Heerenveen’s 2018/19 season will be remembered as a lost one as they flirted with relegation, never truly competed for European places and faced boardroom strife despite the plethora of talent at their disposal. Michel Vlap follows Hakim Ziyech and Daley Sinkgraven as a gifted attacking player whose talent was fostered in Friesland. The area and club are more familial with Vlap’s father working in Heerenveen’s academy as a coach as his son experienced a breakout year with the senior side. Vlap is already being targeted by a few clubs in the Eredivisie, Bundesliga, Serie A as well as clubs in Belgium.
Vlap is unique as an attacking midfielder in a generation of deep-lying metronomes and box-to-box engines as the 22-year-old is a true number ten. The Dutch midfielder plundered 17 goals and 4 assists in all competitions this season to tie with Sam Lammers as Heerenveen’s top scorer. Vlap made his debut in the 2016/17 season against Ajax but only became an established member of Heerenveen’s first team during the next season. In a match at home to AZ Alkmaar, he proved he possessed the requisite tools to be an integral player at club level as he constantly drifted into the pockets and was linking play together for his side. Linking play in the final third and from deep has made Vlap one of the most intriguing prospects in the Eredivisie as his combination play allows him to impose himself on games.
Heerenveen used Vlap to press high as he undertook his man-marking assignments with vigour but also produced moments of creativity when his side regained possession. Against AZ Alkmaar last season, he played a through ball for Lammers after a counter-pressing situation before he won possession and squared a cross for Ben Rienstra to shoot wide.
However, last season proved that Vlap’s qualities in the central attacking midfielder position do not translate into the wide areas as Jan Olde Riekerink wasted him as a winger in the first half of the season. Vlap prefers to have freedom in the central pockets with the option of moving out wide to connect play as him and Lammers developed as an attacking force.
Lammers and Vlap took turns dropping in between the lines to receive passes from Kik Pierie as the other would hold the central striking position. Against Vitesse, a Walter Hahn throw played in Nemanja Mihajlovic who worked a pass to Vlap to take two touches and then strike a shot past Eduardo from range. The Heerenveen academy graduate’s ability to receive the ball in attacking positions and work them into goalscoring situations was pivotal to his team’s safety this season. At home to PSV, Vlap received a ball on the left flank to turn and drive past defenders into the box to open his body and apply a calm finish at the far post.
Heerenveen would also drop into a 4-4-2 low block with Vlap moving up to press the ball with Lammers. Vlap is two footed and is comfortable at receiving and passing the ball with both feet, as he frequently drops deep to work the ball out of pressure. Against Feyenoord, he received the ball with his right foot, played the ball to a teammate and swivelled past his marker to receive the ball again and spread a pass out wide. He plays clever one-twos in tight positions to beat pressure and drive the ball into space while he has innate body control to swiftly change direction to leave men lying in his wake. The 22-year-old is also a gifted and precise through ball passer as he can work balls to runners from the deeper positions or play clever slide rule passes to teammates in the ten space.
The half-space is becoming more and more prevalent in top level football as with teams employing rigid low blocks, the half-space becomes an integral area for teams to work combinations in. Against VVV Venlo, Vlap played in the half-space between Pele Van Amersfoort and Lammers as he worked combinations with both of them to create opportunities. Rienstra played a pass into Vlap to smartly skip past his centre-back marker and send a shot wide. Later in the game, Vlap took on a through ball from Yuki Kobayashi to go through on goal and finish with aplomb. The midfielder has also mastered the art of working passes to teammates with the in-step of his foot and the outside of his boot as he hit a pass to Thorsby with his toes later in the game. Vlap would finish the game by making a clever shadow striker run into the box to head in a Mitchell van Bergen cross to level the score for Heerenveen at 2-2.
Vlap is the modern-day number ten as he is more hardworking than ethereal and languid while he is physically developed enough to press the ball and mark the opposition defensive midfielder. His prolific streak in the opposition box this season adds another dimension to attacks as he can fill the central striking role when the striker moves out wide. Vlap is dominant in the air while his ability to manoeuvre out of tight situations to work goalscoring opportunities makes him lethal in the box. Nevertheless, Vlap’s ability to work passing moves in the deeper areas and play through balls into teammates enhances his ability as a press resistant and creative midfielder.
"I'm someone who looks around a lot. When we play a position game and you put a camera on it, you see me looking over my shoulder a lot. I also try to do that in the competition. In the past Johnny Jansen has been very busy with that. Scan, look around, see what happens. I am always aware of my immediate environment, " said Vlap to Heerenveen’s website in December last year.
Reza Ghoochannejhad was Heerenveen’s top scorer with 8 goals in 2017/18 as his former teammate doubled that last season from attacking midfield. Vlap will certainly be a hot property on the transfer market this summer as he will bring a special set of skills to whichever team parts with a meagre fee for his services. At 22, he can still develop as a midfielder especially if a team plays him in a deeper role, but he believes that he attacks football with a ‘business-like’ approach, choosing when and where to expense his energy. It is a shame that Heerenveen could not use his talent to their benefit more on the pitch but will receive a good fee for another one of their academy graduates.