Eredivisie 2019/20: PSV vs Ajax – tactical analysis
PSV Eindhoven hosted AFC Ajax at the Philips Stadium for the first De Topper of the 2019/20 Eredivisie season. The Dutch Nieuwe Klassieker never fails to entertain, especially when it comes down to tactics, and this clash lived up to all its expectations. The two contrasting schools of Dutch football played to their strengths fighting for the top position in the league table. In this tactical analysis, we break down their tactics as the minutes unfolded in this evenly contested fixture.
Mark Van Bommel’s Eindhoven were the more physical side and were more familiarised with their game model. They started as a 4-2-3-1 with Michal Sadílek, Nick Viergever, Timo Baumgartl and Denzel Dumfries forming the defensive line. Pablo Rosario and Jorrit Hendrix played in front of them in central midfield. The 17-year-old Mohammed Ihattaren played behind the attacking prowess of Donyell Malen with Steven Bergwijn and Bruma as his wingmen.
Erik ten Hag also used a 4-2-3-1 but several players were still adapting to his system of positional rotations. At the back, it was Daley Blind who held all the experience from the previous season. Although normally a fullback, Blind played as a centre-half alongside Joël Veltman. Ten Hag started two freshmen to the Ajax system, from across the Atlantic, Edson Álvarez and Lisandro Martínez in a double-pivot. Quincy Promes was utilised as the sole number 10 in the first half. Perhaps it was the attack where Ajax boasted their heavy artillery with the likes of David Neres, Dušan Tadić and Hakim Ziyech at the front.
Before looking into the analysis further, we could expect Ajax to control most of the possession with their positional interchanges and rotations. PSV, on the other hand, would sit more compact and attempt to break explosively on the counter-attacks. Mark Bommel relied on the physicality of his players to win the aerial duels and exploit a more direct style of play. Ten Hag’s challenges would be to try and find the same element of magic in the buildup that Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt used to offer.
The game however ended in a tie with a goal each to both teams. Ajax did not look as dominant as they have been, giving ten Hag more homework to fix after his European encounter with Lille. PSV were able to successfully play to their strengths and push Ajax on the back foot, but failed to take the lead at home. It took interventions by both managers in the second half for both teams to find their respective goals, making this battle more tactically interesting.
Ajax attacking organisation
In their attacking phase, Ajax possessed both strengths and weaknesses. Tadić and Ziyech were able to operate between the lines of the PSV formation to link passes and progress up the field. Ajax were also able to use width in their attacks relying on the technical skillset of Neres on the left-wing and Sergiño Dest on the right, who frequently combined successfully with Ziyech and caused plenty of problems for Sadílek.
Daley Blind was the focus of starting all the attacks for Ajax from the back. He dribbled out as a libero, seeking options – the long ball played diagonally to Neres on the left, or Tadić and Promes between the lines. The double-pivot system worked by having Álvarez and Martínez alternate roles of the holding midfielder that dropped into the defensive line giving Blind support as the fullbacks pushed higher up. The risk was that Ajax were over-reliant on Blind defensively as they looked quite exposed upon turnover of possession. Blind being aggressive in his defending made it more chaotic for the Ajax defence to share defensive responsibilities.
Quincy Promes carries a lot of threat as an attacking midfielder. But he is better suited as a winger who can invert at times or when he is partnered with another attacking midfielder rather than a solo number 10. In this game, we found Promes quite out of position at times, especially in the first half and his natural tendencies to drift to the left was quite evident. However, Ziyech joined in from the wide position and offered a playmaking role with Dest overlapping him frequently in pursuit of Tadić with their passing combinations.
PSV were content at yielding the possession battle to Ajax and did not look to press them high. In fact, they gave the central defenders time on the ball choosing instead to suffocate the middle of the pitch. They played a highly compact shape with the wide midfielders Bruma and Bergwijn operating in the half spaces. Malen and Ihattaren would take turns in applying pressure from the front as the central midfielders, Hendrix and Rosario kept it tight just behind them. Thus their 4-2-3-1 looked at many times as a 4-2-2-2 looking to secure numerical superiority in the centre of the pitch.
The effect of keeping this compact shape benefitted them in two ways. Van Bommel was intelligent in recognising that Ajax’s freshmen, Álvarez and Martínez who just joined the team in June were still adapting to the system. Gaining numerical superiority over the young central midfielders would immediately put PSV at an advantage as they controlled the most important part of the pitch – the centre. It would also force the advanced attacking players like Promes and Ziyech to drop deeper to help out and thus ease the pressure upon the PSV defence.
