left back, by a country mile. First choice left back for Brazil as well, which says enough really. By far our best paid and most valuable player as well. Luckily he still had a 4 season contract. If ever the chairman accepts an offer-he-can't-refuse for him, the club's finances will be all set for several seasons.
For most of the other positions, the players are of a pretty much comparable, "normal" key player level? I could pick at least half a dozen of them to showcase, but I'll stick to two of them:
Sinan Eroglu - AMLC
This Turkish international can play in the center but will mostly play left midfield for us. His lowest average rating in his previous 3 seasons for Dortmund was 7.45. With all the yellow attributes in all the right places for his position, I'm not surprised. I have a feeling he'll be one of our stars this season.
Kevin Volland - ST
The striker position is perhaps the most "insecure" one in our squad, with a few 20-year old talents itching to break into the first team. But this almost-veteran will hopefully not be past his prime just yet to hold them off for one more season. Bit of a wait-and-see guy for me though, but we have options should he not be up to the job.
Overall, I'd feel a bit more comfortable if we had just a few more talented youngsters in our youth squads to fall back on in case of extreme emergencies, but barring those, we should be all set to get through the season. There's still a bit of wiggle room in the budget in case we need to make some adjustments in January as well.
For the first time since before my Standard days, if I recall correctly, I'll be abandoning the 4-4-2 diamond tactic for the time being. With the players available at the club, going for a standard 4-4-2 is the most logical tactic. That'll take some getting used to again, but I'm sure I'll survive. Can't go far wrong with a 4-4-2.
The board expect us to challenge for the title, the media predicts us to finish 3rd. I suspect we won't be far away from that, but as usual when starting at a new club in a new league, it's a bit of a wait and see how strong we'll be compared to the opposition.
Just one more Finnish title since I left there, but always there or thereabouts. They're in the lead now as well, halfway through the current Finnish season.
Not much progress in Europe - they haven't made it to any group stage yet.
So I guess they pretty much stalled a bit, but that was always the most likely outcome. I'd say the fact that they never finished lower than 6th is already impressive. Guess I left them in good shape.
An August friendly against one of our opponents from World Cup Qualifying two years ago. We got six points against them then, but this time they came out ahead. Not by much, it was a very even game, but we weren't nearly effective enough in front of goal.
Another debut for us in this match: Leonard Schreuder, another young right back who will hopefully evolve into a decent enough player for the national squad.
Ukraine were named as favorites for this match, and they were on a record-breaking 13 match undefeated streak, so this was a very satisfying result. Also because of the 6-3 ass-whooping we got in Ukraine.
It was pretty much a must-win match - yet again - as well, so it was nice to see that our early chances were converted, for once, giving us a comfortable and deserved three goal lead at half time. We were a bit less effective and dominant in the second half, but played out the match easily enough.
A much less comfortable match to watch, as our early chances were not converted this time, and the clock kept ticking. But eventually Henry Solou found himself with a meter of space in a penalty area with lots of Icelanders, scoring his third Belgium goal of the week and his 20th in his career.
Not the prettiest match, but job done.
Another immigrant joined our ranks in these two matches: Juan Tuzzio hails from Argentina, but was brought to Standard by yours truly as a 19 year old and now immediately becomes our nr.1 DMC. He already got himself suspended for our last group match, but despite that, he should be a very useful addition for years to come. That was a good signing five years ago.
Looking good, but the job is far from done.
Ukraine will almost certainly win the group, as their last match is against Iceland. Three teams can still finish in second place. Obviously we're in the best position for that, but we'll still have to get a result in our last match, at home against Portugal. Depending on the other matches, a draw might be enough, but it's quite possible we'll simply need to win it.
Meanwhile, the draw for the next World Cup Qualifying campaign - about a year away - has been made as well:
Our iffy results of the last year and a half dropped us down to 3rd seeds for this draw, but despite that we can't complain at all about this group. Portugal and Serbia as first and second seeds could have been much much worse - especially considering Portugal's unconvincing performances in the current Euro Qual campaign.
Though hopefully I won't regret that last half-sentence next month...
