PSV Eindhoven striker Dries Mertens scores goals; AZ Alkmaar midfielder Rasmus Elm helps to create them. The former is Belgian; the latter Swedish. On the face of it, these are two very different players. But they do, in fact, have something quite significant in common: they are both enjoying breakthrough third seasons in the Dutch Eredivisie, and are challenging for honours right at the top of the table.
Mertens, 24, is in his debut season with PSV after two formative years with FC Utrecht, but he already seems very much at home at the Philips Stadion. “My progress has been constant since I joined Utrecht in the summer of 2009,” the diminutive Belgian forward told FIFA.com. “I’ve been able to develop my game at PSV, and I’m continuing that process alongside some great players. I’m learning so much here, in matches as well as in training sessions.”
Elm, 23, has also waited until his third season in the Dutch top flight to show the full range of his talent. A talent which, incidentally, runs in the family. David, the eldest of three Elm brothers, now plays for Swedish side Elfsborg, having spent two years in England with Fulham. And Rasmus’s other elder brother, Viktor, plays for Heerenveen, who are also flying high in the Eredivisie this season.
“Our father didn’t actually play at a very high level. But all three of us quickly caught the football bug,” said Rasmus Elm, whose nine goals this season have helped lift AZ to second in the league. “My first season was about settling in, as I’d just arrived from a different country. There are some similarities between the lifestyles [in Sweden and the Netherlands] but that is not the case when it comes to football. In my second season I was held back by injuries and illnesses. This season is the first where I’ve felt so good physically, and where I’ve been able to play at my best. Of course, that makes a real difference.”
Building from the back
AZ lie second in the table, just two points behind leaders PSV, and Elm has played no small part in getting them get there. “The team is playing well and I have a specific role,” said the Swede, who learned the ropes with Kalmar FF before moving to the Netherlands at the age of 21. “I have a lot of responsibility in our attacking play, as we like to build from the back. The central defence behind us is also very good, which helps build confidence. I always know we’ll clear our lines well.”
Mertens, for his part, was 19 when he left Belgium for the Netherlands. “Here [in the Netherlands], they play a more technical style of football and keep the ball on the deck more,” said the Leuven native, who was deemed too short by his youth club, Anderlecht. “In Belgium, in my position, I had to play with my head up as I was always receiving aerial balls.” Mertens had a spell in the Belgian third division on loan from KAA Gent, before crossing the border to the Netherlands to play for AGOVV Apeldoorn. After initially joining on loan, he went on to score 27 goals in the Dutch second tier from 2007-2009.
The striker moved to PSV last summer and quickly impressed, scoring 11 times in seven outings to give the fans hope that he might surpass the record haul of 43 goals scored by club legend Coen Dillen in 1956/57. His potency in front of goal has waned slightly since September, however, but his morale remains sky-high. “Playing with high-class players who understand one another so well is not only enjoyable, but also make everything easier,” he said. “There’s more pressure here at PSV, I knew that already, but it’s a fantastic experience. It’s a new stage in my career and I’ve become a better player since I’ve been here.”
Further north in Alkmaar, Elm is also pleased with his progress. “I take a huge amount of pleasure in being part of this team,” he said. “Everyone pulls in the same direction and we know our strengths and weaknesses, which allows us to be more intelligent in our tactical approach. It is a team that keeps the ball on the ground, links up well and is good at keeping possession. For me, it’s perfect. AZ is the ideal club for my development.”
With their respective clubs still in the UEFA Europa League and almost matching each other stride for stride in the Eredivisie, the pair know they can ill afford to rest on their laurels. But while Mertens is open about his season targets, Elm prefers to keep his cards close to his chest.
“Before the season started I was aiming for 15 goals. I’m already there, so I need to rethink my ambitions,” said Mertens. “20 goals would be great, but now I have to learn to deal with having two defenders on me.” Meanwhile Elm, a 2008 Swedish title winner, said: “I don’t like to talk about my personal objectives. I prefer to take stock of things quietly and on my own, as and when I need to.”
The season is edging towards its climax, which means league champions and individual player honours will soon be decided. And on current form, it would be a surprise if the names Dries Mertens and Rasmus Elm did not feature.