For Luuk de Jong, 2015 was a year dominated by a surprise success story and a shocking failure.
The unexpected triumph came with PSV, who raised eyebrows by reaching the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds at the expense of Manchester United. But if that outcome defied predictions, the European campaign of his national team seemed to defy logic.
No-one, certainly, could have predicted that the new, significantly expanded UEFA European Championship would take place this year without the Netherlands among its 24 participants. Yet that is the unthinkable reality which now faces the team that finished third and second at the last two FIFA World Cups, with the Dutch left to gaze on enviously at the likes of Albania, Iceland and Northern Ireland.
With crisis, though, comes opportunity, and for De Jong and a new generation of Oranje players, that opportunity is to reshape their beleaguered team. And while this in-form striker’s club and country have enjoyed vastly different fortunes, he himself has been a model of goalscoring consistency.
The 25-year-old goes into the second half of the season as the Eredivisie’s leading marksman, in fact, with 14 goals from just 16 appearances. De Jong also proved his match-winning credentials during PSV’s Champions League campaign, scoring against Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow as the Dutch champions won all three of their home group-phase matches.
Allied to accomplished all-round performances, these feats are serving to rebuild a reputation dented by disappointments at Borussia Monchengladbach and Newcastle United, with De Jong upbeat about his present and future in this interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Luuk, has the season so far – qualifying for the Champions League and scoring as many goals as you have – exceeded your expectations?
Luuk de Jong: I wouldn’t say so actually. We’re ambitious as a team and the last 16 was always our goal, even we knew it wouldn’t be easy to achieve. The same goes for myself. It’s been a great season for me so far, but I felt good beforehand and definitely had the ambition to score lots of goals and be an important player for the team. I had a feeling that this would be a good season. I was in good shape and felt confident. It helps that I feel very comfortable and at home here at PSV of course. When you feel good in yourself, I think that’s always reflected in your football.
Not many expected you to get through that Champions League section though. What was the secret to your success there?
We believed in ourselves, and our home record was key. When you win your home games, you always give yourselves a chance, and we really played as a team and gave some very mature performances. With the fans behind us, we’re hard to beat and that’s going to be a crucial factor again against Atletico Madrid in the last 16. With the first leg at our place [on 24 February], we need to put ourselves in a decent position to go through.
Having been away for a few years in Germany and England, would it be fair to say the move to PSV has revitalised you?
It’s been a very good step for me. Things obviously didn’t go how I’d hoped in either Germany or England, and that’s still a disappointment. But I was lucky to be able to join a club like PSV and last season went very well, with us winning the title and me finishing second-top scorer list behind Memphis [Depay, De Jong’s then PSV team-mate]. Right from when I got back, I’ve really enjoyed it.
It’s also proving to be a very exciting Eredivisie title race this season, with just a few points separating yourselves, Ajax and Feyenoord. Ajax are currently leading but are you hopeful of outlasting them over the course of the season?
I’ve got a good feeling about that. We’ve already beaten both Ajax and Feyenoord this season and it’s only some silly dropped points against other teams that has kept us in second place. But I definitely feel we will keep on getting stronger and that we have a good chance to be champions again.
Your form for PSV has also taken you into the Dutch squad on a regular basis. Although it’s not been a great time for Netherlands, how satisfying has it been to be back in the international fold again?
That was one of my big goals when I came to PSV and I’m delighted that I’ve been able to achieve it. But results definitely haven’t been great and it still hurts that we won’t be at the EURO. I think that will keep hurting all of us until the EURO is over and we can start focusing on the World Cup in Russia.
With the generation that did so well in 2010 and 2014 seemingly on its way out, is there a feeling among the younger players that it is down to you to grasp this situation and take charge of reviving the team?
Of course we’ve been talking about this in the squad. The team that reached the World Cup final in 2010 is obviously getting older and it’s down to us, the younger guys, to step forward and show we deserve to take their positions. There are still some really good players left over from that group of players, of course, but it’s true that it’s time for a new generation to step up and take the team forward. Above all, we have to be a team again. We’re always at our best when that’s the case – you saw that in the last World Cup too, when we finished third – and that’s so important because Holland isn’t such a big country, so we need to be united. We always produce good individual players, so if we can get that side of things right we should be able to get back to level everyone expects.
So you feel that not playing as a team was the big problem in the failed EURO campaign?
It wasn’t the only factor. When things go wrong, it’s never just one thing to blame. There were a lot of other issues too and individual mistakes in games that cost us points. But mistakes like that always happen in football and that’s where you should all be covering each other and helping the guy who’s messed up. That’s what we need to get back to, I think. Being a team – fighting for each other and trusting each other on the pitch and off it too – is so important if you want to be successful and win games
You mentioned your time in Germany and England not working out as you hoped. Looking back, do you feel you chose the wrong clubs?
Before I blame anything else, I always look at myself and, truthfully, maybe I wasn’t ready for it and didn’t show enough. In Germany, I only had one season – my first there – to make an impact, and then I got injured. I like to think I’d have been better after that, having got used to the league, but I didn’t get any more chances to play. It was because I was out of the team that I went to Newcastle, who had always been interested in me. But although I was excited to go there, I had to play as a midfielder and, while I’m a team player and happy to do my job, I didn’t feel I could show my qualities. I’m a striker and my qualities are in the box.
Is that why it’s working for you at PSV: they’re playing to your strengths?
Definitely. I knew that would be the case from speaking to the coach and that’s why I came here. I also knew what kind of players the club has, having played with them in the national youth teams, and I felt it would be a really good step for me. Fortunately I’ve been proved right this time.
Your older brother Siem is now playing at Newcastle, of course. Were you disappointed that your spells there didn’t overlap, having not crossed paths in your professional club careers so far?
It’s always been a dream for us to play at the same club but, yeah, it hasn’t really worked out so far. It was Newcastle’s choice not to renew my loan, so it’s not like it was my decision to leave just before my brother arrived. But the move to PSV was perfect for me, so I definitely can’t complain. And hopefully Siem and I will have that chance in the future.
Well, you’re still just 25, so certainly young enough to make a move to England or another major league at some stage...
That’s true, although I’m not planning that at all right now. If I feel in the future that it’s the right club and the way they play, and how they use me, will work, then maybe it can happen. But I’m really happy at PSV and excited by everything that’s happening here. There’s a lot for us to look forward to.