What are these international sides like in 2023? IRL I would expect Andorra to be whipping boys, Belgium, Portugal and Serbia to be the top 3, Kazakhstan and Latvia to fill the remaining two. Do you think you can topple Serbia for 2nd?
Yeah, that's pretty much my assessment as well. I hadn't looked at them closely yet though (since I'll have to qualify for the Euros first or I'll probably get the sack.)
The World Rankings of that group at the moment:
8th - Portugal
20th - Serbia
42nd - Belgium
71st - Latvia
120th - Kazakhstan
193rd - Andorra
Obviously the World Rankings aren't the entire story. Portugal are highly ranked after finishing 3rd in the '22 World Cup, but their current qualifying campaign has been iffy. Perhaps because Ronaldo is now 38 and unemployed and no longer part of the recent selections - though still captain. (Tried to sign him at Dortmund this summer, actually, but he snubbed me, heh.)
Serbia didn't make it past the group stage in the World Cup, but it looks like they'll be qualifying for the Euros again. (Though with Poland and Belarus as main opposition in their qual group, so hardly a huge shocker there.) They have a pretty good squad, perhaps a little bit stronger than Belgium at the moment, but hardly unbeatable.
So I'd say it'll be a pretty open battle between the top three. The difference between topping the group and finishing 3rd will be in the details.
Haha, yeah. In our optimal "everybody healthy" selection we have 7 guys who only became Belgian in their mid-twenties. Plus a couple of guys who may get the occasional cap in case of injuries etc. So that's a decent chunk, but still plenty of "real" Belgians remaining.
A few days before our important match against Portugal, so an important part of this friendly was about giving some guys a bit of match rhythm, a few others some rest etc. Nevertheless, we played quite well, despite going a goal behind early in the match. Lukaku and Mulder quickly turned the match in our favor within the first 15 minutes. After that we had several great chances to extend our lead further, but the Estonian goalkeeper had a great day.
Would have been nice for morale to score a few more goals, but ultimately this was a fairly relaxing friendly.
While we were off to Estonia, the situation in the group became much simpler for us. Portugal won their match against Slovakia, which put them one point behind us. In other words, a draw in our last match was enough to qualify directly.
I had high hopes for Romelu Lukaku, who scored against Estonia and reached his 100th cap here, but he had to go off injured after a half hour. His replacement, Juan Mascia, did well though, breaking through the defense on speed - rare for him, he's not that fast - and finishing coolly.
Unfortunately we couldn't cheer long. After a scramble in the box the ball fell in front of a Portuguese foot. And when a corner kick goal put us a goal behind with 15 minutes to go, I didn't think it would be our night - it had been a bit of a low-action match, with very few decent chances on both sides. But a lovely 30 yard cross found Mario Mulder unmarked just a few meters from goal with just a few minutes to go. A jump-up-and-punch-the-air moment if there ever was one.
And so we qualify for Euro 2024 directly, leaving Portugal to deal with the 3rd place Playoffs. That's a big relief. It'll be my first major international tournament - it's about time.
Well, I guess this was pretty much the start of our preparation towards Euro24. Hardly a successful first test. We should have won both of these matches, based on the balance of play.
The issues which these two friendlies clearly highlighted were hardly surprising ones though. It's been clearly apparent over the past year and a half: after the retirement of guys like Kompany, Vertonghen, Vermaelen, Alderweireld and a few others, our defense quickly turned from our strong point into our weak point.
At the moment we have one right back - Toquinho - and two center backs - Boyata and Busão - who are of a sufficient level to deserve a spot in Belgium's national squad. The rest really isn't good enough and falls into the "best we've got" section. Two of those three are Brazilians - don't even want to consider where we'd be without them. The other one, Boyata, is about to turn 33.
In case of injuries to those guys, as was the case for two of them for these friendlies, our defense is about as reliable as a nylon condom.
Case in point: due to these injuries, two new players made their debut for Belgium this week: Lamine Diallo and Nordine Riviere. Still young and with some progression margin in them, but not really the quality of player to rely on in a major tournament.
I guess the only thing to do is hope for more South Americans looking for a new home. Or ride it out until a new generation of defensive top talent arises. Don't think that'll be any time soon though.
