Virgil van Dijk, Arjen Robben, and Luis Suarez: all three of these players have lifted the UEFA Champions League. Other than that, they don’t have a whole lot of similarities. All of them play different positions. Two of them represent the Dutch national team, with Suarez representing Uruguay. Only Robben has appeared in a World Cup final. However, all three of these world stars have one other thing in common: they all featured for FC Groningen, a Dutch club based in a city of just over 200,000 people.
FC Groningen is one of the founding members of the Eredivisie and has a lengthy history of developing elite talents. Virgil van Dijk was signed when he was 18, and he was sold to Celtic three years later. Robben came to the academy when he was a teenager and left for PSV Eindhoven at the age of 18. Suarez arrived from Uruguay at the age of 19 and was sold to Ajax one year later. The list goes on and on.
With development comes success — sort of. The club has been a constant in the Eredivisie, having been in the top flight every year since the turn of the century. In 2015, they even won their first major trophy, the KNVB Cup (essentially the Dutch FA Cup). However, Groningen is now facing relegation, with just five games left to make up an eight-point gap. But what has gone wrong?
It’s great to have young talent to develop, of course. However, it’s also important to have veteran figures in the locker room, to keep the players grounded and use their experience. This season, the average age of Eredivisie squads is 25.0. Groningen’s average age is 22.8, the second-youngest in the league. Groningen doesn’t have a single player who is 30 or older, while only five players on the team have any senior international appearances.
Lack of Timing
One problem for another historic struggling club, Brescia, was their trigger-happy approach to hiring and firing managers. Groningen has the opposite problem. Manager Danny Buijs stayed for four years before he left in 2022, but he only won roughly 37 percent of his games. His replacement, Frank Wormuth, lasted 15 matches despite winning just four times. Current manager Dennis van der Ree has one win in 16 matches, and somehow still has a job.
Smaller clubs almost always have to sell their best players, as they lack the financial muscle to keep them. With that being said, this year has been particularly brutal for Groningen, with players being sold for combined fees of over $20 million. That’s more than double last year’s fees, but the club has spent roughly the same amount that they did last year. Instead, most replacements have arrived on loan, which is not great for the balance of the squad.
Several of Groningen’s loan players are having good individual seasons, mainly Ricardo Pepi. The US international has 11 goals and three assists, making him one of the top strikers in the Eredivisie. The problem? Groningen’s next-highest goalscorer has just three goals, while only four other players have multiple goals. Pepi himself directly accounts for 50% of Groningen’s Eredivisie goals this season. When he is silenced, it’s hard to get Groningen’s offense going.
Struggles on the Road
Home has been far from a fortress for Groningen. They have three wins and three draws in 14 games at home, which is 0.86 points per match. Not great, but if they played all games at home, they would theoretically have 25 points — which would put them at 16th in the league and the relegation playoff instead of going down directly. However, they have just one win and two draws in 15 away matches — or, in other words, 0.33 points per match. They have two away matches left this season, and they need results in both of them.
What Next for Groningen?
Groningen is eight points away from a relegation playoff spot and ten points away from avoiding relegation completely. With five games left, it would take a miracle run to avoid relegation — not impossible, but far from likely.
However, realistically, Groningen has to prepare to play next season in the second tier. Pepi will be gone, as will most of their loan players, and it’s possible manager van der Ree follows them out the door. The club has some exciting talents and will receive a lot of money through transfer fees, so they can rebuild the team next year. It’s what one of the Netherlands’ most historic clubs deserves.
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