Breaking down Brands: The AZ Alkmaar Years (Part One)

I understand why Everton fans are frustrated. Many were frustrated with Marco Silva. I myself have questioned his tactical acumen in finding ways to break down . I am continually baffled by his substitution patterns and believe he is too slow to make chances when the game is turning. Many are frustrated with the quality of certain players. There’s no question there are still players in this Everton side that are not up to PL quality. There have also been fans recently criticising Marcel Brands and asking why he has not delivered a side capable of challenging the top 6.

Everton hasn’t won a major trophy in 25 years and are desperate for some silverware. Brands has delivered success at Dutch clubs before agreeing to become Director of Football at Everton, but success takes time and patience.

I thought it would be interesting to see how Brands built the teams he did at AZ Alkmaar and PSV (unfortunately detailed information on RKC Waalwijk is limited) and whether or not it would tell us anything about where he is in his project at Everton. In both examples, success was not exactly immediate. Beyond that, he had periods of time in both jobs where questions were asked, and his job was in doubt. I recognise that some of this analysis has been done before, but looking at it from the longer perspective is really what I was after and how we can apply what he’s done in the past to the current state of affairs at Everton.

AZ ALKMAAR Pre-Brands

Marcel Brands started July 1st, 2005 at AZ Alkmaar as Director of Football. He was hired away from RKC Waalwijk where Brands took a relegation candidate side to the middle of the Dutch table. Contrary to popular opinion, Brands took over a good side. The 2004/05 side he inherited finished in 3rd with 64 points. It was the highest position AZ had finished in 23 years. They were actually in first at the winter break when the manager, Co Adriaanse indicated he would not sign an extension and wanted to leave in the summer, which prompted hiring Louis Van Gaal as manager in waiting. In the year prior under Adriaanse, they were 5th and made it to the semifinals of the UEFA Cup, where they were knocked out in the final minute of extra time.

PERFORMANCE

Figure 1: Performance Summary

Results.  It took Brands 4 years to build a team that won the league.  However, in his second year they came very close.  AZ lost the league on the final day against one of the worst sides in the league in heartbreaking fashion.  AZ’s early success is probably not relevant to Everton as the 2017/18 side that Brands inherited were rather poor (as I previously wrote – see article here).  That side did finish 8th, but they were very fortunate to finish that high and realistically should’ve been closer to relegation that a European spot.

Managers.  There’s quite a bit of history at AZ that gives us insight into Marcel Brands and how he handles Managers. Brands did not hire Louis Van Gaal who was already in place. Van Gaal was on a downward trajectory after unsuccessful stints as manager of the Netherlands (failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup), Barcelona (did well in the CL, but poorly in the league, removed in January), and Ajax (left due to tension with Ronald Koeman). However, Louis Van Gaal coming back to AZ, the club where he finished his playing career, had to see this as a change to resurrect his career. Regardless of recent form, Van Gaal was a brilliant tactician that if anything was guilty of poor transfer business and man management at times. He was also replacing “Psycho Co”, so his management style might have even been viewed as pleasant comparatively speaking. 

Interestingly enough, although Van Gaal did well in years 1 and 2, AZ struggled in year 3 and he even offered his resignation, although the players indicated they wanted him back.  Brands stuck with him and they won the league the next year. Relevant to Everton, Brands inherited a coach and he stuck with him for 4 years even under difficult times. Granted, Silva did not have the track record or cache of Louis Van Gaal, but its noteworthy nonetheless.

Subsequently, Van Gaal moved to Munich and Brands hired Ronald Koeman, who was fired in early December.  This also tells us a bit about Marcel Brands.  He was quoted as saying:

“It is an odd feeling.  In my 12-year career as director of football I have never before experienced the dismissal of a coach.  This was a difficult decision because the relationship between (AZ director) Toon Gerbrands, Koeman and me was good.  Nevertheless, I am ultimately the one who has responsibility for football affairs. The results went against us and the players were not playing at their normal level. Then you must make a decision.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but these are not the words of someone that is impatient with managers.  This might explain why Brands took longer than expected with Silva.  It might also explain a bit about Ronald Koeman, but that’s something Evertonians know too much about. In another situation, Brands replaced Koeman with Dick Advocaat as a caretaker manager, which indicates the Brands is not afraid to make that type of change in midyear.  Gertjan Verbeek was hired as the successor while Brands was still in the job, but he left for PSV weeks later only to be replaced by American Earnie Stewart.  While Stewart was very supportive of the hire, it’s uncertain whether or it was truly Brands doing.