Our only hope for Euro24 will be to score lots and lots of goals.
Aye, if we're at full strength it's not too bad. If not, we just have to be a little bit lucky on the day that we score more than concede.
The group draw for Euro 2024 has been announced as well:
Obviously there are no "easy" groups at this stage, but for being seeded 4th, I'm really quite pleased with this group draw.
We've gotten results against Portugal recently, so we know there's a chance there. Scotland and Israel are ranked 17th and 24th in the world, which is higher than us. Obviously their results have earned them those rankings, but still. These are all teams we can beat on a good day or lose to on a bad day. We have to head out there with the goal to survive the group stage.
A very solid season so far, if not for one major slip-up at the end. We lost a penalty shootout in the German Cup against Second Div. team St.Pauli. A few of our key players got to sit this one out, but that's no excuse. It was one of those typical matches where the ball just didn't want to go into the net.
One slip-up in the league as well, a match we really shouldn't have lost against Karlsruhe. Our other Bundesliga loss can hardly be described as a slip-up though. Bayern whooped our ass fair and square; we were pretty much nowhere against them. It was still early in the season then, though. Hopefully we'll put up more of a fight after the winter break.
With half the season gone, the current league standing seems like a pretty fair assessment of our strength. We've felt like the strongest team against pretty much every opponent except Bayern, so it's only logical that the season is shaping up to be a two horse race. So far we've been a little more consistent than Bayern, but not entirely flawless, so it's not unlikely that our direct confrontation with them will turn out to be a key match.
We're doing fine in Europe as well. Initially I figured our group with Juventus, Espanyol and Sparta Prague would be another very open group, but as it turned out Juventus and us were clearly the strongest of the group, with Espanyol becoming the slightly surprising whipping boys.
Hopefully we'll overestimate our next Spanish opponents as well, as we'll be facing Valencia in the next round. Not too bothered about Europe at this point though. Winning the title will be the main goal.
It's March, so my (international) focus is firmly on the Euro Ch'Ship now, where we can indeed start with a bit of ambition. In that respect, we organized this Spring friendly against an opponent with some quality.
Russia wasn't nearly as strong as I had expected. Which makes it a bit disappointing that we didn't manage to win this match. Offensively we were by far the better team, though it wasn't a great match by any means. We went much too easily for the often-harmless long shot, though we did manage a few good chances in between those, and efficiently converted two of them.
At the back, we didn't give away too many chances, but Russia equalized twice through set pieces - a corner kick in the first half, and a stupid penalty deep into injury time. We had to play with two of our backup center backs today; hopefully we can avoid these sort of goals when we're at full strength at the back. Which now also includes a new Brazilian left back who recently became available, but he was injured for this match, so his debut will have to wait a few more months.
I did give one other player his senior debut in this match: Nordine Hajji, a young striker. Not immediately someone who'll likely play a big role in the Euros, if he even gets selected. But he's been scoring freely and winning all sorts of awards in the Belgian Pro League, so it was time to give him his first cap to aid his development. We'll likely need him in the not too distant future.
Well, that went rather smoothly. At the mid-season point it looked as if we might be headed for a tight title battle with Bayern, but it didn't turn out that way.
It didn't become a tight race, firstly because Bayern dropped a few points early after the winter break, but mostly because we were pretty damn close to flawless.
When we beat Bayern in early February - almost as smoothly as they had beaten us early in the season - we extended our lead from 6 to 9 points. The gap stayed like that for a long time, even past the point where we dropped our only points this half-season, the draw against Leverkusen. But in the last month of the season, Bayern's form completely plummeted while we remained flawless, and so we end up winning the league with a staggering 21 point lead.
Quite a successful debut season in the Bundesliga. Certainly didn't think it would be this easy.
Our one major disappointment this season was the German Cup - 3rd Round exit against a Second Division team. Quickly put that behind us and do better next year.
A bit of a mixed feeling about the Champions League, but mostly a positive one after a brilliant comeback against Valencia. We lost 0-1 at home, one of those matches which we should have won convincingly. Then we went 3-1 behind in Valencia - that one was a fair half time score, we were kinda poor. But then we played a crazy, brilliant second half and turned it around to 6-3.
