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Black Cats Analects: SAFC Eindhoven

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There's a problem at Sunderland. And Dick has the cure!

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Fear not, Sunderland fans, our pre/post/semi-retired Head Coach has listened to your prayers.  You asked for Dick to find those quality signings, you asked for Dick to find a way to stop the rot within a lacklustre squad.  And the early signs are he has done just that.  And all he had to do was get the Black Cats back to basics, back to winning ways, or more accurately – back to PSV Eindhoven. 

Y’see, back in 2012, while Sunderland prepped for a false dawn under Martin O’Neill, Dick Advocaat returned to the reins of a very distinctive yet enigmatic PSV squad in the Eredivisie.  The Boerens had become a club stacked with an impressive balance of potential and experience: Depay, Wjinaldum, Strootman, Mertens, van Bommel; all good players with either successful careers or envious futures ahead.

It was a PSV squad so accomplished in attacking play, but two players in particular contributed the most to Advocaat’s preferred offensive vision: Jeremain Lens and Ola Toivonen.  Flash forward to September 2015; and the duo find themselves under the Dutchman’s management once again; ready to pick up where they left off from the Philips Stadion, at the Stadium of Light.

Now, this novel gathering of Advocaat, Lens and Toivonen has been reported plenty.  But the reunion alone should not be the story.  Sunderland fans need to know what this truly means for our club this season – on the pitch.  Because the Toivonen/Lens success story at PSV stretches far beyond Dick Advocaat’s tenure in Eindhoven.  In fact, the records tell that this particular reunion is exactly what Sunderland has needed for a long time.

To briefly recap: Jeremain Marciano Lens’ senior career started just 100 miles away from Eindhoven.  After successive youth team trials at FC Omniworld, then at Ajax and VVA Spartaan in his native Amsterdam; the pacey winger was recruited by Louis van Gaal’s AZ Alkmaar in 2005.  However it wasn’t until Lens’ loan to NEC Nijmegen in the 07/08 Eredivisie that Dutch football got to see his potential take form.  Repositioned as a centre forward, Lens contributed to 18 goals in 38 matches; including his 35% contribution to the 14 goals scored during NEC’s 6-match Europa League Play-Off tournament rout over Roda JC Kerkrade, FC Groningen and NAC Breda.

Upon his return to AZ and the frosty embrace of über-manager van Gaal, many expected the striker/winger to tear up the 08/09 Eredivisie season.  He didn’t.  A metatarsal fracture instead broke his season in October 2008 and his sole highlight would not come until April 2009, when Lens – as a second striker – scored against a tricky Ajax defense that included the likes of Alderweireld, Vermaelen, van der Wiel and Vertonghen.  AZ still won the league, but Lens had little to do with it.

Fortunately, the 09/10 season changed everything.  Van Gaal was out, Ronald Koeman was in, Lens was re-jigged into a striker partnership with Mounir El Hamdaoui, and it wasn’t too bad.  The Dutchman got an assist for his partner in the 2009 Johan Cruijff Shield, and scored a brace himself in the 5-1 win over SC Heerenveen.  His greatest form did not come however until after December 2009.  With Koeman sacked, Lens was again repositioned behind central striker El Hamdaoui; and began a performance surge that included an awesome 44-minute hat-trick against Heracles Almelo; and led to 14 goals and 8 assists from 32 Eredivisie, 5 UEFA Champions League, 2 KNVB Cup and 1 Johan Cruijff Shield fixtures.  His new coach under this rich vein of form: Dick Advocaat.

Nils Ola Toivonen cut his teeth in the less-prestigious stadiums of the Allsvenskan in his native Sweden; diligently learning the game at home-town club Degerfors IF and Örgryte IS in Gothenburg.  His work paid off when Sören Åkeby’s Malmö FF stumped £700,000 for the 19-year-old forward in January 2007, and Toivonen’s career took off.

Toivonen earned good praise with the Himmelsblått.  In his inaugural 06/07 season at Malmö, the 6"2 striker was both a match-winning goal-scorer and assist-creator, contributing to 6 goals in 24 matches.  The Swede took his game higher mid-way through the 07/08 season, under new coach Roland Nilsson.  It was Toivonen’s team-dragging form that took Malmö from 12th to 6th in the league; including a 9-goal haul over 4 matches that included an excellent brace-plus-assist performance against Ljungskile SK in October 2008.  After 51 apps for Malmo, Toivonen contributed to 23 goals and, with the striker firmly on the radar of European clubs, PSV approached.

