Dubbed by some Rangers fans Willem II vs William's XI, although Thursday's game will be the first ever meeting of the two historic clubs there is a strange feeling of familiarity about this early season Europa League clash. Again, Rangers’ opening Europa League fixture involved a trip to Gibraltar to play on the same plastic pitch, with almost the exact same result. Coincidentally, our Dutch opponents met our 2nd round opponents of last year, Progrès Niederkorn, and dispatched of them with the same 5-0 scoreline. And whilst it was later in the competition we met a Dutch side last season in Feyenoord, pundits will also draw strong comparisons between Willem II and last season’s 3rd round opponents, FC Midtjylland. As another young, up-and-coming side await, Steven Gerrard will be hoping for a similar outcome and a chance to set up a tasty tie with Turkish giants Galatasaray, almost 20 years to the day from their last visit to Ibrox in September 2000 when they were the holders of this cup (in its previous incarnation).
Whereas our potential opponents in the next round have gone from being a European powerhouse to something of a relic of a bygone era, Willem II have gone from seemingly permanent mediocrity to being the rising star of Dutch football. Barring a couple of short-lived purple patches, including a solitary appearance in the UEFA Champions League group stage in 2000, Willem II have historically been a bottom half to mid-table side. But since the appointment of World Cup finalist Joris Mathijsen to the position of Technical Director, they have gradually worked their way up the table from 16th to 5th last season, their highest finish since 2000 and 3rd highest finish in 65 years. Remarkably, this was achieved with a team of kids, and this is the secret to Joris Mathijsen’s success.
What propelled Willem II from bottom-half mediocrity to the top table of Dutch football was primarily a very high success rate in the transfer market, picking up very young talent for small fees and giving them a platform to succeed in a free-flowing, attacking side. But if it wasn’t for the sale of Champions League finalist Frenkie De Jong from Ajax to Barcelona for £66m last summer, their steady progress wouldn’t have accelerated as much as it did last season. Counter intuitively, Willem II let the crown jewel of their youth academy join the top side in Holland for 1 Euro in 2015. In a sign of the times, Willem II resigned themselves to losing a future star to a bigger club for nothing. But only on one condition, a 10% sell on clause was inserted into his contract. The resulting windfall allowed Willem II to rebuild, and only four players from the 18/19 season kept their place in the starting XI. What resulted was an energetic, young side who took everyone by surprise by establishing themselves as a serious threat even to the top four. Last season, Ajax had annihilated everyone who visited the Johan Cruiff Arena until, in a masterclass of counter-attacking football, Willem II shocked the league with a 2-0 win there in December 2019. Second place AZ Alkmaar wouldn’t be laughing for long though as the following month they would suffer the same fate at their home ground, with Willem II running out with a 3-1 win. The Tilburg side may be very young and inexperienced, but on their day they have shown that they can beat anyone.
Willem II’s youthful front line carries a lot of threat. 21 year old Greek forward Vangelis Pavlidis leads the line. He is technically very good, links up very well with the attacking midfielders and carries the ball well too. He has had a good start to the season and grabbed a brace against Progres and then Heracles a few days later. Directly behind him, you have arguably the star of the team in 21 year old Trésor Ndayishimiye. The Belgian youth international is technically excellent and very dangerous dribbling with the ball, playing through balls and shooting from the edge of the box with both feet. His talent hasn’t gone unnoticed, with reports that Leeds and Wolves are considering making offers. The other significant threat in the Willem II side comes from former Ajax youth player Che Nunnely, who plays as the right sided attacking midfielder. The 21 year old is known for his blistering pace, which will be a danger on the counter attack, but his double in the 2-1 win over PSV last season showed he can finish too.
Our set back at Easter Road will be a distant memory for Gerrard as he refocuses his team on the hugely important task of replicating the remarkable feat of previous seasons and reaching the group stages of this tournament. Gerrard has rightly earned a reputation as a European specialist and Rangers fans have every reason to trust him to deliver again in the Netherlands. Injuries to key players Joe Aribo, Kemar Roofe and Ryan Jack are a big blow at this crucial stage of the season, but largely take away the selection headache Gerrard might have otherwise had. Meanwhile, Arfield has relished the opportunity to get back into the starting XI and his performances against Midtjylland last season won’t have been forgotten by the gaffer. And although Hagi’s creativity is often key to creating chances, Kent’s relentlessness in closing players down and winning the ball back could be even more important against opposition who aren’t used to much aggression. Midtjylland struggled with the aggressive press of Rangers and it ultimately played a large part in their undoing, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Gerrard tried to do the same here.
Midtjylland were a side who were known for their technical ability and attacking flair, but whose defensive frailties were quite shocking to a Rangers support who are used to facing sides with no attacking flair whatsoever but whose defensive discipline would make Tony Pulis jealous. Willem II’s centre backs are decent, Swedish international Holmen in particular, but their full backs will be targeted and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rangers finding some joy down the flanks. And whilst they carry a lot of threat, this Tilburg side are very young, inexperienced and will likely struggle with the physical side of the game. Without being complacent, Gerrard will have a game-plan which, if executed properly, will teach another young attacking side a lesson in European football.
Predicted Score: Willem II 1 - 3 Rangers
Possible Starting XI (4-2-3-1):
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