Market Value / Player Age.  Player values jumped significantly under Brands at AZ although the net spend was positive during his tenure.  In fact, if you look at the market values (using Transfermarkt), the value he added was approximately £66.3M with only £5.8M attributable to talent he inherited that he had not sold.  Part of this was due to Brands strategy of acquiring young talent up front as we will note in more detail later.

Buys/Sales/Net Spend.  Up front Brands actually incurred positive returns from transfer business for various reasons – inherited squad was good, stadium was being built.  He exclusively sold inherited players to fund significant transfer business in his first two years, then took some of those returns in in 2007/8 to acquire a significant group of young talents that would drive much of the future market value increases and/or sales that put AZ in a fantastic position even after he left.  Total net spend was under £6M, but most of the market value was from players he added – Brands pretty much cleared house and even without significant return from the academy and STILL increased the market value of the squad significantly. 

OBSERVATIONS

There are several ways to compile and analyse the information, but as I performance the analysis and took some different perspective on things, several themes emerged.

Backing in the Transfer Market.  Once he demonstrated how effective he could be in the transfer market, Brands had the backing of businessman Dirk Scheringa to get over the hump when he most needed it.  The net spend of over £9M in the summers preceding the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons provided many of the key players in the title winning team of 2008/09.  The investment was meagre by PL standards, but it was.  In fact, it’s worth noting that Brands produced a positive return in the transfer market of almost £9M in his first two years in charge.  Granted, his business those first two years was fuelled by sales of players he inherited of almost £25M, but the point was that he wasn’t given a massive net spend to start with.

It didn’t hurt that the team was successful prior to his arrival, thus having enough talent to provide proceeds in sales that Brands could turn around in his own investments.  AZ was also constructing a new stadium that opened in August of 2006, so that might explain the hesitation to spend in Brands’ first two seasons.

Youth Acquisition.  We will see a different situation with PSV where talent was developed from the academy and either performed or were sold, but most of the key talent from the league winning side was acquired via transfer.  In his first season in charge (see Figure 2), Brands used sales to purchase midfielders Stijn Schaars and Demy de Zeeuw, Shota Arveladze – who was 32 at the time, Danny Koevermans, and right-back Gretar Steinsson – yes, THAT Gretar Steinsson – in January.  Putting them into the mix with Kew Jaliens in defence and Denny Landzaat in the midfield jumped AZ into 2nd place in 2005/06. Koevermans was 26, but Schaars, de Zeeuw, and Steinsson were under 24.  As we will see, several of these younger players helped form the core of the title winning side years later.

Even in 2006/07 (see Figure 3) after selling Landzaat and key players such as Kenneth Perez, Hendrick Timmer, and Joris Methijsen, Brands managed to both improve team results and invest in youth.   Landzaat, Perez, and Timmer were all 30 or older.  Brands got over £14M for Landzaat, Perez, and Mathijsen.  Mathijsen was a loss, but was a big acquisition for Hamburg, which was one of the better teams in Germany at the time.  Those funds were used to acquire younger talents such as Moussa Dembélé, David Mendes da Silva, Gijs Luirink, Ryan Donk and Maarten Martens. Jeremain Lens was about the only youth talent to eventually emerge that Brands didn’t acquire.  These moves took the team into the final day of the season with the league in their hands, until a Boy Waterman – another young acquisition via loan – red card and some bad luck saw it slip through their fingers. 

Tipping Point / Turmoil.  As previously noted, Brands had to make some difficult decisions after the terrible run of form in the 2007/08 season.  Going into the 2007/08 season, while a partial step back might have been expected due to the selling of three critical players in Steinsson, Koevermans, and Arveladze, Brands fuelled excitement by acquiring several other talented players intended to make up the difference.  Brands brought in many new players and ran up his first negative net spend at PSV to over £7M.  While there was hope that the new players could fill in the gaps, as we have learned at Everton, it’s hard to have THAT much turnover in a side and be immediately successful.  Perhaps it was faith in Brands and Van Gaal, but the turmoil turned out to be the tipping point for AZ.  Going into the 2008/09 season, Brands made a handful of key acquisitions and after a rough first two games, AZ got over the hump to win the league.     

Turnover.  The team Brands inherited was good, but Brands still orchestrated significant turnover to rebuild the squad.  Brands mostly acquired younger players and actually posted a positive net spend.  Even with AZ almost winning the league in 2006/07, Brands stuck to his strategy and completely reconstructed the side (see Figure 4). 