Bought out for £2.8m, the 22-year-old returned PSV’s faith in him with a modest first season.  His first goal came in February 2009, away at De Graafschap Doetincham, where the towering forward was assisted by Ibrahim Afellay.  Toivonen would provide 5 assists and 6 goals across 14 fixtures in the 08/09 Eredivisie.  His performances in the 09/10 season were far more assured; as the Swede contributed to 19 goals in 49 matches across both domestic and international leagues.  Toivonen was repackaged in a central attacking midfield role behind striker Danko Lazovic, and was more efficiently utilized as an on-rushing goal poacher, particularly in the air.  He would score 2 headers (and 4 goals total) against ADO Den Haag in November 2009 – and scored 13 goals altogether between August 2009 and February 2010.  However he failed to score again for the remainder of the season.

Then, in July 2010, £2.45m brought Jeremain Lens to PSV Eindhoven, and Toivonen produced the best season of his career.  The duo completed a four-man attacking dream team alongside Marcus Berg and Balázs Dzsudzsák and systematically stuffed opposing teams throughout the 10/11 Eredivisie season.  Teams conquered included AZ 4-0, De Graafschap 6-0, even Feyenoord Rotterdam 10-0! Toivonen was an irreplaceable piece of PSV’s decent Europa League run that stretched to the Quarter Finals against SL Benfica, while Lens scored repeatedly in each round of the competition.  Though PSV’s season was shut-down in the dying embers of the campaign, it was an extremely positive return for both Toivonen and Lens who – individually – produced 33 goals and 29 assists.

By the 11/12 season, Lens and Toivonen’s roles became more distinctive.  Lens was an assists machine; interchangeable on the wings or through the centre; whereas Toivonen was the occasional club captain who scored goals at will, as PSV walloped practically every team in the league.  Excelsior Rotterdam 6-1.  Roda JC 7-1.  And so often, Lens and Toivonen were the linking partnership to these victories.  In August 2011, Lens would score a completely nuts corner-flag-based goal against SV Reid; then go on to score 12 goals in 2 months between March and April 2012; and both assist Toivonen while scoring another hat-trick inside 31 minutes against Heracles Almelo in November 2011.  Toivonen meanwhile would captain PSV to the 2012 KNVB Beker Finals win over Almelo in April 2012.  The captain himself opened the scoring.  Lens finished it off.  That season, the individual tally for the duo ended at 37 goals and 21 assists.

And when Dick Advocaat rocked up at PSV the following season, the victories kept on coming.  In his first match in charge, Advocaat’s PSV Eindhoven defeated Ajax in the 2012 Johan Cruijff Shield.  Toivonen and Lens both scored within 11 minutes at the Amsterdam ArenA.  Toivonen netted another in the second half.  Advocaat’s Europa League assault included another Lens-inspired 3-0 victory over SSC Napoli in October 2012.  Elsewhere, Toivonen and Lens both scored again in the 4-0 win over NAC Breda.  And although a tendon-tear sidelined the big Swede for 5 months, the attacking midfielder scored upon his return in March 2013, when he and Lens again both scored in a 4-2 win over NEC Nijmegen.  It was another strong season for PSV, marred slightly by Jozy Altidore’s match-winner in the 2013 KNVB Beker Final for AZ Alkmaar.  Despite Toivonen’s half-season injury, the two players individually tallied a further 29 goals and 16 assists.

Break that emphatic season down further; and the numbers crunch into good reading for Sunderland fans.  In that 12/13 Eredivisie season, PSV Eindhoven finished 2nd behind Ajax.  The club scored 103 goals of which Toivonen and Lens contributed to over a third of.  Champions Ajax mustered only 83 goals in the same season.  This PSV team, under Advocaat, was a goal-scoring unit, even if it did have a familiar leaky defense.

So that was the first and, until now, only season that the trio of Lens, Toivonen and Advocaat were together.  Dick retired from club-level coaching indefinitely.  Toivonen spent the 13/14 PSV season in a deeper midfield role under new coach, Phillip Cocu, as the club slumped to 7 losses in 12 matches.  He would play his final match for the club in December 2013 – a 2-6 loss to league-leaders Vitesse Arnhem, where PSV were dissected by opposing left-back, Patrick van Aanholt (seriously).  Toivonen would join Philippe Montanier’s Stade Rennais FC in Ligue 1 for £1.75m.  After a strong showing in the 2014 Coupe De France, the Swede’s performances became increasingly bi-polar; occasionally brilliant, but prone to bad form.  As a centre forward, he would score only 15 goals in 56 matches for Les Rouges et Noirs.

