Feyenoord and Ajax contested each other in the 164th edition of ‘The Classic’ today. Regardless of actual rankings and present from, this Classic encounter remains one of the high-points of the year for both teams. The fierce rivalry between these clubs tends to bring out the best of games on the pitch ,but unfortunately also the worst of ‘supporters’ behaviour outside of it. In an effort to control this violence, until 2014 the Eredivisie matches between Ajax and Feyenoord are to be played without any attending away fans, taking away much of the stadium atmosphere.
Feyenoord enters this years’ Classic on the back of a 2-1-2 start to the season, leading to a ninth place at present. The debt-ridden club should prepare for a few years of the gray mid-table football, according to their outspoken director Leo Beenhakker. He continued this recent interview by stating that he considers himself to be a realist in predicting a mid-table role for his clubs in the next years. In spite of these concerning statements, manager Mario Been tried to raise confidence in his squad by stressing their home advantage and pointing at Ajax’ recent tough game at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid.
And indeed, Ajax enters this season’s first Classic after a degrading 0-2 defeat by Madrid, where they played a tactically naive variant, vacating their right wing, thereby allowing Madrid to dominate the game completely. On the other hand, the performances of goalkeeper Stekelenburg, winning a place in UEFA CL Team of the Week in the meantime, and the return of Suarez and Vertonghen might install some confidence again.
Feyenoord manager Mario Been decided to punish right winger Ruben Schaken for allowing NAC right-back the freedom to score a late opening goal in their lost match against NAC Breda last week. Schaken was replaced by Fedor Smolov. Futhermore, young defender Leerdam was preferred in defensive midfield over the more experienced El Ahmadi. Feyenoord’s formation was still best characterised as a 4-3-3 with Leerdam playing very close to his defense, giving Feyenoord a 5-2-3 look at times.
Ajax manager Jol also dropped one of his regular starting players. Defendive midfielder and stand-in captain Demi de Zeeuw was punished for both his positional indiscipline during the CL match against Real Madrid and for his verbal indiscipline right after that match, stating his opinion on his substitution in that match. Again, Sulejmani featured on the wing for Ajax, his preferred left one this time, meaning that Emanuelson started on the bench.
The opening phase of the match was characterised by a lack of structure. Both teams started preferred constant positional switching of their front line, but these switches were so frequent that their build-up had a difficult time finding the right players. Feyenoord’s 5-2-3 lookout forced them into quite a few long balls in this initial phase of the game, where young striker Castaignos consequently lost in the air against either Vertonghen or Alderweireld.
Ajax, meanwhile, did not succeed in connecting with their forward three, lacking width and making their build-up all too transparent for Feyenoord’s defense. It was no surprise that it took until the 16th minute to see a shot on target, neither was it a surprise that this chance came from an inside dribble from Suarez.
With both teams having a hard time controlling even their own build-up, the only danger was found in quick breaks after opposition errors, but given the rather high defensive line of both teams and the lack of true pace upfront, no real goal-scoring chances were created. Perhaps the best chance was seen when Smolov seemingly put Feyenoord 1-0 up, but he was correctly ruled offside.
Ajax brought some more width to the game around the 30-minute mark, when Sulejmani started to stick to the left side more, and their positional rotation was limited to Suarez and El Hamdaoui only. In addition to this change, also their defensive line took a deeper stance, offering a longer pitch and allowing more space for the four-band philosophy of the 4-2-3-1. Defensive midfielders Enoh and Lindgren, who as expected operated deeper than de Zeeuw usually does, started seeing more of the ball and found an easy outlet in left winger Sulejmani.
In line with the lack of beauty in this game, the opening goal was a result of a mishit clearance by de Vrij after an Ajax free kick. The ball fell to de Jong, who had escaped Fer’s marking with a clever move, and his header put Ajax up 1-0.
Shortly hereafter, Feyenoord suffered a second blow by losing captain Vlaar due to injury. Right-back Stefan de Vrij was transferred to the centre and Leerdam to right-back. El Ahmadi entered in a defensive midfield role, and with Feyenoord forced to search for a goal, gradually developed into a box-to-box role as the match developed.
At half-time a second Feyenoord substitution was added. Pacy wing dribbler Schaken replaced Smolov, who expectedly disappointed in his out-of-position right wing role. As a result, also Feyenoord abolished their positional switches, lending more structure to their game.
In spite of these changes, it was Ajax who took the immediate initiative after half-time, and they did so by introducing the old principle of pressure. Feyenoord, thinking forward, seemed surprised and could not cope with this. The result was a series of chances both with El Hamdaoui and Suarez hitting the post, but also with El Hamdaoui scoring the 56th minute 0-2 from a beautiful Suarez through-ball.
The match seemed practically over now until Bahia scored the connecting 1-2 from a corner ). This goal, however, fits into the rather unwelcome modern trend to have another player deliberately obstruct the goalkeeper during a set piece. Diouf’s obstruction against Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer, allowing Blackburn’s Dempsey to equalize in this Premier League match yesterday was discussed quite boldly by Alan Shearer on BBC’s Match of the Day yesterday and one can only hope that these public voices contribute to the quick end of this unwanted trend.
The final ten minutes saw Ajax switching to survival tactics, aiming for possession only to play down time and aiming to obstruct Feyenoord’s play whatever way possible. However, this did not result in more than a few yellow cards for Ajax and the match ended with a 1-2 score.
Should you not have known that Ajax and Feyenoord are two high-profiled teams, in Holland at least, you would not have guessed on the basis of today’s performance. The lack of width and the abundance of positional switches from both sides made for a disappointing match. In the end, Ajax ran out deserved winners, mainly based on the final fifteen minutes before and the first fifteen minutes after half-time.