Despite playing in only his second full season in professional football, 19-year-old midfielder Adam Maher has attracted a lot of attention and his performance in AZ’s 2-1 defeat to RKC on Sunday showed how far this exceptional young talent has developed and proved beyond doubt that the teenager is now too good for his current side.
Maher’s importance to the Alkmaar club in last weekend’s match at the Mandemakers Stadion was evident from the very early stages when the Moroccan-born Netherlands international collected the ball deep in RKC territory and sent winger Roy Beerens through on goal with a perfectly weighted pass. The accuracy and speed of the ball took RKC left-back Ard van Peppen out of the equation and opened up more than enough space on the right side for Beerens as it landed directly in the path of the winger. As Beerens controlled it, he had plenty of time to line up his shot but the Waalwijk side’s goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet was quick off his line to block his effort.
Shortly afterwards, Maher opened up another clear opportunity for his side, embarking on a fantastic run and evading two defenders before playing a one-two with striker Jozy Altidore outside the box. The return ball from the American international was a difficult one to control. Instead of playing it low and in front of Maher, Altidore’s chipped pass flew just behind the youngster. The speed, direction and height of the pass put the teenager in a tricky situation, but he dealt with it perfectly as he reacted quickly, adapted his body and brought the ball down before stepping over it and firing a shot towards goal. The diminutive midfielder did all of this while holding off the RKC defenders who had restricted the space and were trying to snuff out the danger. It was a wonderful, seemingly easy move which was over in the blink of an eye and it felt somewhat unfair to see him denied by another strong save from Zoet. But the skill, reactions and confidence required to pull off such a move had to be applauded. AZ could have had the points wrapped up by then through the two chances Maher had created and the game was only eight minutes old.
A member of the AZ first-team since he was 17-years-old, Maher has developed immensely since he scored on his debut against BATE Borisov in the Europa League in December 2010. His performances have even merited three caps for the Dutch national team under Louis van Gaal.
The 2011-12 Dutch Talent of the Year Award winner is quick to involve himself in every attack. Operating in the final third of the pitch, his constant movement makes him a nightmare to mark and ensures he is always available as a passing option to team-mates on either flank. When on the ball, Maher looks to instigate attacks with his fantastic passing range and ability and the attacking midfielder has a knack for creating danger with his direct runs towards the box.
Standing at 5’8”, Maher is short and very thin, but he is deceptively strong and his ability to read tackles moments before they come flying in coupled with his remarkable technique and close control allows him to avoid defenders with a simple flick or slight touch. He has an abundance of confidence and creativity, a deadly combination for a player who will try anything to skip past an opponent.
For all of the talent, confidence and potential he has and the hype that comes with that for a player so young, Maher has not let it get to his head. He insists he will not move on to one of Europe’s elite prematurely, insisting himself that he has a long way to go before he is ready to do so. Instead, the player wishes to remain in the Eredivisie for at least two more years in order to develop further. PSV came knocking in the January transfer window but AZ refused to sell for less than €8million, while the Eindhoven side refused to go above €5million. The player was disappointed in his club for refusing him the move and he has since revealed that he will leave AZ in the summer, but only for either Ajax or PSV, leaving it up to the two Eredivisie powerhouses to battle it out for his signature after the intense title fight they are currently involved in.
Against RKC, Maher was unlucky to play a part in his side going 1-0 down after hitting the ball off of the referee and ceding possession to the opponents which lead to Mart Lieder’s first ever Eredivisie goal. But it was clear that if the visitors were going to have a chance of getting anything out of the match then it would have to be through their 19-year-old, around whom all attacks revolved.
The Netherlands international showed absolutely no signs of stopping as the game wore on and his persistence paid off with just over 20 minutes remaining as Johann Berg Gudmundsson squared to him outside the box. Maher needed just one glance up to assess the situation and see the run of Altidore and one touch to lift the ball over the backline and directly in front of his team-mate. With the ball teed up perfectly, the former New York Red Bulls striker comfortably knocked it over Zoet to level the score with his 17th goal of the season.
It was a lovely goal, but AZ would have hit the net long before the 69th minute had Maher’s supporting cast been of a higher calibre and capable of taking advantage of his creativity and speed. The Alkmaar club have finished fourth in the Eredivisie in each of the last two seasons, but have seen several key players depart the AFAS Stadion over that period. Last summer, the likes of Simon Poulsen, Niklas Moisander and Rasmus Elm all left the Cheese Farmers and while Donny Gorter, Markus Henriksen and Viktor Elm (brother and direct replacement of Rasmus) have proved decent replacements, they are not of the standard required to take the club forward. Willie Overtoom, a January signing from league rivals Heracles, has the ability to become a key player for AZ, but his arrival comes much too late to turn the side’s campaign around.
This year, after a quick elimination from the Europa League, the club have gone downhill incredibly fast. AZ have recorded just six league victories so far this season and currently sit fourth from bottom in the Eredivisie, with only goal difference separating them from Roda, who occupy the final relegation playoff spot. These are worrying times for Gertjan Verbeek’s men and only Maher and Altidore have stood out as exceptional players for the club, developing even further as a partnership. Without the attacking duo, AZ would very likely be in a much worse position than they currently find themselves in. Maher has already matched last season’s record of five league goals and is also just two assists short of the total number of goals he created last term. Meanwhile, with 17 goals, Altidore has already surpassed his tally of 2011/12, with nine games to spare.
The only significant positive for AZ this season is that they still have one chance of glory as they are through to the KNVB Beker Final. The North Holland side will meet PSV after dismantling an Ajax side which were superior throughout the vast majority of the semi-final. Again though, it was the partnership of Maher and Altidore which proved to be the catalyst as the latter headed the former’s cross into the net for the opening goal after 74 minutes – the first time AZ really threatened Frank de Boer’s side.
The fact that it took these two to link-up for AZ to stand a chance of progressing into the final showed just how toothless the side are, despite lining up against a significantly weaker Ajax team than we are used to as De Boer left several key players out of the starting XI.
Times may be tough for AZ, but for Maher, things are only improving as the wonderkid continues to develop despite his bleak surroundings. It is clear that he has advanced beyond his current club and must move on to further his development. A few years with De Boer at Ajax or with PSV under the tutelage of Dick Advocaat (or Phillip Cocu, the most likely candidate to succeed the current coach should he leave in summer) is the perfect way to go. AZ, on the other hand, must reinvest the money they receive for the teenager and look to build for next season.
Maybe Maher’s parting gift will be that he guides the club to safety from relegation.