The second advantage of playing narrow was capitalising PSV’s supreme abilities in attacking transitions. Upon a quick turnover in the midfield, the attacking midfielders looked to release Malen early behind the disrupted Ajax backline putting immediate pressure for Blind to defend alone in 2v1 situations. PSV were able to count on the technical superiority of dribblers like Malen, Ihattaren, Bruma and Bergwijn.
Ajax defensive organisation
As expected, Ajax looked to press high and force PSV to go long, rather than play out from the back. PSV did not look keen spend too much time trading passes in their half either. Tadić was the first player to immediately apply pressure on the short pass from Zoet splitting the two centre-halves. Promes would then man-mark the deeper central midfielder (usually Hendrix) while Martínez would man-mark Rosario closing the options in the centre. Neres and Ziyech would close the angles for PSV to play out to their fullbacks. However PSV stationed four of their attacking players close to each other in advanced positions, which made it very difficult for Ajax to contest for the second balls.
In this way, PSV playing narrow worked well against Ajax looking to buildup in wide areas and both teams effectively cancelled each other out. While PSV had an xG of 1.39 during this game, Ajax had an xG of 1.64, which was their lowest in the Eredivisie since April 2019 (1.58 v FC Groningen) and their second-lowest in the competition this calendar year.
PSV’s control of the centre was evident if we look at a map of the dribbles on the pitch. Most of the dribbles came in wide areas for Ajax by means of Ziyech, Dest and Neres. PSV, on the other hand, were able to engage in some quick breaks along the half-spaces and areas around the Ajax penalty box as a result of playing narrow. PSV had, in fact, more dribbles (18 dribbles, 12 of which were successful) attempted than Ajax (14 dribbles, 9 of which were successful).
Ajax second half tactics
PSV’s strategy to contain Ajax was working well so far and it forced ten Hag to contemplate tactical changes around the hour mark. As he was getting Donny van de Beek warmed up, he was able to instruct the Ajax fullbacks Tagliafico and Dest to invert and operate in the inside corridors in an attempt to neutralise the numerical superiority that PSV were gaining in the centre. This also freed up Neres, Promes and Ziyech in wider areas who were able to dribble and find spaces in the final third.
Promes who played more on the left side and deeper in the first half, was made to play higher and in a more positionally liberal role. Neres and Ziyech swapped wings. He played in closer proximity to Tadić looking for a layoff from the striker to work on. The goal for Ajax came around the hour mark from this exact strategic intervention. Dest was able to organise a quick dribble to the inside and apply pressure on the PSV backline. He found a pass to Tadić with Promes roaming about freely and incredibly difficult to mark. Tadić was able to quickly lay it off to Promes who found the bottom left corner beating Zoet who had thus far enjoyed a superior game between the posts with some vital saves for the home side.
Once van de Beek was brought on for Neres, he replaced Promes in the central attacking midfield role with Promes moving to the left wing. This combination worked well with Tadić and Ziyech as van de Beek was far more suited to play in central positions than Promes.
PSV second half tactics
Having conceded to Ajax, with half hour of play left, it was natural to expect Van Bommel to look for attacking options. He brought on Cody Gakpo, a more attacking midfielder in place of Hendrix sacrificing the compactness for more fluidity and width in attack. Ajax looked to defend their lead and it was PSV now who were piling up their possession stat. Van Bommel also brought on Olivier Boscagli as the left back who was able to supplement the attacking threat that Gakpo offered on the left.
The tactical substitution yielded immediate fruit as PSV exploited Blind’s aggressiveness in defending. Following a throw-in, Blind lost his discipline of holding the backline seeing a free dribble by Gakpo in a dangerous area and went forward to press. This was the trigger for Malen to make yet another run in behind which was timely fed by Gakpo and Malen converted it calmly to level it for the Eindhoven. This was another case of Álvarez and Martínez still adapting to the double-pivot role, especially when it comes to defensive decisiveness to protect the back line the way Frenkie de Jong was capable of last season.
Following the equaliser, both teams looked to push for a draw rather than risk exposing themselves at the back having just made attacking additions to their formations. Hence the final 15 minutes ticked away cautiously for both teams with no risk taken. PSV withdrew into a 4-4-1-1 defensive unit while Ajax circulated the ball in their own half without any serious penetration.
The draw brings both Ajax and PSV level on points at the top of the Eredivisie table. Both teams who started the season positively with consecutive wins thus faced the first draw of the season. The result of this draw means PSV make it 51 home league games without defeat.
PSV’s determined performance served yet another reminder for Ajax to work on their system. The kind of positional play that Ajax wish to pin their opponents with requires courageous central defenders and a very tactical deep-lying playmaker who can consistently slot in making it a back three. At the moment, Álvarez and Martínez are just not there yet, certainly not for Europe, and will continue to be Ajax’s Achilles heel until they adapt to ten Hag’s style of play.
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