Ajax 0 – 0 PSV: More tension than quality

Posted on 24 November 2010

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Two teams who were considered firm favorites for this year’s Eredivisie title cancelled each other out in a somewhat disappointing match in the Amsterdam ArenA. Ajax seems unable to break their deadlock, not scoring for the third match in a row and PSV seemed half happy with the away draw, finding a good performance by Maarten Stekelenburg standing in their way. The fact that players from both teams were more involved with refereeing decisions and provoking their opponents than with the quality of their performance was indicative of the dissatisfaction with life at the clubs, particularly at Ajax at the moment.

The starting line-ups

Ajax’ ongoing midfield problems

After four consecutive Erevidisie appearances, Lindgren was left out by Jol this time. The midfield trio consisted of Enoh, De Zeeuw and De Jong, the combination of players that Jol started the season with too. More than once the defensive frailties of this line-up had been exposed and it was this trio’s performance in Madrid that set-up a sequence of midfield alterations. De Zeeuw’s tendency to take up advanced positions in front of the ball is well known, and combined with De Jong’s role as a false number 10 this regularly led to an understaffed central midfield. This has to be added up to a lack of support from the wing players, especially with striker Suarez who cannot be expected to put in a lot of defensive work on Ajax’ right wing. The result is a formation that tends to go to a 4-2-4 more than the 4-2-3-1 that could be presented on paper.

PSV’s slightly tuned 4-2-3-1

In contrast, PSV does play a true 4-2-3-1 system with Toivonen regulary appearing in midfield. Furthermore, natural wingers Dszudszak and Lens are played in the wide positions and they can be seen to tuck in into the midfield when out of possession, turning the four man attack when in possession into a five man midfield when losing the ball.

The slight alteration for this match contrasted with the choice of players in defensive midfield. With Bakkal and Afellay two players with attacking potential were fielded, but they played a rather conservative role, perhaps stressed by the advanced positions of their direct opponents De Jong and De Zeeuw. On one hand this provided PSV with enough defensive cover and on the other hand it allowed both players to make well –timed runs forward to strengthen the attack at times. After all, a player arriving late, or joining the attack with the ball at feet is more difficult to stop than a player already positioned upfront, in front of the ball.

The first half

Ajax dominated possession slightly in the first part of the match, however, they struggled to pass the ball from defense to midfield as PSV played a compact five men midfield, counting wingers Dsudszak and Lens among the midfielders here, given their defensive awareness. Ajax, on the other hand, tends to position their central midfielders quite high up the pitch, leading to situations like in the screen below. Ajax’ centre-backs will be in possession without any options to pass the ball into midfield. Enoh, de Zeeuw and de Jong have all positioned themselves on the longitudinal axis of the pitch, close to PSV’s defensive line, which was pushed up a bit in a well-thought attempt to limit space. Of further note is the advanced position that right-back Van der Wiel takes up here. Imagine a situation where PSV would manage to win the ball in midfield here and a dangerous counter-attack seems unavoidable.

Defenders are red, defensive midfielders orange, attacking midfielders / wingers yellow. Note how narrow Ajax' central midfield is positioned and how far Van der Wiel has advanced in front of the ball. Of further note is Toivonen's (in midfield with his arm strechted out) position, illustating his defensive awareness.

This situation frequently recurred in the first half, with Ajax’ centre-back ending up playing long balls, mostly to Suarez’ feet. The result of this was a difficult ball for him to control, relatively easy defending for PSV and pundits and fans praising the centre-back’s long pass qualities.

Second half changes

Ajax manager Jol made his preferred second half substitution, introducing winger Sulejmani for left-back Anita, moving Emanuelson back in defense, overall increasing the likelihood of players positioning themselves in from of the ball, rather than tackling this problem. PSV kept on looking for the breaks, which they played very well, regularly getting both Lens and Dszudsazk in behind Ajax’ full-backs.

In this second screen PSV’s attacking game plan is well illustrated. They play inside wingers with Toivonen behind striker Reis , rather than on the same level, as De Jong would be relative to El Hamdaoui. Ajax frequently got seduced to narrowing their defense, which illustrated the complete absence of a right winger tracking back. The amount of space for left-back Pieters to take advantage was enormous and Ajax regularly had goalkeeper Stekelenburg to thank with the amount of chances created down this flank.

PSV's inside wingers forcing Ajax' defensive back four into a very narrow position, creating space for left-back Pieters to advance. His opponent Suarez is not on the picture.

The end of the match for Ajax…

Nearing the end of the match as rather bore 0-0 draw was always the more likely outcome. Players from both teams started focusing more on provoking their opponent, rather than looking for the win, culminating in Lindgren’s red card and the bizarre Suarez biting incident. With a rumoured seven match ban for Suarez coming up, this might well carry an important effect onto Jol’s tactics for the coming matches. Without Suarez, Ajax’ style of play will certainly be different, but it remains to be seen if Jol would change the formation a bit too.

Johan Cruijff and Frank de Boer, the Statler and Waldorf of the Amsterdam ArenA

…and for PSV

PSV on the other hand will be rather content with the draw away at their rivals. Their wingers have performed excellent in their inside 4-2-3-1 system, allowing forward Reis to settle himself as PSV’s number one striker now. With overlapping full-backs when necessary and a double cover in defensive midfield their system is very much a 4-2-3-1 as it should be.

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Posted in: Eredivisie