Figure 4: AZ Squad Turnover from 2004/05 – players in red played 1,000+ minutes

Interestingly enough, of the 17 players Brands inherited with more than 1,000 minutes in the 2004/05 season, only 1 was with the club when they won the league in 2008/09.  In fact, 14 of the 17 were sold or released within 2 years of Brands starting.  That is staggering turnover and something to consider when we look at how many of the Everton players from what was a terrible 2017/18 side will likely remain even past this upcoming summer. 

It’s also interesting that Brands also sold a young talent in 20-year-old Ron Vlaar who was frustrated at a lack of playing time behind Barry Opdam and Joris Mathijsen.  Vlaar also wanted to go to Ajax, but Brands ended up selling him to Feyenoord instead.  Seems to me that this gives us some insight into how Brands handles younger talent that are looking for a bigger club and foreshadows the sales of Ademola Lookman and Nikola Vlasic. 

I’ve also already noted that in the summer prior to the 2007/08 season, Brands ran up his first and largest negative net spend.  He acquired 8 new players (Boy Waterman was 9, but already at AZ on loan from January) and while many were key to the title winning season, several were young and didn’t have immediate impact in 2007/08, which contributed to the poor season. 

This has direct relevance to Everton as Brands the past two seasons has have a significant number of younger acquisitions, several of which have not yet made a significant contribution such as Moise Kean, JP Gbamin, and even Alex Iwobi.  I also believe that Moussa Dembele is a very interesting comparison to Moise Kean.  Dembele struggled scoring in 2007/8 as a 20-year-old, but the fact that he still played significant minutes and gained experience was key to his increased production the subsequent year.  Same can be said for forward Mounir El Hamdaoui, a younger talent at 23.  The next year when AZ won the league and averaged almost 2 goals per game, El Hamdaoui scored 23 goals and 8 assists in 31 starts with Dembele scoring 10 goals in 1,800 minutes.  In general, the AZ was younger as none of the 7 top players in minutes played were over 25 years old. 

It was also worth noting that although Brands had a negative net spend leading into the 2008/09 season, he spent on only a few important pieces in Gil Swerts, 25, Niklas Moisander, 22, and Sebatian Pocognol, 20, although none was in the top 6 in minutes in the season.  Not surprisingly, it was easier incorporating 3 players (and Ragnar Klavan, who had 11 starts) into a side instead of 8. This also supports what Brands has indicated at Everton that he’d like to get to the point where he only has to acquire 2 or 3 significant players every window as opposed to the significant turnover in the past two Everton windows.

At AZ, Brands seemed to prioritise central midfield and eventually acquired a core midfield in de Zeeuw, Martens, and Schaars that was one of the best in the Netherlands and possibly Europe.  Brands has only replaced Gana Gueye with the currently injured JP Gbamin and added Andre Gomes and Fabian Delph, neither of which would be starting in a top side.

Undeserved Markets.  Although Brands initially focused on undervalued players within the Dutch and neighbouring leagues, he made his first significant foray into what I’ll label as undeserved markets in 2007/8, when he acquired Sergio Romero from Racing in Argentina for £1.3M in the summer and Hector Moreno from Pumas in Mexico for £3.6M in the winter.  Both ended up playing significant roles in the title winning season and beyond for AZ.

AZ ALKMAAR Post-Brands

It’s worth noting that Brands was still in favour at AZ, but many things changed in the 2009/10 season that contributed to his move to PSV.  Dirk Scheringa, the ambitious AZ owner, was hit hard by the financial crisis in late 2009.  Despite several other Dutch financial institutions receiving bailout funding, his financial entity, DSB, received almost nothing.  By some accounts, PSV had approached Brands as early as December 2009. 

In the subsequent seasons, AZ finished 4th in back to back seasons with solid years, much of which was built on younger acquisitions by Brands and/or fuelled by sales from players he acquired.  Most of Brands players were gone by the 2012/3 season where AZ finished 10th.

CONCLUSION

If AZ under Brands is the blueprint, Everton fans are going to have to be more patient.  AZ started with a good side and it took significant turnover and 4 seasons to win the league.  The inherited Everton side was poor and the competition in the PL is fierce.  The manager Brands inherited at Everton, Marco Silva, may be a decent manager, but he doesn’t have the pedigree of a Louis Van Gaal.  That being said, it does appear that Marcel Brands is going to be patient in his rebuilding and potentially even with the manager.  Everton can expect continued acquisition of younger talent in progressively fewer numbers, turnover of the rest of the squad almost completely by the beginning of the 2020/21 season, the improvement and maturation of some of the younger talent, and all done under a reasonable budget.

In Part 2, we will take a similar look at Brand’s time with PSV. 

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