Peter Bosz exclusive: PSV's 16 wins, why Havertz is 'like Bach' and ...

22 Dec 2023

The platitude that teams are more educated by defeat than victory has been under threat in Eindhoven these past six months.

PSV - Figure 1
Photo The Athletic

PSV have been virtually flawless, led by a manager in Peter Bosz who seems determined to prove that, after 23 years in charge of 11 different clubs, he has nothing left to learn about football.

PSV won the Cruyff Shield against Feyenoord in August, boast a perfect 16 wins from 16 matches in the Eredivisie — scoring 56 goals and conceding just six — and are through to the last 16 of the Champions League where they will face Bosz’s former club Borussia Dortmund.

The only team to beat them this season is Arsenal but, rather than glaze over September’s defeat at the Emirates, Bosz proved that no wealth of experience is enough to deem the mantra redundant.

“I learned a lot from Arsenal. Afterwards, I thought, ‘We played pretty well… but we lost 4-0?’ In the build-up, we did well and we had our position game, but as soon as we got to their box it was over. How is that possible?,” Bosz says.

“Me and my coaches studied them. What is it that they do differently to us? The answer is that they are outstanding in the opposition box but also their own. They get a lot of players behind the ball as soon as possible. They do it with 10 or 11 but we only did it with six or seven and then the distances are bigger. It’s the transition.

“We showed the players and, in the games after, we started doing it with 10 or 11 like Arsenal, staying compact in attack and defence.”

Arsenal handed PSV defeat in the Champions League (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Bosz is sitting in his glass office at De Herdgang, PSV’s training ground hidden away in the woodlands on the outskirts of Eindhoven.

In the lounge waiting for him is a former teammate from 1984-85, when he spent a season at second-division club AGOVV in his home city of Apeldoorn. Neither a crammed diary nor one of his players walking to their car in a cow-print onesie can distract Bosz for long.

Not when he is talking about how this young PSV team is helping him overcome the central criticism through his managerial career that his style of play is pretty but not pragmatic enough to win.

“I try to learn from every stage but I also believe, once they give you the mark of being a naive coach, it is very difficult to change it,” Bosz tells The Athletic. “The only way is to win 16 games in a row because my philosophy is exactly the same. I have better players. That makes it easier but it has never happened this fast.

PSV - Figure 2
Photo The Athletic

“Normally it takes time to convince the players to play high and press high. But they haven’t won the title in five years, so they are hungry and listen to me. They are also intelligent players who pick it up fast.

“After two weeks, I was not afraid to tell the press that this could be a really interesting year. I am not saying it is the best players I have worked with but I have never coached a group like this.”

PSV finished seven points off the top last season under Ruud van Nistelrooy but they have progressed despite losing Cody Gakpo, Jarrad Branthwaite, Xavi Simons and Ibrahim Sangare in the past year.

Sangare moved to Nottingham Forest on deadline day for £30million ($38m) but Brentford’s pursuit of 20-year-old winger Johan Bakayoko ended in failure. Bosz believes he is destined for not just a top league but one of the biggest clubs.

“I think so — and we have more,” Bosz says with a wry smile. “In the end, Johan said he wanted to stay and he was right. This is his first year as a starting player, and the most difficult part is consistency. Johan was fantastic against Arsenal but I want him to be fantastic every weekend.

“Justin Kluivert is the best example. He was 17 with me at Ajax and moved too early. Sometimes they must be patient.

“I had that conversation with Bakayoko. I told him, ‘If you go now, you will be seen as the small Belgian player who came from PSV. If you win titles with us, perform in the Champions League and play for the Belgian national team, then it will be different’.

“There is also Malik Tillman (21) and Ismael Saibari (22) — Noah Lang is maybe the best one. He is incredible. Unfortunately, he is injured but he is only 23. He has personality, he is fast, a good dribbler. Ricardo Pepi is only 20, too.

“They have the possibility this year to show to the big clubs that they are already interesting players for them.”

The team is captained by 33-year-old former Barcelona striker Luuk de Jong but Bosz has a track record of developing academy talents. At Ajax, he gave debuts to Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt en route to the 2017 Europa League final in his only season — the club’s first European final in 21 years.

PSV - Figure 3
Photo The Athletic

Two years later, those young talents had matured into regulars under Erik ten Hag and reached the Champions League semi-finals but once they had their breakout year, they were bought by Barcelona and Juventus within a year.

