Flying Kiwis: Ryan Thomas, 2019-20 Season Preview

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You kids out there might not realise this… but before there was Sarpreet Singh there was Ryan Thomas. A kiwi footy player transferring to a title contending team in a major European league. That’s a bit of a facetious way to start there but point being: Ryan Thomas’s move to PSV Eindhoven was a massively significant move that was kinda forgotten after a serious knee injury in his first week of training cost him the entirety of last season and he’s only now getting back into proper training. A year on and he’s yet to make his debut for his new club.

Thommo underwent surgery on that knee at the very end of August 2018 so we’re nearing the twelve month mark since he last played. Clearly PSV and Thommo are taking their time with this, making sure they don’t rush him back before he’s ready. Despite missing the entirety of 2018-19 he played no part in any of the preseason friendlies and while he trained with the top squad… he trained off to the side with the other injured dudes not yet ready for full contact. He didn’t travel for the tour games and even after he was back kicking a football with no dramas he was cautiously nudged down to the under-19s squad to build his strength back up and get used to the physicality again without being crushed in challenges by grizzled veteran defenders (like Aussie Trent Sainsbury).

Which is all promising enough because we can clearly see the progression of his recovery over the last few months. Thomas has since resumed training with the senior squad although realistically we’re at least a few weeks away, probably a good month if not more, from Ryan Thomas returning to the footy field and getting that long-awaited first game under the belt for PSV. Or maybe he plays over the next few days, dunno. It’s always hard to tell with these things but it does pay to be cautious.

When Thommo signed for PSV it was coming off a fantastic season for PEC Zwolle (especially the first half of that season when he was one of the two or three best midfielders in the Eredivisie – both he and the club faded over the back half of things). He had momentum and form in his favour. Now there’s a consolidating aspect to the start of his career with PSV as he’s got to get himself back up to that level he was at previously before he can then go above and beyond for his new club. With any long term injury there’s always the fear that the player won’t quite regain their past majesty. With Thommo he’s young and fresh enough that you figure that’s all a formality… but fingers crossed.

So that’s task nummer een for the fella: recapture the old magic. And he’ll be doing that for a PSV team that’s in a bit of an underdog space these days. The team he signed for were the reigning champions of the Netherlands, finishing four points clear of a very young Ajax team, confirming the title with a 3-0 win over those rivals with four games still to play. Part of that success was down to clever transfers, with Mexican winger Hirving Lozano scoring 19 goals in his first campaign and Chelsea loanee Marco van Ginkel playing a starring role as well. Part was down to the competition in the league (we now know that Ajax team were a year away from blossoming). Part was also down to bottling it in Europa League qualification by losing 2-0 on aggregate to Osijek of Croatia, avoiding those Thursday night trips around the continent.

But they didn’t really capitalise on any of that the following season. Manager Phillipe Cocu left for a payrise (you’d imagine) at Fenerbahçe in Turkey and Mark van Bommel, another former player, came in to replace him. MVB made a fair few signings early on, including two Aussies and an NZer (Aziz Behich, Trent Sainsbury, and Ryan Thomas), and they hit the ground running by winning their first 13 games in a row – it wasn’t until they fell 2-1 to Feyenoord at the start of December that they finally tasted defeat in the Eredivisie. Hey and this was without Ryan Thomas too. However they were drawn a tough Champions League group of Barcelona, Tottenham, and Inter Milan… so while they were bossing things in the league they were also dropped winless out of Europe. A run of three draws in a row in February was a stutter they couldn’t afford and a 3-1 defeat away to Ajax at the end of March proved crucial. Ajax went on to claim a league and cup double (as well as making the semis of the Champions League). PSV went without a trophy at all.  

So what are we dealing with this season? Well so far they’ve been able to keep a hold of their two most creative players in Steven Bergwijn and Hirving Lozano, although the transfer window’s not yet closed. That’s a positive… however they did sell top-scorer Luuk de Jong to Sevilla after LDJ scored 28 goals in 34 Eredivisie games last season and they haven’t really replaced him. The hope is that 20-year-old striker Donyell Malen can burst onto the scene so a lot will depend on how he goes. They also added winger Bruma from RB Leipzig to prop things up while Timo Baumgartl is their only other major addition (to date), a centre back coming in from relegated German club Stuttgart. Nothing substantial though and that’s probably a good thing for Thommo who is effectively a new signing himself.

PSV play a typically Dutch 4-3-3 formation (sometimes looking more like a 4-2-3-1 depending on the way the game goes), with Bergwijn or maybe Gastón Pereiro as the attacking pivot in midfield. Thommo’s played in that role before for both Zwolle and the All Whites but his true emergence has been as a deeper midfielder so he’s mostly in contention for the other two spots in that central area which are owned by Érick Gutiérrez and Pablo Rosario, with Jorritt Hendrix as their main backup. Ibrahim Afellay has joined on a free and could also be considered as depth in that position. Again, the transfer window is still open so they could sign another body in that area or they could even lose one – Hendrix has been catching eyes around the continent.

But the new campaign’s started pretty rough, to be honest. Despite the feeling that Ajax would be a little weaker this time around having sold both Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, they still popped PSV 2-0 in the Johan Cruyff Shield while PSV’s Champions League hopes were dashed in qualifying by FC Basel on away goals, the Dutch side unable to snatch a winner in the last twenty minutes in Switzerland – plus it was Dutchman Ricky van Wolfswinkel who scored the decisive goal for Basel. Then they followed that up with an opening day 1-1 draw against the promoted FC Twente despite their opponents only having three shots all game. PSV bounced back with a 3-1 win over ADO Den Haag and they’re still on course for the Europa League group stages (which could be a great avenue for Thomas to get some game time)… but certainly a frustrating beginning to 2019-20.

The problem for PSV is that while they should still boss most teams that they come up against, they haven’t really closed the distance between themselves and Ajax, who look to have cleverly reinvested the money they got in the transfer window without having to fire-sale all the rest of their stars from last time. It’s basically only De Jong and De Ligt who have gone. Meanwhile PSV haven’t replaced their top scorer, they have Lozano coming off an injury that cost him a lot or preseason (training off to the side with Thommo), there are question marks about their defence, they haven’t shown the tactical edge they need in big games under Mark van Bommel yet, and there’s still a couple players they can’t afford to lose that are at risk of leaving over the next couple weeks.

Chaos is a ladder, as Littlefinger used to say. If PSV get on a little slide then that could be the opportunity that Ryan Thomas needs to ease his way into the starting team. Otherwise it’s just hard to predict what kind of prominence he might have for this team when we he’s never even played for them before. It’s not like it was clear when they signed him either, that was more of an opportunistic thing where Thomas was seeking a transfer and at a relatively cheap price they figured ‘why not?’

Gutierrez was signed in the same transfer window as Thommo and has since forged his way into the starting eleven largely at the expense of Hendrix. Ryan Thomas is another face in that crowd… though these are things to wonder about after he’s made that long-belated debut and proved his week-in week-out fitness. Right now he’s creeping closer and closer to that point and everything else will flow from there.

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