Twente – Ajax: A tactical preview of the Cup final

Posted on 6 May 2011


In their third and fourth match up of this season, Twente and Ajax will meet in both the final of the Dutch Cup next Sunday and in what may be called the final of the Eredivisie on Sunday May 15. Both managers have already expressed themselves in clichés such as “the Cup is a very important prize” and “our next match is always the most important one”, but the general feeling is that this weekend’s Cup final is overshadowed by the importance of the Eredivisie title decider next week. And it’s not just the title that is decided, but both teams may even end up losing their Champions League ticket in the case of a loss next week, with PSV aiming to regain second place.

Despite that, with both important matches played a full week apart, both managers have expressed their intention to start with a full strength line-up in the Cup final.

Captains Wisgerhof and Vertonghen (outside left and right) grabbing a hold of the Cup with managers Preud'homme and De Boer


Twente’s formation over the season

Over the course of the season, Michel Preud’homme has made a gradual change of formation. Initially, he went with the 4-3-3 formation that he had inherited from his successful predecessor Steve McLaren, but, as was described earlier, he switched from a single holding midfielder to a double pivot, allowing both full-backs more offensive freedom. With Brama and Janssen generally playing the more conservative midfield roles, Preud’homme regularly featured Luuk de Jong in an advanced midfield role behind newly acquired striker Mark Janko in what could best be termed a 4-2-3-1 formation.

But injuries to both Janko and Ruiz during the early months of the year forced a change of approach. Veteran midfielder Landzaat was introduced to the midfield, allowing De Jong to advance to the striker position. And with that, a crossover between the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations was born. De Jong plays more of a ground ball target man, compared to Janko, and frequently drops back from the striker position, opening up space for Chadli and Ruiz to run into.

At the same time Landzaat is more of a natural central midfielder than De Jong, so the previous system of Brama and Janssen as consequent holding midfielders and De Jong more advanced has been replaced by a more fluid midfield three. Brama still covers in front of defense, but Janssen and Landzaat tend to take turns going forward, their counterpart offering support to Brama in the meantime.

This must have been the midfield fluidity that Preud’homme had been looking for, as over the past ten matches, Janko and De Jong have only started together twice.


Expected line-up against Ajax

The expected starting line-ups. Note the potential for Twente to overload Ajax' midfield with Ruiz drifting in and De Jong dropping.

With Bryan Ruiz back from knee injury problems just in time for the decisive matches of the season, Twente starts returning to its full strength line-up again. Ruiz will play his beloved drifting role, starting from the right wing and Chadli will aim for a more straightforward left wing role. Based on recent matches Luuk de Jong is expected to start in the striker role, with Mark Janko perhaps coming off the bench if things don’t work out.

The fluid midfield trio of Brama, Janssen and Landzaat will plays as outlined above and in central defense Douglas returned from his six match suspension a few matches ago to retake his left-sided central defense position beside captain Wisgerhof. The return of Dwight Tiendalli has provided Preud’homme with a choice of two out  of three likely full-backs to start. Either Rosales or Tiendalli will play as offensive right back, with Buysse or Tiendalli playing on the left side of defense. Preud’homme varies his full backs a lot, perhaps because the offensive wide role demands a lot of stamina and three candidates for two spots might be a good way to keep them fresh. It’ll be interesting to see which pair he’ll prefer this time.


A season of two halves for Ajax

No teams has been debated as much a Ajax in terms of tactical transitions over the course of this season. The departure of manager Martin Jol, who preferred a rather conservative 4-2-3-1 system and the appointment of Frank de Boer, who goes with a ‘classic Ajax style’ wide 4-3-3 have been key determinants of the tactical developments over the season. And results have pickup up in quite dramatic fashion in the second half of the season, as Jol managed a 9-5-3 (36-17) record over the first 17 matches of the season and De Boer so far holds a 12-2-2 (33-12) record over his 16 matches in charge. This improvement saw Ajax close the five point gap with Twente to one point and overtake PSV whose 9-4-3 (39-16) record during the second half of the season almost equals Ajax’ first half.


Major changes

Comparing to Ajax’ previous encounter with Twente, the 2-2 away draw last September, only three players are expected to start in the same position this time. Admittedly, Vermeer replacing Stekelenburg in goal is forced through injury, but otherwise an impressive amount of changes have been made.

Ajax’ defense has by and large kept its form as Van der Wiel, Alderweireld and Vertonghen are still sure starters, with 19 year old Nicolai Boilesen starting at left back ahead of Daley Blind and Vurnon Anita. The latter is drafted back into defensive midfield, a role he used to play in before Jol turned him into a left back.

Last September, Ajax’ midfield consisted of Siem de Jong, Enoh and Lindgren with a front three of Emanuelson, El Hamdaoui and Suarez. Indicative of the changes brought about by Frank de Boer only one of these six players will feature in Ajax’ starting eleven next weekend. Siem de Jong is widely expected to start ahead of Mounir El Hamdaoui in the lone striker role, as the Moroccan international hasn’t found his form in the field, isn’t getting along with his manager off it, and on top of that isn’t fully fit at the moment.

Right winger Miralem Sulejmani is perhaps the best example of a player flourishing under a new manager. Since the appointment of De Boer, the Serbian hasn’t missed a single Eredivisie start and with six goals and five assists he’s made significant contribution to Ajax’ improved second half of the season.

A devoted servant during the second half of the season: Miralem Sulejmani


Key areas

With both midfield trio’s rather well balanced and all four wingers generally showing excellent defensive awareness, a potential decisive match up might be Bryan Ruiz playing the inexperienced left-back Boilesen. The young Dane made a hugely impressive debut replacing the injured Daley Blind against Heracles at home in early April, but had a difficult time playing skilled dribbler Luciano Narsingh in Ajax’ recent narrow victory over Heerenveen. Ruiz’ tendency to drift inside will see him picked up by Anita, which will put extra pressure on Demi de Zeeuw to track any offensive midfield impulses Landzaat or Janssen might employ.

On the other hand, the offensive runs of Eriksen combined with De Jong’s excellent false nine role will limit Landzaat’s offensive abilities as he’ll need to be wary of his opponent’s well timed runs from deep as was illustrated in the same Heerenveen – Ajax match, with De Jong – Eriksen combinations forming the base of both Ajax goals.

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