Meet the 18-year-old "Dutch Fabregas"
Precocious talent is nothing new in the Eredivisie: every season one seems to emerge from obscurity. No exception with the latest off the production line, whose rise has coincided with his team's resurgence. In a short space of time the supremely gifted AZ prodigy Adam Maher has gone from a relative unknown to the name everyone is talking about.
Inconsistency was the byword in Alkmaar last season, Gertjan VerbeekÃ¢ÂÂs side never able to string enough wins together to trouble the three sides above them. With a third of the season gone, the consistency that eluded them has been found, and AZ are setting the pace.
After their only league defeat, at FC Twente, they bounced back in style, winning 10 out of the next 11 games. The run has been built on a solid defence: they've only conceded five goals in that period, and only eight overall this season Ã¢ÂÂ just two at home. By contrast, defending champions Ajax have already let in 22.
However, AZ aren't known for being a dourly defensive side Ã¢ÂÂ and despite the defensive diligence, they're not this season either. Indeed, with 30 goals theyÃ¢ÂÂre the fourth-highest scorers. Verbeek has struck the right balance and AZ hold a three-point lead, with a game in hand Ã¢ÂÂ well, 45 minutes, after their match with Excelsior was abandoned at half-time due to fog.
Importantly a few of the players and staff who won the 2008/09 Eredivisie title under Louis van Gaal still remain, including assistant coach Martin Haar, who has sung the praises of emerging star Maher with a lofty comparison: Ã¢ÂÂIn terms of creativity he reminds me of Cesc Fabregas.Ã¢ÂÂ
Huge praise indeed for an 18-year-old in his breakthrough season, but a comparison that shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be dismissed. Although not yet anywhere near the class of the Spaniard, Maher's natural talent and correct attitude have given many the belief that he could attain a similar level.
ThereÃ¢ÂÂs an air of confidence about a player blessed with all the right technical attributes: agility, mobility, dribbling, close control and exceptional passing with both feet. HeÃ¢ÂÂs displayed maturity beyond his years, is never afraid to demand the ball Ã¢ÂÂ and rarely gives it away. Once in possession he distributes it effectively and efficiently, whether delivering a key pass that slices up a stubborn defence or one that brings his team-mates into play.
You'll frequently find Maher playing between the lines in his favoured trequartista role, although his licence to roam means he often drifts out wide where his pace has troubled full-backs. And like Fabregas, he is gaining strength through flexibility: heÃ¢ÂÂs shown the discipline to play in a deeper role, as a controlling playmaker, with added defensive responsibilities. But itÃ¢ÂÂs further up the pitch where he causes the most damage.
That was evident at Heracles, with the scores goalless and fulltime approaching, Maher looked crowded out inside the penalty area, as he began to weave Ã¢ÂÂ the ball glued to his feet Ã¢ÂÂ the seconds ticked down, still he found enough space to stab it past Remko Pasveer.
It was the stuff of champions, but Verbeek Ã¢ÂÂ who before this season had never managed a table-topping team Ã¢ÂÂ wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be drawn to such talk. He has since changed his tune slightly; after a comfortable 4-0 home win over Den Haag, in which Maher again starred Ã¢ÂÂ scoring and creating another Ã¢ÂÂ the manager remained cautious but could start to envisage his current side as realistic champions.
More than anything he recognises the leap from fourth to first is a big one; his side has also yet to enter a dip in form, and once they do the sides breathing down their necks Ã¢ÂÂ PSV look the strongest Ã¢ÂÂ could very well capitalise.
"A contender? Well we are strong," Verbeek admitted. "We must make sure we keep this level until the winter break. If we still have this advantage then we could create something beautiful. But only then would we consider the title."
The early-season loss of Maarten Martens to injury should have hit them hard. The Belgian winger, an instrumental figure in the side, scored their opening goal of the season, in a 3-1 home win against PSV. The effects of his absence have been limited partly by MaherÃ¢ÂÂs emergence.
In the same game Ã¢ÂÂ coming on for Martens Ã¢ÂÂ the youngster provided the assist, a neat chipped cross from the byline, for Jozy Altidore. Only Rasmus Elm has been more creative than Maher, and the Swede was at hand to assist the 18-year-old for his first goal this season at VVV Venlo.
Maher's performances have already attracted attention from sides outside the Netherlands including AC Milan, Manchester City, Lyon and even Barcelona. When asked about the interest he smiled but reiterated, like many in their formative years, that he wants to stay at his current club and continue his development. In some ways, being linked with such clubs could spur him on to become the player many feel he can be.
Born in Diemen, east of Amsterdam in 1993, Maher joined AZ's youth academy in 2004 after turning out for SV Diemen and AVV Zeeburgia. He made his senior debut last December, coming on as a substitute in a Europa League tie against FK BATE Borisov and having an instant impact by scoring in a 3-0 win. At the age of 17 years and 147 days he became the youngest Dutchman to score in European competition.
His Moroccan parentage makes him eligible to represent the North African country at international level. However his father has advised him to choose Oranje. At the moment heÃ¢ÂÂs not made a decision, choosing to instead concentrate on playing for the Netherlands U21 side, for whom he again scored on his debut against their Scottish counterparts.
The day after AZÃ¢ÂÂs latest win, a 2-0 home victory over FC Utrecht, the shortlist was announced for this yearÃ¢ÂÂs Golden Boy award Ã¢ÂÂ which names the finest under-21s in Europe. Maher wasn't on it this time, but if he continues at his current rate thereÃ¢ÂÂs every chance he could be vying for the accolade 12 months from now. Not bad for a boy who only made his debut 12 months ago.