Ajax seemed like an ideal Quarter Final opponent to progress another round, given the other potential opponents we could have drawn, but that was only on paper. On the pitch, they simply outplayed us, especially in Amsterdam. Losing 4-1 there was perhaps a bit harsh, but not by all that much. No miracle comeback this time; we were by far the better team at home, but had to settle for a scoreless draw in a second leg which we started without a lot of hope anyway.
Hardly brain surgery. Most of the players were already here. I just signed a quality goalkeeper, plus a few of the backups and reserves, and put them in a straightforward 4-4-2. I'm a bit surprised that the season went this smoothly, actually. But heck, a nice easy season once in a while isn't a bad thing.
Just a few of our key players:
Sinan Eroglu - AMLC
As I pretty much predicted at the start of the season, Eroglu was a key part of our attack and became our assist king this season. The difference with or without him in the line-up is clearly noticeable. This is just the type of player who creates chances for his team, over and over again.
Kevin Volland - ST
Our almost-veteran striker was just one of three strikers who performed consistently well this season. Volland was the least proficient goalscorer of the three, but he did contribute regularly with assists as well, so he remained a bit more of a first pick, while the other two were on a bit more of a rotation. Due to his age, that balance may change next season though.
Niklas Neumann - ST
One of the other two striker, and our topscorer this season, despite not playing nearly every match. Apart from his physical stats, he doesn't look at all impressive on paper, but he's just one of those guys who goes out there and scores goals. Luckily his request for first team football, fairly early in the season, came at a point when one of the other strikers just got a 6 week injury and I could give Niklas a "what the heck, I'll give you a chance" promise - otherwise I would probably have decided I could find a better one and would have promised him he could leave at the end of the season.
Decent enough season, mostly thanks to our Champions League performances. A bit of profit; not enough to suddenly put us in the rich clubs list, but all profit is obviously a step in the right direction.
We might have to spend a bit more this summer than last year, though. Several of the quality backups and squaddies have been promised they can leave this summer and will have to be replaced.
I suppose that's not surprising when at a club of a certain level, but the players here seemed a bit more naggy than average. Not just about wanting first team football, also about training workloads, and there were some tiresome morale issues during team talks as well. (Obviously manageable given our results, but it did make me worried what would happen if we hit a stretch of poor form.)
These small issues, along with a slightly boring "easy" season, have made that I really haven't clicked with Dortmund as much as I would have liked. In other words, if an interesting offer comes up this summer, I might be moving on already. Only if it's an offer during the off-season though; once next season starts, I'll most likely stay on until the end of the season. Which I wouldn't totally mind either. Perhaps the squad-building I'll have to do this summer will make me a bit more involved and attached to Dortmund.
Then again, I'll have other things on my mind this summer as well. Final preparation for the Euro Ch'Ships start soon...
No huge shocks here, the results are pretty much within expectations. On the one hand our offensive display is encouraging, though a bit more clinical finishing would not be a bad thing. On the other hand our defense remains a bit iffy at times, and it's slightly worrisome that we didn't manage to keep a clean sheet in any of these matches, despite having a few easy)ish opponents in there like Albania and especially Malta.
We finished with a real test match against the hosts, but that didn't turn out very well. Luckily they got a man sent off, so we managed to avoid a total morale-crushing heavy defeat.
I didn't really have many difficult decisions to make during these friendlies with regards to ideal starting line-up etc. There are a few positions - in goal and up front - where we have a few "equally strong" options, but for the most part the choices are pretty clear.
We can start the tournament pretty much at full strength as well. Just one player misses the tournament through injury, our nr.2 DMC, Collin. In his place, I decided to go for experience: Radja Nainggolan.
I eliminated everyone who was 32 or older from potential international selection 2 years ago, but with Nainggolan I came back on that rule once or twice throughout qualifying in case of injuries. Didn't think he'd stick it out this long, but as he still plays an active role in the Man City squad, his selection here certainly isn't a stretch. He'll start on the bench, but he'll almost certainly break the 100 cap benchmark during this tournament.