“It is not possible to build a team in Holland,” Bosz adds. “We are used to it, so it is not frustrating. In the world, you have maybe seven or eight clubs who can say: ‘No, we keep them with us’. Maybe Manchester United don’t have the players that they want to do that with anymore, but they still can.”

And what does Bosz make of the pressure Ten Hag is facing during his second season at Old Trafford?

“It is not easy, especially when you don’t have the players to perform at the highest level. Take away the coach and think only of the players. Can they play for the title? I don’t think so.”

Arsenal are the team leading the Premier League and their summer signing Kai Havertz has started to find his groove. Bosz inherited the German midfielder at Bayer Leverkusen in December 2018, when he was a 19-year-old with only 18 months of first-team experience.

“I followed Leverkusen for a couple of months before. Julian Brandt was playing as a left winger and Kai on the right. I thought, ‘Why would you put your best players on the side?’ But I know why and it is because coaches are afraid they don’t defend well.

“In my first meeting with Julian — who was really close friends with Kai — I challenged him: I want to play you both as No 10s with one holding midfielder but everyone in this club says I cannot because you both will not defend. He said: ‘No, no, coach we will! Kai will do it, believe me!’ It was his dream.”

Havertz was a key player for Bosz at Leverkusen (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/AFP via Getty Images)

Havertz scored 11 Bundesliga goals in the second half of the season as they climbed into the Champions League spots. In March 2020, Bosz proposed another evolution and that was to convert him into a No 9.

“I told him, ‘Don’t stay there, you’re free to go as we have other players to go beyond’. In the first game against Eintracht Frankfurt, we won 4-0 and he was… wow. I had a discussion with Rudi Voller who said he was a No 10 and not a No 9 but my belief was he could do both.

PSV - Figure 4
Photo The Athletic

“Rudi was one of the best No 9s in German football but Kai is different from him. I think he was maybe comparing himself as a striker.”


What's wrong with using Havertz as a No 9 in the short term?

Havertz has such a unique mix of strengths that he has found it difficult to nail down one position since moving to England. His languid style is another factor although Bosz recognised enough steel to make him captain aged just 20.

“Sometimes you have a player who is so good, like Kai, that you don’t have to say anything, the players are following him already,” he says. “He is misunderstood. This guy does everything to win games. I was the guy (as a player) who made the tackles and everyone said I was 100 per cent, but that was me. Kai plays piano like Bach. I was like, ‘A footballer playing piano? I can’t believe it’. But he is really intelligent.

“When he left for Chelsea the next day, there was a box for every player and every staff member with his jersey and his name on the back. He didn’t have to but this is the person he is.”

Before becoming a coach, Bosz won a league and three Dutch Cups with Feyenoord as a defender. He is self-deprecating when he says he did not become a top player but admits that training with Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit made him nervous given he was, and still is, the only Dutch player to be capped while playing in the second division.

That awareness of his limitations undoubtedly fuelled his passion for coaching, which saw him collect all bar one of his coaching badges by 18. He spent years digesting newspaper cuttings from his friend’s homemade Cruyff ‘bible’ and regularly challenged the legendary Willem van Hanegem to debates while a player at Feyenoord.

As he explains why he now insists on a coffee meeting every morning with technical director Earnie Stewart to brief him on everything he is doing, it is easy to forget that Bosz is a 60-year-old grandfather.

He scoffs at the notion that this will be his last job – “If Real Madrid come, am I going to say, ‘No, I am 62’? I don’t think so” — and points out that being offered the Dutch job “would be great” but is relaxed if he is not. “I already had the possibility twice but I was in Dortmund and then I was at Leverkusen,” he adds.

PSV celebrate winning the Dutch Super Cup (Sem van der Wal/AFP via Getty Images)

Major trophies have eluded Bosz since becoming a manager in 2000, although he won lower league titles with AGOVV in 2002 and Heracles in 2005. Bosz is quick to point out that he was up against Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain in his other clubs but he speaks about this PSV team with such love that it feels like he has been waiting for it his whole career.

They are running away with the league but they face Dortmund for a place in the Champions League quarter-finals, a stage they have not reached since 2007. It is 20 years since the last time a team outside the top five leagues reached the final.

“If you are realistic, it is not possible,” he says. “They organise the Champions League in a way that the top teams can make a mistake and come back and win. That is why the group stage is there. We will see what the new format does.

“But it’s nice that sometimes surprises can happen. What Copenhagen are doing now is fantastic. I believe the people in Eindhoven and Copenhagen are happier than the people in Madrid.”

(Top photo: Jordan Campbell)

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