In the Netherlands, the three giants, Ajax Amsterdam, Feyenoord Rotterdam and PSV Eindhoven, have always been above the rest considering success, fame and financial possibilities. Like a breath of fresh air, AZ Alkmaar proved in the 2019/20 Eredivisie season that they also have the potential to compete with the Big Three in the long run. If we look behind their sudden success, the first thing that turns out is that it was everything but sudden: the club has been putting immense emphasis on their youth development for more than a decade now. For the season behind us, they managed to achieve that 10 of their 24 regular first-team squad members were coming from the AZ academy – this 41,67% ratio is an outstanding figure not just in the Netherlands but throughout Europe and the whole world too. Apart from the obvious business reasons behind (which is inevitable for the sustainable operation of a football club), the trust AZ grant their young talents has a great message towards the fans and makes the club even more likeable and, eventually, more prosperous.
One of the club’s brightest and most consistent youngsters is right-winger Calvin Stengs who, by the age of 21, has already earned a fix position in the starting eleven, and is considered a fundamental member of the collective. The fact that Stengs is playing in Alkmaar since he was 12, ensures that the player knows everything about the club and vice versa. This was the winger’s fourth Eredivisie season as a first-team member, and along with the likes of Myron Boadu, Teun Koopmeiners and Owen Wijndal, many members of the current squad have been ‘classmates’ for several years now.
Although being a hot prospect in Europe for many years now – receiving attention from elite clubs like FC Barcelona or Juventus since he was 17 –, there is no doubt that Stengs started to prove his real worth in the 2019/20 season: his 2273 minutes spent on the pitch in the Eredivisie indicate how vital he has become for the team. In this scout report, we will take a look at the performance of the Dutchman from the recent domestic campaign, investigating both his most visible and the underlying statistics. In order to give a detailed and realistic overview of the youngster, we will compare him to those Eredivisie wingers (not separated by sides) who played at least 900 minutes in the last season.
A modern winger
In addition to those mentioned in the first section of the analysis, in this tactical analysis, we have to state the AZ academy is also famous for their positional approach: in their first three-four years, the outfield players do not have a definite position on the pitch – a student could play as a left-back, a left-midfielder or a left-winger throughout the years, to take the time to eventually find the area where they would settle. This method gives them the opportunity to learn the different aspects of the game and become a more rounded player in the end. The fact that the head coach (Arne Slot at the time of speaking) has many versatile players, means that he can make his tactics much more fluid, elastic and dynamic. This versatility is one of the most important traits of Calvin Stengs, who – as we will see in the followings – can play almost anywhere in the final third and put up a reliable performance. He is a rather atypical, universal forward who is not afraid of stepping out of his comfort zone for the sake of the team.
As we can see in the above heatmap, Stengs, as a winger, spends most of his time in the attacking third but slightly closer to the half line than the goal. In Arne Slot’s 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, he usually takes the right-wide position – however, he is rarely found there, hugging the sideline. The youngster’s main responsibilities are not long runs on the flank, crossing or shooting from long range but rather giving depth to the team by cutting inside and dropping back in the midfield. In many cases, he even acts as a deep-lying playmaker, taking up the ball from his defenders and trying to find a teammate in the final third of the pitch.
Let’s take one of the clashes with Ajax as an example: the Amsterdam team are famous for their high and intensive pressing, and it is visible on the snapshot – six of their players are attacking on the opposite half. For AZ to be able to come out of the pressure and try to start building up, they have to at least even the numerical superiority of Ajax in the midfield. While Oussama Idrissi and Myron Boadu drift out to the wide areas up front, Calvin Stengs drops back deep and asks for the ball between the lines.
He has only 1,31 crosses and 2,34 shots per 90 which – despite the latter being slightly above the league average – show that these elements of the game are not the most prioritized ones for the youngster. Even though his 3,96 touches in the penalty box is also a figure above the average, he is not the biggest threat to the goal either, and a bit later we will understand all the reasons behind these unusual statistics.
With 5 goals and 6 assists on his 25 games played in the last Eredivisie season, Stengs is nowhere near the top in direct goal contributions either: these figures are only enough for the 11th place among wingers, as visualized in the next chart. Few would argue that the main responsibility of an attacking player is to be included in as many goals as possible, either by scoring or assisting them, but we will see that Stengs is a significantly different type of a winger, who plays in a unique and modern style which is at least as beneficial for his team as getting on the scoresheet – if not more.