Our starting XI for the opening match against Portugal: (barring last minute injuries)
Thibaut Courtois - pretty much on par with Thomas Kaminski, who played the occasional match the past few years, but in the end I decided to stick with the guy with the most international experience. I guess it's not a bad thing that we have the option to switch if needed, though.
Toquinho - DR Gilberto - DL
Two Brazilians as our full backs. On the right, Toquinho has been part of the selection for almost 4 years now. Gilberto, on the other hand, has only recently received his Belgian passport and made his debut against Albania. The backups for their positions are 22 and 20 respectively, and not quite ready yet, so these two foreigners nicely fill a void in the selection for a few years.
Busão - DC Dedryck Boyata - DC
One more Brazilian in the center of our defense, alongside one of our veterans, Boyata, who's been in the shadow of guys like Kompany, Vermaelen etc. for many years but now becomes the key of our defense for the last years of his career.
Juan Tuzzio - DMC
No Brazilian but an Argentinian for a change, who joined our ranks less than a year ago. I have high hopes that he'll play a cracking tournament in one of the most important positions of our 442-diamond.
Raymond Zuiderwijk - MR Mario Mulder - ML
Despite their Dutch-sounding names, these two are 100% Belgian. Kinda nice how I have a history with these two: both part of my Belgium U21 selection early in my career, signed them both to Standard a few years later, and now they're both an integral part of the Belgium setup.
Zuiderwijk has been a Belgium regular for many years, and is our vice-captain now. Mulder's international career suffered a bit because of other quality options for many years - Hazard, Chadli etc. - but he became our first choice left mid as soon as I took charge almost 4 years ago. He made a big transfer to Chelsea last January, hopefully that inspires him to great performances in this tournament.
Eden Hazard - AMC
One of our other veterans who certainly isn't over his top yet - recently voted Footballer of the Year in the Premiership after a great season at Man City. His international form isn't always consistent, but hopefully he can extend his Man City form to the Euros and play a key role for us.
Romelu Lukaku - much like the GK situation, Lukaku is pretty much on par with Juan Mascia for the second striker spot. Neither of them scores particularly often, so I tend to give Lukaku a small edge - because of his physical presence, but also because he happens to be our captain for this tournament.
Henry Solou - undisputed first choice alongside one of those two, Henry scores like a machine for us (more goals for Belgium than for Genoa this season, in fact.) If we're to have any chance in this tournament, we'll need Henry to stay on target.
We play Portugal, Scotland and Israel, in that order. Not ideal, but I suppose it doesn't matter all that much. Surviving the group stage will be the goal. Anything beyond that is a bonus.
After all that worrying about our iffy defense, it was mostly our attack which failed us here. Both against Portugal and against Scotland, we deserved more.
The match against Portugal was fairly even, but we had by far the better chances. But we failed to put one away, while they scored a lovely placed 20 yard shot, neatly in the top corner, unreachable for any goalkeeper. That one moment of class which decided the match.
Against Scotland we went a corner kick goal behind before the match even started. After that we were admittedly not strong enough to elevate the match beyond the "frustrating midfield battle" level. But again we managed to create a few great chances, except they were either squandered by our forwards or, in two cases, denied by the woodwork.
The only match where we can't really complain about the result was the one against Israel. We had to win it, and preferably by several goals, to stand a chance of scraping through as one of the best 3rd placed teams. It looked good for a while, as Marcão gave us the early goal, but Israel demonstrated some quality with a few slicing attacks, so after 90 minutes I could only be pleased with a draw here - at least we avoided going home with 0 points.
This was an open group, and we played three fairly even matches. A few tiny details differently here and there, and the results could have been very different. In the end, we didn't play as well as I had hoped we would though. Especially the Scotland match was a let-down - sure, we deserved more from that match, but we should have been strong enough to force the issue, woodwork or no woodwork.
No real surprises in the group stage, except perhaps Ukraine, who topped our qualifying group but were as poor as us here in Spain.
The Belgian FA expected us to reach the Quarter Finals, so they're not exactly pleased about our performance here - understandably. My job doesn't seem to be in immediate danger though, still at 50%/stable. I think I'll have to wait until the end of the tournament to be absolutely certain, but it looks like I'll be able to stay on for the next World Cup Qualifying campaign.