Feyenoord 4 – 2 Ajax: Playing to win beats playing for possession

Posted on 29 January 2012


Fans enjoying the Eredivisie for action packed high-scoring games were well served, as Feyenoord came back after conceding the opening goal, to win the match 4-2. A hat-trick by Manchester City loanee John Guidetti and a superb midfield performance by Jordy Clasie guided the Rotterdam side past their fierce rivals, who once again paired ineffective possession with weak defending.


Feyenoord’s 4-3-3

The starting line-ups

Up until the final day it remained doubtful whether John Guidetti had recovered from his illness over the past week and was fit enough to start. Well, fit enough he was, as his superb conversion in this match showed. Feyenoord lacked Stefan de Vrij in central defense, though he made a return from injury in the final minutes of the game. Bruno Martins Indi partnered captain Ron Vlaar here.
In midfield, Kelvin Leerdam completed the midfield three of Clasie and Bakkal to replace Karim El Ahmadi, who plays in the African Cup of Nations. Kamohelo Mokotjo played a makeshift right-back role.


Ajax’ 4-3-3

The fact that Ajax was without long-term injured players like Sigthorsson, Boerrigter, and Boilesen is hardly news anymore, and today also centre-back Toby Alderweireld and right-back Gregory van der Wiel missed out. Ricardo van Rhijn played beside Jan Vertonghen, while Ajax’ left side was composed of Daley Blind at left-back and Lorenzo Ebecilio at the wing.


Up to the opening goal

Ajax simply was the dominant team during the first third of the match. Feyenoord allowed them to circulate the ball quite easily and surprisingly refrained from pressing Ajax high up the pitch. Ajax deployed their full-backs quite high up the pitch, even by their standards, with Enoh dropping in between the wide-spread centre backs.

With Feyenoord refraining from aggressive pressure far up the pitch, they had a numerical advantage in midfield, as their wingers tucked in well here. Ajax did indeed control most of the possession, but as this was mainly in their own half, not much came from it. Somehow Frank de Boer rates possession this highly that his team seems more content to cherish the ball near their own goal than to take the game to their opponents, at the expense of some quicker turnovers.

A simply equation in football could be that possession near your own goal plus pressure by the opponent equals turnovers in a dangerous area. And these own half turnovers kept on appearing, either as a result of some moments of Feyenoord pressure, or of simple passes going astray in Ajax defense and defensive midfield zone. While Ajax created some long distance shots with their long possession spells, Feyenoord’s breaks posed more of a goal scoring danger. Simple passes into the feet of Feyenoord players (van Rhijn), or conceding in your own half under pressure of a man-marker (Ebecilio) are just not things that should occur more than once a match. However, at Ajax, own half turnovers almost seem part of their routine, and they would go on to pay for it during the remainder of the game.

The difference between the value of possession in longer spells and the value of possession on quick breaks and turnovers was well illustrated in the opening goal. While Ajax’ long spells hardly created any danger, their opening goal results from a lightning quick counter that was initiated from a cleared Feyenoord corner.


Role reversal

As so often is the case, the score line dictates possession of the ball. And this match was an exaggerated example of the team leading the score conceding possession to the team chasing the equalizer. Ajax retreated relatively deep, while Feyenoord dominated possession. Knowing that to allow Ajax possession of the ball would grant them an easy time defending the lead, Feyenoord advanced their stance and started dominating, particularly down their right wing. Ruben Schaken had the better of Daley Blind on more than one occasion, and the far majority of Feyenoord’s crosses flew in from that side.


Feyenoord goals

Admittedly, the John Guidetti penalty that led to the equalizer was a cheap one, and a game changing event at the same time, but Ajax should never have allowed that one event to have such an impact on their game, while Feyenoord deserves credit for grabbing the initiative upon going a goal down and firmly holding onto it while the score was level again. One of the moments Ajax should look back on, just as much as they should on the penalty incident, is the one-on-one opportunity where Ebecilio wasted the chance to exploit Nelom’s error. A second Ajax goal at that point in the game would have made their victory quite likely.

Feyenoord’s second goal was scored from a direct free kick, conceded in a highly dangerous area of the pitch by Enoh. Jordy Clasie’s delivery was excellent and Guidetti scored a rebound from close range. However, some light can be shed on the highly undesirable trend of offensive players deliberately blocking defenders to allow their team mate a free chance. Just replay the second goal and note Mokotjo’s intentional block on Vertonghen. Hard to spot, yet important to erase from the game…

Feyenoord effectively won the game with their third goal, when Vurnon Anita lost an unnecessary high tackle on Guyon Fernandez and the Feyenoord winger found Otman Bakkal who slotted home in the far corner. Don’t miss Blind’s role on this goal, as the Ajax left-back is found marking some air in behind his own defensive line, thereby playing Bakkal onside and ruining his team’s offside trap.


The closing stages

At the hour mark, De Boer threw on the attackers in hope of chasing Feyenoord’s goal. As a result, the game became very much end-to-end and chances were found at either goal. First, Ajax capitalized on an error by Feyenoord goal keeper Erwin Mulder, who allowed Bulykin to block his clearance, only for the ball to find the net of the empty goal. But Ajax newly installed hope was very short-lived, as another right wing attack by Feyenoord allowed Guidetti to complete his hat-trick to settle the final score at 4-2.


In the end

Football is a complicated game in the fact that it involves a continuous flow of the game, with twenty-two players and a ball in motion. But let’s not overcomplicate in analyzing it. If you own a lot of the ball in your own half, you’re probably going to lose some of those balls on your own half too. The balance between aiming for possession and avoiding dangerous turnovers is something where Ajax need to improve. Playing as they prefer right now, will allow opponents the better chances, arising from quick breaks, while their own long spells of possession will find well organized defenses, resulting in very ineffective play. The fact that both Ajax goals today were scored seconds after turnovers may help Frank De Boer to awake from his possession obsession.

Feyenoord, as the winners of this game, deserve a lot of credit for the way they came back after the opening goal. They dominated Ajax weaker left wing, an area that seemed deliberately targeted by Koeman. John Guidetti’s performance in a match that was broadcast worldwide will do the City loanee a lot of good. Meanwhile, the true man-of-the-match would still be Jordy Clasie, who rapidly develops into one of the Eredivisie’s most all-round central midfielders.

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