By having one of the most prolific strikers of the league in Myron Boadu as a teammate, and the creative and skilful Oussama Idrissi on the left-wing, Stengs is less required to finish the actions himself – he is rather responsible for initiating the attacks and serve as an organiser in the middle of the pitch. The effect of this role is transparent in the next graph: while the Eredivisie wingers are generally better in goals (0,26) and xG per 90 (0,24) figures, Stengs’ performance shifts towards the other end of the scale, as he is almost two times more effective in assists (0,24) and expected assists per 90 (0,28) than the league average. These inverse shapes indicate perfectly that the young Dutchman is something unique.
A deep-lying organizer
Not outstanding in crossing, shooting and scoring – so why is Calvin Stengs so highly rated? For the answer, let’s take a look at his passing performance. As already mentioned, he tends to drop back deep, gather the ball and possibly create a chance right away. Originally, he would share these tasks with young captain Teun Koopmeiners who has a great vision and rhythm of play too, but after a few rounds of the season, he had to step back into the defensive line and prove his versatility there. By this, Stengs became even more vital in giving a shape to the team and connecting the first and the last lines with his organizing skills. No need for a better indicator than the next graph.
5,42 passes to the penalty area, 8,32 progressive passes and 4 through passes per 90 minutes: from a winger, such numbers are far from usual. It highlights that Stengs is twice as productive in creating chances as the league average, and if we go deeper into details, his efficiency gets further confirmation:
We can see that with a figure of 14,18 per 90, the Dutchman is second in the league regarding forward passes, only topped by the phenomenal Hakim Ziyech. The chart also aims to illustrate that 31,44% of his total passes were from this type – a sign of how direct and progressive he is when building up the offensive actions. It is also worth investigating how many of his forward passes were aiming to find a teammate behind the defenders, usually setting up a one-on-one with the keeper – or as we have already called it, a through pass. Stengs’ 4 attempts per 90 is second-best in the league and more than four times better than the average (1,09), as visible in the next graph.
Whenever he receives the ball, his first intention is to find a teammate in an advanced or promising position and deliver the ball in front of him in the nick of time. Like in the below situation, where Stengs gathers the plaything in the middle of the pitch, surrounded by four Ajax players, but using his agility and vision he supplies Boadu in a perfect rhythm.
Efficient off the ball
When defending, AZ Alkmaar builds on a high and intensive pressing, started around the opposite penalty box: the team’s 10,28 PPDA figure (passes allowed per defensive action) was the 3rd best in the last season, and helped them a lot in finishing in the remarkable second place. Calvin Stengs was a vital part of these tactics throughout the whole campaign – as an example, let’s take a look at the game against Ajax again.
Stengs joins Myron Boadu in the first line of defense and puts immense pressure on the defender, who has no other option than involving the goalkeeper. The youngsters are backed by two other teammates behind them, thereby creating a double pressing line and drowning Ajax on their own half of the pitch. This approach was one of the key elements of AZ’s back-to-back wins against the record champions in the 2019/20 season, for the first time ever in the Eredivisie history.
Without the ball in transition or in attacking, Stengs constantly changes his position to open up passing lanes either for himself or for a teammate. He usually has significant freedom on the pitch which he uses for scanning the position of the opponents, the teammates and ball, and tries to be in front of everyone with a few seconds. We have already seen that he tends to collect the ball right from his defenders whenever possible, by dropping into the empty zones between the lines (the so-called ‘pockets’) and then using his agility to turn to the goal immediately. This is exactly what is happening in the below situation, where the youngster cleverly recognises the unoccupied area between five opponents and asks for the ball straight away. When Stengs has the time to think and make up his mind before acting, the result is an opportunity in front of the goal in the majority of the cases.
Stengs has come a long way in the previous decade, starting at the AZ Alkmaar academy at the age of 12, to becoming a regular starter and reaching the top of the Eredivisie. He is an intelligent player who uses his body and his movements very efficiently, without unnecessary actions. Still, he has to work a lot on his mentality and endurance, as he tends to be sloppy in some cases and can lose a relatively high number of balls. He also has obvious weaknesses in duels – not only in defending but in attacking and in the – but these aspects of the game are not in focus in the current strategy of Arne Slot and AZ, in which Stengs is rather the link between the first and the last lines, with much freedom in the middle of the pitch.
With a constant performance in the last few Eredivisie campaigns, no wonder that the Dutchman is a hot prospect in the old continent. His 18 million EUR value is in line with his statistics and his overall potential which determines him to join a top club very soon. It will be interesting to see whether AZ will manage to keep him for the next season or they will receive an offer that they cannot refuse. After the consistent and impressive performance from the campaign behind us, it feels like either option would be beneficial for the young talent – not to mention the team he will represent. As inverted wingers are getting a more and more important role in modern football, those who can play this role intelligently, patiently and effectively, can count with a great future ahead of them – and Calvin Stengs is definitely one of them.