AZ Alkmaar are unbeaten in the Eredivisie after rebuilding again this season. In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports ahead of their clash with Aston Villa, head coach Pascal Jansen explains how they are doing it and gives his take on being linked with the Rangers job
Thursday 26 October 2023 15:17, UK
AZ Alkmaar's success is rooted in smart recruitment and a formidable academy. Creative thinking and calm leadership has helped them enjoy an unbeaten start to the Eredivisie season. Now they are targeting another run in Europe under Pascal Jansen.
The Dutch club host Aston Villa, former champions of Europe, on Thursday. They do so as the team with more recent pedigree in continental competition, semi-finalists in the Europa Conference League last season. The sale of their stars has not stopped them.
"We lost five of the starting 11," Jansen tells Sky Sports. "But we did our homework early as we always do. We had brought in players during the winter break and then again early in the summer window to fill the shoes of the guys who were probably going to leave."
It helps to explain why the transition has been relatively seamless. Others would have panicked, the clamour for new signings too much to ignore. AZ have learned to trust their process in the belief that players already in the building can make the step up.
"Vangelis Pavlidis is a good example. He was brought in two seasons ago and had to adapt. He knew what he had to work on - his physical fitness, our way of playing and training." The Greek striker has responded with 13 goals in nine Eredivisie games this season.
"Once he was adapted, he took off," adds Jansen. "He is only 24 so he is still in the prime of his career. He is getting better every season because he is willing to work really hard each and every day. In our environment, it is a great cocktail to improve yourself."
Tijjani Reijnders was among those who did so before being sold to AC Milan in the summer. His chance came when Fredrik Midtsjo was sold to Galatasaray. "Fredrik was a little older and Tijjani had experienced enough as a sub." And so, the cycle continues.
Jansen, now in his fourth season in charge, recognises this as "something you have to accept and embrace" as head coach. "This vision and culture is one of the foundations of our success," he says. But he is well aware others in his position would see it differently.
"The club and I already had similar DNA. Logically, I support that philosophy. I am aware of what it means for me as a head coach. When you lose your best players every season, that is something that many coaches, I assume, would not want to happen.
"But this is our way.
"We understand that the Eredivisie is a league where young players show their skills and then move on. The players we bring in arrive before they are on the radar and before they have reached their full potential. It is challenging but it is exciting."
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He acknowledges that his background as an academy coach has stayed with him. He is happy for those who have left and even has their shirts on the walls of his office. With the list growing, he is struggling to accommodate them all. "I am asking for a bigger office!"
Another wave of young talent is beginning to emerge too. AZ triumphed in the UEFA Youth League in April, winning 5-0 in the final after vanquishing both Real Madrid and Barcelona on the way. "It was a confirmation that our programme works," says Jansen.
Given that Jansen has managed this constant evolution while maintaining the team's identity - "very dynamic, full of energy" - as well as picking up wins away to all of the country's big three clubs since his appointment, it is no surprise that there is interest in him.
And yet, when linked with the Rangers job recently, there were some, even in the Netherlands, who wondered whether he was the right fit. Ruud Gullit highlighted the difference between a club where you want to win and a club where you have to win.
Jansen is measured in his response. "It was interesting to hear. There are clubs that are must-win clubs, I realise that. But I know that the pressure within AZ is always there. The pressure I put on myself every day is far more pressure than anyone could imagine.
"That Rangers talk caught me by surprise. It flatters me, of course, because Rangers are a massive club and I have dreams and ambitions. But it does not make me do my job differently. I just keep working hard to make my players better than yesterday.
"I am very happy with this job at the moment, working at a fantastic club, working with elite players and helping to improve young players. Even though we are a smaller club than the other three and we have a far lower budget, we are still trying to achieve silverware."
Born in London to a British mother, any Dutch accent is barely detectable and, listening to Jansen talk, nor does he sound like someone who is happy to settle. His commitment to self-improvement extends to studying famed basketball coaches Phil Jackson and John Wooden for leadership nuggets.
"I need to know what it takes to develop people. You have to be able to build relationships. You need more skills than just being a football coach because you are not working with robots. Getting people to do things they do not want to do is so interesting."
He has enjoyed testing himself in Europe, relishing AZ's away win over Lazio. "We made them run after the ball in Italy, something they had not experienced." West Ham proved a game too far. "They kept it really tight and we were not sharp enough on set pieces."
Now, it is Unai Emery, four-time winner of the Europa League. "Competing against a manager who has succeeded in Europe is something that I am looking forward to." Perhaps there will be more opportunities. "One day, I do hope to work in the Premier League."
But, for now, with a contract until 2025, the focus is on AZ. "We played 54 games last season. Our target this season is to play 55 or more. If we do so, it means performing in the cup and overachieving in Europe. That is the challenge. To be even better."
Despite the distractions and those high-profile player sales, it would be no shock if AZ achieve it. "Sometimes it comes together quickly," adds Jansen. "Fortunately, this has happened again. It is all about the culture. People feel welcome. And they improve."