Calvin Stengs is only 20-years-old, and injury has deprived him of playing a full season for AZ Alkmaar, but he is one of the Eredivisie’s most promising young players. Ronald Koeman will have a plethora of wingers to choose from in the next few years but Stengs could be one of the most unique and exhilarating wide-players. AZ are building one of the most renown and productive academies in European football as they churn out high-level talent at an amazing rate. Stengs found fitness and form in the second half of last season as he will certainly be a player to watch in the Eredivisie.
He was born and grew up in Nieuw Vennep where his mind constantly wondered to the toiling and teasing of Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho at Barcelona. His playfulness and joviality on a football pitch is reminiscent of the Brazilian as Stengs one day hopes to be the next Dutchman to venture to Catalunya. His parents divorced when he was very young as he built a strong relationship with his mother and grandparents. While his mother worked, his grandfather would take him everywhere as football would eventually bring his family closer together. By chance, his father would happen to work for AZ Alkmaar as the two would rekindle their relationship when Stengs joined the club as a youngster.
There is a contemporary theory in sports that athletes born in the earlier months of the year tend to be more physically developed. Stengs, born in December, always found himself, the smallest of his peers as he struggled as a youngster. However, after Under 16 level, he began to stand out in his age-group as his youth coach, Lee-Roy Echteld began to use him in an array of positions. AZ have a policy of not constraining players to a position as Stengs played on both flanks as well as in the centre which has greatly aided his development as a player.
Stengs was a crucial part of the Jong AZ side that was promoted to the Eerste Divisie in 2016/17 as by the time he made his Eredivisie debut in the European Playoffs, he was well-prepared to take his opportunity. Away to Groningen, Stengs responded to his promotion by trading passes with Joris Van Overeem to bury a shot from the top of the box to notch a debut goal at only 18-years-old. At home to Utrecht, John Van den Brom granted him another start as he took a brilliant first touch on a pass to play provider for Van Overeem to apply a calm finish and open the scoring. Stengs then took on a pass from Jonas Svensson to supply Dabney Dos Santos with a ball for the winger on the opposite flank to casually flick the opportunity in.
Stengs was substituted to a standing ovation as AZ won the game 3-0. AZ would lose the second-leg and concede their three-goal deficit to lose on penalties but Stengs was still gifted a five-year contract extension as the Dutch side tied down an essential asset. A summer of excitement was ruined in the season opener against PSV Eindhoven as Stengs tore his ACL and ended his season before it had even begun. He would spend the next few months in Pittsburgh as his knee was surgically repaired by renowned surgeon Volker Musahl, who has treated Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Myron Boadu as well as ample American Football players.
Stengs returned with a renewed vigour in 2019 as he established a partnership with Svensson as the Norwegian would overlap for the lanky Dutchman with tricky feet and an afro to cut inside. Against Vitesse in January, the winger would work a cross which was blocked as he used the deflection to work a pass to Midstjo. The Norwegian then threaded a pass to his countryman who crossed for Stengs to apply a calm and collected finish. Stengs thrives in the normal winger situations in 1v1s against his fullback as his trickery and exquisite close control allow him to work space for cut-backs and crosses.
However, his speciality lies in his propensity to glide into the central positions, receive possession and work beautifully weighted and rolled balls into runners in behind. His combinations with the marauding Svensson allow him the freedom and space to operate as a playmaker in the central pockets and half-spaces. His experiences in more central positions at youth level have developed innate sensibilities for timing and coordination in tight spaces akin to central midfielders. He can be overzealous with his through balls, but his ability as a wide creator adds another dimension to AZ’s attacking play.
In an away game against Feyenoord, Stengs and Gudmundsson who were deployed as wingers would operate in the middle with Stengs dropping into the deeper and more central areas to construct build-up play. He demanded possession from the centre-backs and played balls through the lines as he once chipped for Mats Seuntjens to go in behind but the striker was unable to cut back for Til. Stengs operated in the role so well that Van den Brom utilised his multi-faceted set of skills in a similar role against PSV the next month.
The AZ youngster also combined well with his Jong Oranje counterparts in a friendly against Mexico. He opened the scoring when he took on a Donyell Malen through ball to calmly chip over a hapless Mexican goalkeeper. The duo linked up again as Stengs turned from scorer to provider as he played an exuberant curling through ball to Malen who took on the pass and drove into the box to finish from a tight angle.
A long-term combination with Malen is exciting but his current partnership with Boadu has led to an exhilarating start to the Eredivisie. Away to BK Hacken in the Europa League Qualifiers, Boadu latched onto a loose pass, drove past one defender to outmuscle another to work a shooting opportunity which was saved. Boadu then used the rebound to tee-up Stengs who finished well to score. In AZ’s Eredivisie opener against Fortuna Sittard, Stengs cut in off the flank and cleverly slid in Boadu to finish before providing an accurate cross for Yukinari Sugawara to score on his debut.
In a Europa League Qualifier away to Mariupol, the Ukranian side played in a rigid deep block as Stengs showed press resistance by moving into the centre to work one-twos and quick combinations with teammates. He also forced the keeper into some saves with some shots from range. In the second-leg, he dropped to receive the ball, played it to Midstjo who worked a pass to Svensson as the Norwegian right-back played a through ball for the Dutchman to prod home to give AZ a lead. Stengs was then involved in another goal as Thomas Ouwejan struck the ball at the feet of the winger who controlled it and showed a rapid speed of thought to tee-up his fellow academy product for a goal. Stengs bagged his second assist as he had a corner headed in by Stijn Wuytens.
The 20-year-old has 2 goals and 4 assists in all competitions despite the season still being in its infancy. His blend of craft and trickery makes him an inexorable force for opposition fullbacks while he also presents an issue in the central areas. He has the skill and fearlessness of a winger and the refined technique and timing of an old-fashioned attacking midfielder. He is key to unlocking defences on the wing, in the deeper positions or in any pockets of space that open up while he can also score goals in the box.
“I enjoyed his return to the field. At the training I noticed for a while that there is hardly any difference with the Calvin from before his injury,” said former AZ Alkmaar captain Guus Til to Voetbal International earlier this year. “I think that is very clever. I often see him doing things that I think: Yes, man, he still has it all. What I found most striking was that Calvin immediately seemed to train without fear. He went to work, that was nice to see. Calvin is a kind of cat in his game. He moves so easily from left to right. That feline doesn't have many football players. Hakim Ziyech has it, so does Steven Berghuis. And so, Calvin. "
A Dutch National Team call-up is looming for Stengs as Ronald Koeman took the time to travel to a recent AZ match to watch Boadu and him. He has overcome being undersized at youth level and a long-term injury denying him over a year of football to pick up where he left off. Stengs is currently dating Frank de Boer’s daughter Demi and frequently asks the former Ajax manager and current Atlanta United manager for advice as he shows an obsession with improvement away from the confines of the training ground. Van den Brom once said that Stengs gave him ‘Goosebumps’ as he has also been described as one of the last truly creative Dutch players.