This clash between two Eredivisie title contenders may go down as one of the best games Ajax played under their current manager, Frank de Boer. The home side pressed PSV all over the pitch and the successive dominance in possession allowed them to continue an intense pressing level throughout the full ninety minutes. PSV proved unable to work their way around the pressure, and after going a goal down, new manager Philip Cocu could not turn this game around.
This match report has been composed with the use of match data that were provided by Infostrada Sports.
Ajax’ 4-3-3 that wasn’t really a 4-3-3
No less than six players out of the presumed best XI missed out today. Long-term injuries have kept the entire front three of Sigthorsson, Boerrigter and Sulejmani sidelined, while midfielder Theo Janssen (suspended) and injured defenders Gregory van der Wiel and Nicolai Boilesen also missed out. Frank de Boer today picked Daley Blind at left-back, ahead of the recently disappointing young defender Koppers.
In midfield, De Boer made the interesting choice to go with both Eyong Enoh and Vurnon Anita, something he was reluctant to do at first, but a solution that worked out extremely well. Siem de Jong featured in the striker role, be it with a lot of positional freedom, allowing Christian Eriksen to overlap. Eriksen played a more central and more offensive role today due to the coverage provided by the double pivot of central defensive midfielders behind him.
With a fully fit selection available, PSV should have been expected the have the better of Ajax in this department. Philip Cocu, who took over after the departure of Fred Rutten, elected Georginio Wijnaldum over Jeremain Lens at the right wing, although, after losing a series of duels to Blind, he was at times swapped with central midfielder Zakarya Labyad.
At right-back, Stanislav Mannolev seems to have fallen out of favor, mainly due to his defensive liabilities and his eye-catching lack of control that limits his offensive output. Atiba Hutchinson got the start, with excellent performances against Heerenveen’s Assaidi recently.
The first half
There is one word to describe the events of this match: pressure. Ajax played the way Frank de Boer would have liked them to play for longer, pressing their opponents all over the pitch, making it barely possible for PSV to string more than a few passes together.
Such an intense pressing strategy is employed more often, but regularly fails to win enough possession for the home team to be able to keep up with the amount of energy it costs. It often fades around the fifteenth minute, with the away side slowly gaining an advantage when playing around the pressing team. Not so today though, as Ajax gained roughly 66% of possession early on and proved able to press PSV during the remaining part of the match. The math is quite simple here, conserve the ball a lot and you’ll be able to limit the amount of time the intense pressure is required.
The problem for Ajax
Winning possession is one thing, turning it into goal scoring chances is quite another. In the first half, Ajax’ chances were limited to long range shots and an odd of target header from a corner. Ajax mainly spent their possession in midfield, where they enjoyed a rather simple acquired numerical advantage. Striker Siem de Jong drifted deep, even below the level of the midfielders, adding up the extra man. As mentioned before, playing both Enoh and Anita provided Eriksen with double the amount of defensive midfield cover that he’s used to, liberating more of his offensive threat.
All in all, the first half showed a dominant Ajax side, a PSV side that looked robbed of any opportunity to circulate possession and a limited number of goal scoring chances. An impressive stat to show Ajax’ pressing was PSV’s number of first half goal scoring chances: zero. Striker Matavz and left winger Mertens completed one and two passes respectively in the first half, an expression of how early Ajax’ pressing generally intercepted possession, or reversely, how unable PSV proved to deal with it.
One more stat? Okay, Vermeer completed all but one of his 18 first half passes, while Tyton failed to complete a single passing attempt out of eleven.
The second half
With PSV limiting themselves to stopping Ajax’ threat and Ajax winning their dominance with a false nine striker role, providing goal scoring threats from within the box seemed a concern for the home side. It took a brilliant short corner routine (or a fluke cross?) by Ismael Aissatti to open the score, again from outside the box. He curled one over the arms of Tyton, just into the far top corner of the goal.
Ajax now defended a lead, so possession became a goal in itself, rather than a way to obtain goals. Immediately after the 56th minute goal, Ajax went on to dominate possession for the next ten minutes, as is shown in the passing chart. By that time they had doubled their lead through a Siem de Jong penalty, won by, again, Aissatti.
Cocu’s only change that had any chance of turning things around came in between both Ajax’ goals, as he removed his slightly injured captain Toivonen, who disappointed throughout. The PSV captain generally needs his side to be present on the opponent’s half to make an impact and his performance in terms of creation is generally limited.
Cocu introduced pacy winger Lens, but his presence obviously did not solve PSV problem of being unable to pass through Ajax’ numerical advantage in midfield. With their offensive three of Matavz, Mertens and Lens completing only 17 passes in the final third of the game, PSV was never able to construct any offensive threat. Ajax generally intercepted the ball early in PSV’s game, with Vertonghen particularly on song today. The Ajax captain made 14 of his 27 (!) interceptions while defending the lead, with the pair of Enoh and Anita throwing in another 15.
In the end
Pressing is a key element of how Frank de Boer wants his Ajax side to play. And today turned out very well. Pressing may very well backfire on a team, for example when not holding on to the ball enough themselves, making the spells of pressing needed longer and more frequent. Today’s pressing was in part a success due to the lack of PSV pressing. This allowed Ajax a rather easy time on the ball, as was evident from the 695 passes with a near 80% completion rate.
Siem de Jong’s false nine role proved crucial in gaining the upper hand in midfield, but again, Ajax had trouble turning their possession into quality goal scoring chances. Overall number of 11 Ajax shots, 7 of which on target, versus 3 PSV shots, 2 of which on target, don’t tell the whole story. Most of Ajax’ attempts stood a relative small chance of going in and it took a moment of individual brilliance (let’s give Aissatti the benefit of doubt, should it exist) to open the score.
PSV should take a critical look at their plans going into this game. While they did defend compact, like they normally do, they failed to press Ajax and thereby allowed Ajax longer spells of possession than strictly needed. And even though no imminent goal scoring danger was created, Ajax was allowed to conserve energy that was unleashed as soon as PSV had regained possession. Homework for Cocu.
This report could not have been made without the generous support of Infostrada Sports.