While a number of players have caught the eye at Eredivisie champions PSV Eindhoven and runners-up Ajax, one player at third-placed AZ Alkmaar may have gone under the radar in the Dutch league this season.
Iranian attacker Alireza Jahanbakhsh was the Eredivisie top scorer during the 2017/18 campaign with 21 goals, finishing ahead of highly-rated players such as Hirving Lozano of PSV, David Neres of Ajax, and Feyenoord’s Steven Berghuis.
He scored almost 30 per cent of his side’s goals and also managed 12 assists, with only Hakim Ziyech of Ajax and Heracles’ Brandley Kuwas managing more. This means that, in total, he contributed to an impressive 46 per cent of all AZ’s strikes last season.
After spending a number of years as a youth player at hometown club Damash Gilan in Iran, and a season in the capital at Parseh Tehran, he began his career in the Netherlands with Nijmegen based side NEC.
He shone in his second season there when the club finished top of the Eerste Divisie and won promotion back to the top flight.
His performances there alerted AZ, and he’s slowly improved during his time there, hitting double figures in the Eredivisie for the first time during the 2016/17 season, before his chart-topping campaign last time out.
The Iranian is very South American in style. He’s solidly built with a good amount of pace, excellent touch, and a powerful shot with his right boot. He’s good at sending in accurate crosses from wide areas, but can also do damage cutting inside.
His goal-scoring record is all the more impressive when you consider that he plays the majority of his football on the right wing, though he can line up on either side and occasionally as a false nine.
His all-round ability means he’s able to act like a playmaker or a striker on top of his duties on the wing. If the ball is on the opposite flank he’ll drift into the area to get on the end of crosses at the far post, or if the play is deeper he can move into central positions behind the striker to continue the build-up play, create a goal, or try a shot from distance. Over half of his shots last season came from outside the box. He also averages 2.5 key passes per 90 minutes.
Defensively, he tracks back well and can sometimes be seen winning the ball back in his own half. He attempts 3.5 tackles per 90 minutes, which is a high return for a forward. In terms of dribbling he averages 5.6 attempts per game, and completed 62 per cent of his take-ons for AZ last season, which means he’s approaching the highest level in this regard.
If football were a video game with different stages, he’s just completed the Eredivisie level. The World Cup could be a handy bonus stage and clubs from Europe’s bigger leagues could come calling this summer.
His Iran side are in a tough group with Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. The two Iberian sides will be the favourites to progress, but the North Africans also have a talented side made up of Europe based players who will be looking to cause an upset. Iran will be looking to do the same, and their game against Morocco could make for an interesting battle.
Group B could well be one of the more intriguing groups in the tournament, and even if the group is predictable and results go as expected (which is unlikely), there will still be plenty of players on show across all four teams to entertain the fans in the tournament’s early stages.
A then 20-year-old Jahanbakhsh was part of the Iran squad during the last World Cup in Brazil, but he failed to make an impact, only seeing game time off the bench as Iran failed to win a game and finished bottom of their group behind Nigeria.
This time around with four years extra experience under his belt, he’s likely to be one of Iran’s standout players along with 23-year-old forward, Sardar Azmoun. He’ll be looking to transfer his goal-scoring prowess with his club the international stage, but regardless of whether he finds the net he could well end up as one of the highlight reel players in a group full of them. There are bonafide star players, as well as a number of players to watch for the future in Group B.
If Iran are to spring an upset by not finishing bottom of this group, then Jahanbakhsh will have a big role to play, and it’s one he’s more than capable of performing.