As for Lens, he accepted a curious £6.30m move to FC Dynamo Kyiv in July 2013.  Now firmly embedded as a left winger by manager Oleh Blokhin; the Dutchman linked up with familiar players, Benoît Trémoulinas, Miguel Veloso and Dieudonné Mbokani.  He played a significant role in the 2014 Ukrainian Cup fixture against FC Chornomorets Odessa and scored twice in the 9-1 thrashing of FC Metalurh Donetsk at the NSK Olimpiyskiy.  In the following 14/15 campaign, Lens contributed to Kyiv’s 26-match unbeaten streak; winning the Premier Liga and defeating Shakhtar Donetsk in the 2015 Ukrainian Cup Final.  In his 49 matches for Kyiv, Lens contributed to 35 goals.

So why is this all good for Sunderland now? Well, the stats alone speak for themselves.  In their three seasons together, Lens and Toivonen forged a very unique partnership.  Toivonen alone scored 56 goals and provided 18 assists between 2010 and 2013 whereas Lens netted 43 and assisted 48.  Combined they scored nearly 100 goals in their three years together.  To put that in perspective; if you work backwards, you’d have to go deep into the 2012/13 Premier League season to reach 100 goals scored by Sunderland as a team.

But Sunderland is not PSV Eindhoven.  Back then, Dick Advocaat had names like van Bommel and Strootman, not Cattermole and Rodwell.  That said; should the boo-boys be allowed to dilute Lens and Toivonen’s success together based on, for example, the inferiority of the Eredivisie compared to the Premier League? Hell no.  Toivonen just got here and he’s got an assist already.  And Lens is not only all over 50% of the goals Sunderland have scored so far, but has been what you read between the lines of opposition defences since his arrival in July.  To blunt out any further doubt – who did Toivonen provide that assist for at Aston Villa again? That was some quick re-synchronization.

The signings of Lens and Toivonen has come at a crucial time for Sunderland, but also it is the perfect time to reunite these players under a manager who brought out their best form.  Lens, in particular, has only improved every season.  He’s at a peak age.  His best is yet to come.  He’s got the versatility, the pace, the stamina and the attitude to thrive in the Premier League.  Do we have Ola Toivonen at his peak? Probably not.  But with Lens alongside him, don’t be surprised if his greater performances for PSV suddenly reanimate on Wearside.  The man can be a colossus on his day, and he has all the tools to be a fearless and true match-winner in the Premier League.

Most importantly, these two players are winners.  The 08/09 Eredivisie title; the 2009 and 2012 Johan Cruijff Shield, the 2012 KNVB Cup, the 14/15 Ukrainian Premier Liga, the 2014 and 2015 Ukrainian Cup.  Not to mention Lens’ 3rd place standing with the Netherlands in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.  And it says a lot about a player when Memphis Depay was supposed to be their ‘successor’ as he was to Lens at PSV.  That’s the same £19m-man Memphis Depay recruited by Louis van Gaal who, when managing the Netherlands (pre-Man United), used Jeremain Lens more than any other attacking player for the national team.  And don’t expect Toivonen to be coming off the bench every week.  If his head is in the game as it was last time under Advocaat, the goals will flow.

What also matters is the level of contribution each can give to the season as a whole.  On average, since their senior careers began, on a goal-per-game ratio, Lens has contributed to a goal in 48% of matches he has played while Toivonen has contributed to a goal in 44% of his.  At PSV, with the two together, they did even better.  Lens participated in goals for 65% of matches played, while Toivonen likewise contributed to 55%.  The pair average a goal every 3 matches, with Lens averaging an assist every 3 matches also (Toivonen averages every 7).

So, there it is.  Whatever crisis has hit the start of this season may turn into possibly the most emphatic attacking display the Black Cats have had in a long time.  There’s nearly 100 goals-worth of reasons to believe it will.  Besides, when was the last time we heard a Sunderland player say this?

After a game I am still p***** off when we lose.  I am not used to losing games.

Hopefully, Jeremain, you won’t have to be.