The 60-second story
Date of birth: March 30, 1994
Place of birth: Rotterdam, Netherlands
Club: PSV (160 apps, 10 goals)
Former club(s): Sparta Rotterdam
International: Netherlands (20 caps, 0 goals)
Euro 2012 wasn’t a happy experience for the Netherlands, as they lost all three games in a tricky group to crash out at the first hurdle. The bright spot was the introduction of PSV left-back Jetro Willems who, when he took to the field against Denmark in Kharkiv, became the youngest player to feature at a European Championship – a record which still stands.
Willems had joined PSV earlier that season from Sparta Rotterdam as a 17-year-old and quickly broke into the first team. He scored his first professional goal before his 18th birthday and, after ousting the established but frequently injured Erik Pieters, went on to make the left-back position his own in Phillip Cocu’s team.
A gifted technician, he’s comfortable in possession anywhere on the left flank and has provided some mouth-watering crosses and through-balls for team-mates when allowed to get forward. His balance alone is enough to get the better of most Eredivisie defenders, but there is a bullish strength about the way he carries the ball which makes him a candidate for bigger and better things. He defends with entitlement and looks at home wherever he receives the ball.
A mooted move to Manchester United in 2011 never materialised and he has benefited from settled surroundings under Cocu, learning his trade in a more forgiving environment than the Premier League would have offered.
Why you need to know him
Willems has experienced contrasting fortunes over the last two years. Having missed the first half of last season with a knee injury he returned to help PSV stage a brave effort in the Champions League last 16 against Atletico Madrid in February.
Cocu’s side were beaten on penalties after a heroic rearguard action at the Vicente Calderon, but Willems put in a classy performance to show fans that his injury setback hadn’t interfered with his bid to become one of Europe’s most complete defenders.
His injury meant he was spared the sharp end of a nation’s scorn as Holland failed to qualify for Euro 2016, but he returned to Danny Blind’s side for the 2-1 win against England at Wembley in March, during which he proved himself to be at home amongst the pace and physical bustle of the English game.
He is considered something of a keystone to the renaissance that Blind has been tasked with rousing by the KVB, a mantle he is likely to assume with great assurance when he inevitably makes the hop to one of Europe’s big leagues.
Willems is an example for any modern full-back. Comfortable running at pace at his opposite man, he doesn’t rely on speed and strength alone to get in behind. His footwork in possession is first class, and his armoury of shimmies, feints and tricks is reinforced by a gift for sublime close control.
It’s always a concern when a player so young endures an extended period sidelined. Willems was kept out for seven months by a knee injury suffered during PSV’s pre-season camp in France a year ago, and what was meant to have been a short-term layoff quickly turned into a long period of worry and rehabilitation as complications beset the youngster’s recovery.
Knee ligament damage had already kept him out of Louis van Gaal’s plans for the 2014 World Cup and the recurrence in France was a worry for PSV.
Willems’ form has recovered well and there are no signs that the injury has knocked him off course, but the injury risk factor will inevitably remain a part of the full-back’s story moving forward.
"The left flank made the difference," said former Holland striker and FC Twente assistant coach Youri Mulder after PSV had dispatched his side in the Eredivisie last year. "Willems flew continuously over. If I were coach, I would have him among the first players on the teamsheet."
Did you know?
The full-back nearly added an unwanted record to his repertoire in January 2015 when he was red-carded after 29 seconds in a match against NAC Breda, making his the fastest sending-off in Eredivisie history.
It looked to be a poor tackle at first glance, catapulting the unfortunate Gill Swerts into the Eindhoven sky, but replays showed the Breda man had leapt out of the way and no contact had been made. The red card was rescinded on appeal, meaning Willems was deprived of his entry into the disciplinary record books.
What happens next?
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The noises are that Liverpool is likely to be his next destination, having been courted by Europe’s elite for most of his time in the PSV first team. It’s hard to think of a defender who would be better suited to Jurgen Klopp’s designs at Anfield; he knows his responsibilities at the back but recognises that his talents are best utilised higher up, bullying defenders and outwitting the opposition with his pinpoint crosses and eye-of-a-needle passes.
Few would agree that Alberto Moreno is a player likely to move the club on to the next level, wherever that may be. Willems is a player of European and international pedigree, with more silverware to his name than most of Klopp’s current squad despite his young years, and is used to getting his way in the admittedly limited Dutch league.
He attracted attention last week when he tweeted a picture of his Holland team-mate Georginio Wijnaldum sporting his new Liverpool shirt alongside the tag “We’ll see each other again soon”, although he has since been quick to extinguish the rumours that the stunt inevitably whipped up. Liverpool, too, have been cagey about chatter, but the PSV man is likely to be touted as long as Klopp’s options remain limited at left-back.
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