Having failed to capitalise on rare dropped points from rivals PSV the past weekend, Ajax had it all to prove against historic rivals Feyenoord. Both teams are unlikely to drop many points in the latter stages of the season and any slip ups could be detrimental. With PSV easily dispatching of Groningen earlier in the weekend, all eyes were on De Klassieker which promised to be a feisty encounter.
Erik Ten Hag’s men started the brighter, grabbing a goal through a Schone free kick in the eighth minute. Ajax began the match through a frantic high press, setting the tone for the game. What followed was an intense tactical battle between two of the Netherlands’ finest young coaches. In the end, Van Bronckhorst gained the upper hand and his team counter-attacked their way to a historic victory. Holding no punches, Feyenoord utterly humiliated the young Ajax team.
Ajax went with a similar team to the one that beat Heerenveen in the KNVB cup midweek. Lisandro Magallan retained his place to earn his first Eredivise start, while Mazraoui returned at right-back. Schone and Dolberg came in to replace Kristensen and Huntelaar. Goalkeeper Onana returned to league action after being ill for the 3-3 draw with Heerenveen. Nicolas Tagliafico’s knee injury continues to rule him out, so ex-Manchester United player Daley Blind retained his left-back position.
Feyenoord, with their only injury being to goalkeeper Bijlow, were able to field a near full-strength team. With the soon-to-retire Robin Van Persie leading the attack Toornstra returned to the three-man midfield. Promising defender Jerry St Juste continued his development at right-back while assist leader Steven Berghuis continued his run of starting every Eredivise match this season.
Ajax control the early stages of the game
Ten Hag had clearly set out of this edition of De Klassieker with a plan. He wanted his side to grab the early advantage and they did just that. Ajax utilised a high press in order to disrupt Feyenoord’s build up play and win the ball in key areas. They acted on a myriad of triggers. The most common of these was when the ball was played into wide areas.
The two inside forwards in Tadic and Ziyech covered the wide options. Dolberg blocked out the passing lane to the other centre-back, while Van De Beek pushed forward to sit on the defensive midfielder to cut out the immediate options. With De Jong and Schone snapping at the feet of the opposition midfielders, Feyenoord were often forced long. It was a similar press to the one used in midweek.
A unique aspect of their play was how they set up in possession deep in the opposition half. Having worked closely with Guardiola for years at Bayern, Ten Hag is a avid believer in the counter-press as a method of defensive structure. In this game Ajax squeezed up high with possession. De Jong and Schone supported play at the base while the attackers situated themselves evenly throughout the final third. Blind tucked inside to create a defensive triangle with the two centre-backs, thus preparing for possible counter attacks.
Ajax buildup problems
As in the game against Heerenveen midweek, Ajax’s early possession stages depended on the positioning of Frenkie de Jong. Upon being pressed in buildup, De Jong often joined the defence to create a back three. This allowed the full-backs to push forward and create issues for the opposition. Feyenoord cleverly triggered this structure by having Van Persie and Toornstra press the central areas.
They allowed De Jong to travel forward with the ball while Toornstra squeezed him toward the edge of the pitch. He would then be met by a narrow mid-block which Ajax found tough to break down.
Dolberg’s tendency to drop deep helped Feyenoord maintain their tight defensive structure. These plays, he often drops to try and receive to feet from De Jong or Blind. While this does drag a centre-back out of position, in these scenarios it simply made the spaces too tight for Ajax to have any joy. Starting Huntelaar, who tends to stay on the last man’s shoulder, may have been a superior option when it came possession play.
Additionally, the lack of width given in the first half by Ziyech and Mazraoui allowed the left-back to stay narrow. As the left-sided central midfielder – in this case Vilhenna – no longer had to worry about Ziyech, he could press high onto Schone. Mazraoui’s low positioning was likely a strategy to prevent counter attacks, but it often prevented Ajax from advancing. Altogether Ajax were unable in these scenarios to release the likes of Tadic, Van De Beek and Dolberg in behind.
Ten Hag, bringing on David Neres for Van De Beek and pushing Mazraoui forward tried to open up spaces in the centre. It was a move that backfired as it played right into Feyenoord’s counter attacking style of play. Ajax seemed to have an over-reliance on their left-hand side sequence in possession and really failed to produce any meaningful attacks down the right. Perhaps with Neres and Ziyech’s tendencies to dribble inside onto their favoured left foot, a more adaptable dribbler is needed
Feyenoord counter-attack and press
Feyenoord played with one of two intensities. On any set pieces deep in the Ajax half they would press up high, attempting to force a turnover. Unfortunately for the Amsterdam club, Onana’s usually impeccable distribution was found lacking in these situations. Many times, he received the ball after a high press situation and completely missed his intended target.
Upon Ajax establishing possession they retreated into a mid-low block. This allowed the attackers to preserve their energy and burst once they regained the ball. Ajax have an inherent weakness against counter attacks once the first line of the counter press is bypassed. This is due to the quantity of players involved in their possession structures.
Van Persie’s hold-up play was imperative in these situations. He was able to constantly receive between the lines while retaining possession so that the rest of the attack could catch up.
Feyenoord’s use of wide areas
While they were narrow in their defensive duties, Feyenoord exploded into attacks using the full width of the pitch to exploit the Ajax defence. Both interior central midfielders would support either wing in possession. Vilhenna supported the left and Toornstra supported the right. Stretching the Ajax back four and creating overloads on both sides, the attackers then used blind spots to attack the final third.
By overloading the wide areas Feyenoord largely vacated the centre of the pitch. With the prospect of an Ajax counter-attack always on the table due to their wide positioning they had to adjust. Feyenoord maintained their structure by keeping Clasie deep with two centre-backs and having both full-backs sit, one interior and one wide. By doing so they forced Ajax’s wide forward to stay high up, allowing for the wide overload.
This was a devastating blow for Ajax’s title hopes. With such small margins separating the top two teams, losing by a four-goal margin has the prospect of being fatal to their title challenge. With rumours suggesting Ziyech has begun to push for a move to Borussia Dortmund after the embarrassing defeat, this could go down as the week that sealed PSV’s title ambitions. Ten Hag and his team were outmanoeuvred by a team that focused heavily on the weaknesses in Ajax’s play and exploited them.
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