A home victory over title rivals Twente meant that Frank de Boer’s Ajax secured the 30th Eredivisie title in the club’s history. Both title contenders faced each other on the final match day with Ajax needing a win for the title. And just one week after losing the Dutch Cup final to Twente in overtime, Ajax managed a 3-1 win in a tight and very exciting match that was ultimately decided by small tactical adaptations, which become clear when comparing this match to the Cup final.
Roughly the same line-ups
Ajax started this game with the exact same line-up as they did a week before. Mounir El Hamdaoui was still not fit. Siem de Jong started in the striker role, which allowed Ajax to use his excellent ball retention, team work and involvement in Ajax’ ground play. Nicolai Boilesen was again preferred over Daley Blind after his excellent offensive input a week before.
Demy de Zeeuw featured in the same central midfield role, but his positioning was much more offensive in this game. He often pressured Twente’s centre-backs alongside Siem de Jong and was mostly guarded by Twente’s holding midfielder Wout Brama, whereas in the previous game Brama was mostly confronted with Eriksen.
Michel Preud’homme made two changes in comparison with last week’s match. Mihaylov returned in goal, replacing Sander Boschker who was allowed to play all Cup matches this season, and Roberto Rosales was fit enough to start ahead of Dwight Tiendalli at right-back.
One major change
At first glance Preud’homme seemed not to have changed all that much, but as the match started, one major change became apparent. Theo Janssen and Denny Landzaat had switched positions for this match in comparison with the Cup final. Preud’homme would have felt the need for more defensive stability in Twente’s midfield as his team faced a 0-2 score line near the end of the first half of the Cup final. On top of that, Twente knew that a draw would be enough to secure the title and that Ajax managed to win all but one (N.E.C.) of their Eredivisie home games where they scored first.
Landzaat offers more defensive stability compared to Janssen, whose sloppy marking was generally held responsible for De Zeeuw’s opening goal in the Cup final. In return, Janssen is a vital element in Twente’s midfield with regard to passing the ball.
So, in return for more defensive quality to match Ajax’ two most offensive central midfielders De Zeeuw and Eriksen, Twente took a risk with regard to the positioning of their most important player. Janssen’s involvement in the game was significantly reduced in comparison with the Cup final, and in fact with Twente’s season in general. He was well guarded by Anita and Twente’s long high passing game that was quite successful earlier on bypassed him a lot.
The first half
Ajax dominated possession early on, as was to be expected, since they played at home and needed a win. With Twente taking a relatively defensive stance, Ajax found their defenders under a lot less pressure than they were a week before. Particularly Jan Vertonghen was able to display his excellent quality with the ball at feet. This included both his long passing skill, including his signature left-foot cross pass to right winger Sulejmani, and his libero-like advances into midfield with the ball at feet.
Curiously, the score line developed along similar lines as it did in the Cup final. Siem de Jong scored the opening goal with a well-executed cross volley finish from a second post cross by right-back Gregory van der Wiel. During that phase, Ajax seemed quite in control of the game. Twente’s spells of possession were quite short, both due to their direct game with frequent long balls towards striker Luuk de Jong and the lack of Janssen’s passing qualities in midfield, as outlined above.
The second half
The score line followed the patch of the Cup final immediately at the start of the second half. First Denny Landzaat scored a curious own goal as he headed the ball into his own net while under no pressure at all during another cross by Gregory van der Wiel.
But, again, Ajax’ two goal lead was short-lived. Twente responded immediately to the change of scenario, as Landzaat advanced his stance and the pair of both him and Theo Janssen overloaded Vurnon Anita, who had not yet received the support that this new Twente midfield line-ups had warranted. With both Eriksen and De Zeeuw well in front of the ball, Janssen was allowed a clear shot from the edge of the box and his skillful left foot placed the ball past Vermeer.
Twente press, but don’t score
Energized by their immediate reply to the own goal, Twente took matters into their own hands. The change of scenario described above wasn’t replied by Ajax and Twente continued to overload Ajax’ single holding midfielder with a pair of offensive central midfielders.
Halfway through the second half, Twente increased their offensive pressure by bringing striker Mark Janko for Denny Landzaat. Janko, match winner during the Cup final, played alongside Luuk de Jong, increasing the aerial presence even further. Simultaneously, De Boer responded by replacing Sulejmani with holding midfielder Eyong Enoh, inducing a series of changes in the team. Ebecilio switched to the right wing, Eriksen took up the vacated left wing. De Zeeuw, who was subbed off in the Cup final, kept his central offensive role this time.
With both Anita and Enoh in midfield, De Boer hoped to have installed the necessary defensive power, but he was still a step behind Preud’homme, as the introduction of Janko for Landzaat had increased Twente’s formation effectively to a 4-2-4, which connected well with their long passing style in this game.
Despite building the pressure, Twente could not capitalize and ultimately paid the price for their risky 4-2-4 formation when man-of-the-match Siem de Jong finished the game in the 78th minute. Talented Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen provided a beautiful through-ball that was nicely chipped over Mihaylov by the Ajax striker for his second goal of the game. Ajax managed to see out the remainder of the game without conceding again, winning the Eredivisie title in a season where they topped the table only on three match days.
In the end
Twente paid the price for tuning their formation to the needs of the day. Ajax hardly concede games at home after opening the score, so Preud’homme’s focus on the defensive aspect of this game is quite understandable. But Janssen’s advanced position during the first half meant that the game bypassed him a lot and Twente dearly missed his presence as deep-lying playmaker. In hindsight Preud’homme could have deployed him deeper too, in a formation approaching the 4-3-2-1 system, which would allow Ruiz a free floating playmaker role.
Let’s conclude this review with a word of praise for Frank de Boer and his staff, who’ve managed to overturn a five points gap on both PSV and Twente during the second half of this year’s Eredivisie.