Ajax lit up the Champions League last season, dismantling the very best before crashing out dramatically in the semi-final. They managed to keep hold of the majority of that team, only losing Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt when many thought they’d be gutted.
Yet despite this, they’re already old news with all eyes firmly fixed on rivals PSV Eindhoven. Mark Van Bommel’s side are joint-top of the Eredivisie alongside Ajax on 17 points after seven matches this term. They’re also top of their Europa League group having beaten Sporting Lisbon in their opening game.
But it isn’t their performances catching the eye, it’s the players they have leading their line.
They lost Luuk De Jong and Hirving Lozano in the summer, two key parts of their attack, yet look stronger than ever in the final third.
Managing to keep hold of Steven Bergwijn was a statement but it’s the emergence of Donyell Malen that has really changed the game for them. The former Arsenal academy player has started the season like a man possessed and, according to the Daily Mirror, is already a target for Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton.
The electric Netherlands international has had an explosive start to the new season.
Malen already has seven Eredivise goals to his name, he’s also off the mark in the Europa League and scored on his debut for the national side in a 4-2 win over Germany.
He struck the opener in the 3-2 win over Sporting Lisbon and netted the equaliser as the hosts claimed a point against rivals Ajax.
His five-goal showing against joint leaders Vitesse meant Malen was the first PSV players to score five or more in a single Eredivisie game since Lambertus Theunissen in 1964.
As far as breakout seasons go, Malen’s couldn’t have gone any better.
The 20-year-old netted ten times last term but he was used mainly as a substitute. However, a number of sales at the Philips Stadion meant the one-time Ajax youngster was handed the No.9 jersey and a place in van Bommel’s starting XI.
Spearheading a front three made up of summer signing Bruma and the highly-rated Bergwijn, Malen’s form is hard to ignore and reports suggest a host of top European clubs are watching his development.
A £50million valuation should see teams hold off on moving for him in the short-term – such an outlay for a player with just 12 Eredivisie starts would be negligent – but if he continues to deliver, that might soon become a bargain fee. Malen appears to be the real deal and his output should be sustainable.
He is a blank canvas. Deployed as a centre-forward, Malen has all the traits of a modern-day wide forward, the sort of one to thrive at Anfield in the current set-up. He could find a home there eventually and still be as productive as he has been this season.
The youngster has the movement, the intelligence, and the finishing ability; similar in many ways to Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, to really be a potent goal threat from a wide area.
Malen will often start centrally but drift wide to find pockets of space. He is eager to isolate full-backs before breezing past them and casually stroking home a right-footed effort. There’s a Thierry Henry-esque quality to his finishes and the Frenchman has definitely influenced the young Dutch forward.
Henry was an assistant coach with the Arsenal Under-18s when Malen was with the Gunners and the PSV star has spoken about the World Cup winner joining in during training sessions.
“If he participated in the rondo you immediately saw that this man can play. And he gave tips that really made sense. Then I tried it and felt, ‘Hey, it works!’”
Malen has a blend of skills which seems him share traits with many of the top forwards in the world. That isn’t to say he’ll go on to replicate their achievements in the game but his profile makes him an intriguing player, and one many of Europe’s elite will be watching carefully.
He’s unpredictable and despite his tender years, Malen knows how to play as part of a counter-attacking team as well as be the leading forward in a side dominating the ball.
He’s got the work-rate to be part of a press, too. His biggest asset is probably his positional intelligence. The 20-year-old always finds himself in space and that isn’t by chance.
His goal against Ajax is perhaps the best example of what the young forward is all about.
During the build-up on the PSV left, Malen holds his position behind the Ajax midfield and ahead of the defence. As the ball is worked centrally, the PSV No.9 makes his move and times his run to perfection. It allows him to take a touch in the penalty area before calmly firing past Andre Onana.
It’s a transferable skill. There isn’t anything you see when watching that goal that makes you think he’d only be able to do that in the Dutch league. With quality players around him, he can execute that wherever he is.
Malen could be the next best thing to come out of the Eredivisie and he seems like the perfect fit for this Liverpool forward line.