By: Kaustubh Pandey
AZ Alkmaar’s position at second in the Eredivisie table would come as a surprise to many. It isn’t normal for any other club bar PSV Eindhoven or Feyenoord exist in the top two or top three of the division. While AZ being tied on points with Ajax certainly is a shock on paper, but the way the Cheeseheads have been playing hardly makes it one.
The club’s defensive record is hugely impressive, having let in just eight goals. They have kept a cleansheet in their last seven games. But that does take the attention off their attack, which has been just as influential even though the club has scored just 39 goals.
A crucial part of that attack happens to be the 21-year-old Calvin Stengs. A product of the famed AZ youth academy, Stengs is playing the best season of his career in terms of contributions to goal. This is his second full season in the Dutch first division, having broken into the first-team back in the 2016-17 campaign under John van den Brom.
After having grown as a player under van den Brom, this season has seen Stengs’ career reach new heights under Arne Slot. This season, Stengs has four goals and seven assists in the Eredivisie for AZ, scoring twice and assisting just as many times in the Europa League. His contributions have been vital to taking the Cheeseheads to the knockout stages of the European competition.
Perhaps, Stengs’ could well have come into the limelight two seasons ago. But in the 2017-18 campaign, the then teenager had ruptured his ACL right after the first game of the season against PSV. He had started that game but remained out of action for the remainder of the season. There was a feeling that the career of one of the best talents at the AZ youth academy was about to stall.
After all, his performance in the 2016-17 campaign for the AZ Under-21s side was impressive. He played 22 games in the Tweede Divisie, scoring six times and assisting eight times. This was a huge reason for him attracting attention in the first-team.
But three months into the 2018-19 campaign, Stengs was back. And he went straight back into the first-team, capping off his return with a goal against Utrecht and helping his side win 3-0. Since then, it has been a story of constant growth and improvement.
A right winger by trade, Stengs has always been a player of that position. He’s left-footed and will always like to cut inside. His biggest strength lies in what is a weakness for manyother players of his age. He is a combination of pace and technicality.
Because of that, he has a very good final ball. Many players have this criticism chasing them, grinding them that they aren’t decisive enough in the final third. But this season, Stengs has completed 2.2 dribbles per game. But he is also playing 2.5 key passes per game for his club. That is very reflective of why he has contributed to 20 goals in just 30 games this season.
On the pitch, he forms a very deadly trio with Myron Boadu and Ousamma Idrissi. He has two or three very creative midfielders around him in Dani de Wit or Fredrik Mitjso. This creativity and fluidity around him is always a big help, but Stengs can be a lot like Angel di Maria. He can either be in a wide position taking defenders on or he could be drifting centrally to pick out the runs of Boadu or Idrissi. Their pace allows Stengs many options to
look for in forward areas.
Whatever he does, Stengs is very direct and goal-minded. He is a huge threat with his face to goal, also taking 2.4 shots per game this season. And these numbers have taken a bump since last season, when they were much lower than they are now. He only completed 1.5 dribbles per game last season and had only 1.6 key passes per game to his name. But those numbers have hit another level, allowing AZ to play out their best season in many years.
The best part is- he makes it look very easy. It is almost effortless sometimes. He floats past defenders like they aren’t there. This languid style is something that sets him apart, bar his mini-afro hairstyle. For one second, it would seem like he’s walking and doing nothing. But the next second, he would create a chance. That is a very unique quality to have.
And Stengs is already getting deserved attention. Ronald Koeman recently handed him his Dutch national team debut, as he started in a 5-0 win over Estonia. He grabbed two assists on his debut and that came a month after his fifth appearance for the Dutch Under-21s side. That is testimony to how rapid his growth has been over the last few months.
With Mino Raiola currently Stengs’ agent, it seems like a matter of time before he gets immense global attention. It could well be this season, considering how he’s made his debut for the national team. Boadu has done the same and is being tipped for a big move.
It is unfair, considering how Boadu may not have become as prominent a name if not for Stengs. But the cream always rises to the top. It is a matter of time Stengs does too. The process is well underway.