Heerenveen's new defensive starlet set to shine on the biggest stage

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It should have been all about Roy Beerens, the AZ winger returning to former club Heerenveen with a point to prove, however he was left disappointed.

Holland coach Bert van Marwijk, in attendance, still left the game with a good impression. Not of Beerens, but rather of the virtuoso display of a growing hero in the Friesland province - Jeffrey Gouweleeuw.

With so many attacking options on display, it came from the area of the pitch that has often been a concern to him, making it all the more intriguing. As the game drew to a close, the defender received a standing ovation, as well as the man-of-the-match award.

Most unusual given his side won comfortably and came under minimal pressure from the opposition’s forwards, but in this case vindicated. This wasn’t the first time the Heerenveen natives have sung Gouweleeuw's praises.

The 20-year-old’s injury time equaliser at Vitesse in October maintained their unbeaten run, which has since been extended to 12 games, equalling a club record. But it was his most recent outing, a 5-1 victory over league leaders AZ, that really had observers sitting up and taking notice.

Heerenveen stifled Gertjan Verbeek’s side’s usual rhythm, not allowing them any time to breathe let alone play their game, Adam Maher’s substitution just before half-time noted by Heerenveen coach Ron Jans as a small victory, with the visiting playmaker never getting into the game.

In his post-match press conference Verbeek analysed his side’s defeat in the style of a Christmas poem, growling that Santa Claus wouldn’t understand football. One line read “Therefore Gertjan grieve not, always say what you think, it’s always best.” 

This followed a curious incident a couple of days previously, when he responded angrily to being asked whether the goalless draw against Malmö in the Europa League was an ‘off-day’. He succinctly clarified it wasn’t and stormed off in anger. 

It’s perhaps too early to say whether the pressure is getting to him or if this is an act designed to deflect attention away from his team as they enter a critical period. But it’s entertaining nonetheless. 

Before kick-off Beerens was presented with flowers and a portrait of him during his time at the club. Verbeek took the time to make a beeline for Heerenveen forward Bas Dost, offering a handshake. No one will be surprised if the Dutch under-21 international is linked with a move to Alkmaar once the transfer window is reopened.

If Verbeek wasn’t a fan before the match, by the end he would have a far better idea of exactly how dangerous he can be. Not long into the game, unmarked, Dost gave his side the lead. Jozy Altidore put AZ back on level terms after a neat one-two with Brett Holman, but it was to be the only bright spot of a largely turgid performance.

A blistering counterattack saw Rajiv van La Parra putting the hosts back infront on the half hour. Filip Đuričić and Ramon Zomer both snatched goals early in the second half, before Luciano Narsingh provided the icing on the cake by making it five late on, condemning AZ to only their second league defeat of the season.

But it was Gouweleeuw who really stood out. His run from deep in the first half resulted in an effort going a whisker over, before Đuričić and Zomer’s goals were both wonderfully assisted by the defender: the first a lob from near the halfway line which he followed up moments later with a left footed cross from just outside the penalty area.

“We knew we could beat AZ, we didn’t fear them,” he said after the game. “We started the match full of confidence and we knew we could catch them out.”

He’ll blow hot and cold, given his age, how he reacts when things are not going well will be a test of character. Already he’s fought back after losing his place in the team having suffered an injury early in the season.

Having talent alone is no guarantee of success. Playing in his role, especially at such a young age, carries great responsibility. His personality suggests he is an individual focused striving to be strong mentally as well as physically.

His technical attributes are reminiscent of Dutch defenders of yesteryear. In a recent interview he compared his style to that of Gerard Piqué, explaining that he’d rather his vision, skill on the ball, passing and reading of the game be recognised than his physical attributes.

Team-mate and fellow defender Michel Breuer favourably compared him to another World Cup winner. “He has something extra, intercepts and brings the ball out from the back like Lúcio.”

Much has been said of the national team’s current crop of centre backs, with rather strong criticism following the recent humbling at the hands of Germany. A dearth of real defensive quality has seen the current incumbents Johnny Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen, though not the greatest individually, forge a competent partnership. But it is one that doesn’t have much time left.

The emergence of Gouweleeuw, who only made his senior debut at the backend of last season, as well as Chelsea’s Jeffrey Bruma – currently on loan at Hamburg - and Stefan de Vrij of Feyenoord will make any transition after next summer’s tournament smooth.

Ron Jans, while not offering to recite a poem, did wax lyrical about Gouweleeuw, labelling him ‘the star of tomorrow’. It may not have been the return to Heerenveen he had envisaged, but Beerens should at least take solace from the fact his country’s defensive future is bright.