This weekend saw the first clash of last year’s Eredivisie’s top two sides. Both clubs managed to win an impressive 16 out of 17 home games last season . Ajax’ only draw was, ironically against to-be-relegated Sparta (0-0), in the second home game of the season and Twente’s against PSV in their first home game of the season. Ajax managed to win their final 14 games of the season, scoring a magnificent 50 goals while conceding only 4 in these series. In spite of that, Twente managed to just hold on to their early season lead, keeping a one point margin intact over the final six matches, ensuring a thrilling end to the 2009/10 Eredivisie season and claiming their first ever title.
Despite both teams still being unbeaten in their first games this season, things look a bit different compared to last year already. Twente dropped points by drawing at home against Heerenveen and away at Roda and Heracles. All of these games ended up 0-0, indicating Twente’s lack of goal-scoring ability quite blatantly. Meanwhile, Ajax dropped points away at Groningen (2-2) and conceded an unexpected seven goals in their first seven games already.
Twente missed tall striker Mark Janko, a new acquisition, but already one of the key elements of the 4-2-3-1 system that they’ve turned to halfway through the third Eredivisie match of the season. Playing Luuk de Jong in-the-hole behind Janko finally produced the goals that were missing before. Now, without Janko, and not having a third central striker in their squad, Twente was forced to turn back the 4-3-3 that former manager Steve McLaren had built upon to great success. Luuk de Jong moved to the striker position again and veteran midfielder Danny Landzaat took up a controlled central midfield role.
Although complaints about the lack of stability are never far away at Ajax, this does not hold true for their formation. An inside winger 4-2-3-1 it is, with right winger Suarez, comparable to Twente’s Ruiz in this regard, frequently looking to roam around and connect with striker El Hamdaoui. Interestingly, Demi de Zeeuw, still a recent Ajax captain, seems to have lost his place for more than just one ‘punishment’ game. After his tactical indiscipline against Real Madrid, he has only been given one starting appearance which was in the Cup ‘walkover’ against MVV.
El Hamdaoui’s false nine role
With both teams playing fairly comparable formation, an array of midfield couples initially fought their predominantly midfield battle. Twente’s midfield triangle being a mirror image of the opponent’s helped them in the who-marks-who of the opening minutes.
Twente’s midfield was the area where Ajax looked to take advantage of. Never having played together before in this combination, their communication wasn’t always right. This screen illustrates an early match moment, leading to Ajax’ first chance, a delightful Suarez chip hitting the bar. Note the advanced position of Twente’s midfield with both central midfielders (yellow) and controller Brama (orange) in front of the ball. This is induced by de Jong (white) smartly dropping deep and it is further exploited by El Hamdaoui (near the ball) dropping deep too. The central area opened up for Suarez, who takes advantage and almost scores the opening goal.
Twente’s opening goal and a quick equalizer
Shortly after Suarez’ chip, it was Twente’s man-on-fire Theo Janssen who put ‘the Tukkers’ ahead. His clever run was not picked up by Enoh in a situation where Ajax’ defensive line was happy enough to play two Twente forwards offside who didn’t participate in that particular attack. Only ten minutes gone and yet another goal against the Ajax defense.
Ajax’ equalizer came within a few minutes. And again, El Hamdaoui dropping from the striker role was an essential part of it. Central defender Wisgerhof was drawn away from central defense, Siem de Jong used his aerial strength to win a header in front of Twente’s goal and El Hamdaoui arrived just in time to tap in a free rebound.
Ajax kept the initiative due to their intense pressing on the ball. Twente had a rough time passing the ball out of their own half and Ajax’ risky offside trap didn’t misfire a second time. In this phase Ajax hit the woodwork for a second time as, again, El Hamdaoui vacated Twente’s box, making room for an excellent individual effort by Suarez, crossing the ball for Emanuelson to hit the post. Nikolay Mihaylov must have contracted a pair of angels to protect his goal in the first half, as Ajax managed to hit the post from a Suarez free-kick for the third time in fifteen minutes.
As expected, Ajax could not maintain the intense level of pressure for the entire first half and both teams reached the half-time whistle with an even score. Twente’s smartly adaptated to Ajax’biggest threat by having midfielder Landzaat pick up El Hamdaoui to prevent one of their central defenders getting dislocated.
Balanced start to the second half
The second half started where the first had ended, quite a balanced situation with both sided missing the passing accuracy to construct their attacks. Ajax set-out in quite the same style, where Twente got their full-backs more involved like they use to do so well and playing a slightly higher defensive line. To no surprise the best Twente chance came from a cross by right full-back Rosales that forced Stekelenburg to save on a Chadli header.
A rare Ruiz header, beating Siem de Jong to the ball, set-up a second central run by Theo Janssen, who finished off a nice Luuk de Jong cross for Twente to regain the lead. But once again this lead was short-lived as Enoh scored a 30-yard volley to make it 2-2.
After that, fatigue seemed to kick in and it was merely the exciting score line that kept the game exciting. Credit to both managers for having their teams play for the win, producing an end-to-end closing fifteen minutes. The most exciting moment was when Twente succeeded in hitting the woodwork three times within just a few seconds, with a misplaced cross almost beating Stekelenburg and this same goalie only just keeping the rebound shot out, pushing it onto bar and post in an excellent, though somewhat lucky save.
In the end
Both title contenders remain unbeaten in their impressive recent streaks. After this 2-2 Twente now goes 19 Eredivisie matches unbeaten and Ajax even 25. A draw therefore not only respects the balanced performance on the pitch in this game, but also allows for these impressive runs to carry on.
Twente showed to able to perform in a 4-3-3 now too, which offers more tactical variety to manager Preud’homme. Ajax once again conceded goals, this time a consequence of the choice to deploy a high line, playing for offside. It brought them a lot of initiative when pressing their opponent, but the risk it carries couldn’t have been illustrated better than by Janssen’s penetrating runs.
Finally, El Hamdaoui’s dropping striker role deserves a mention here too. Highly effective in the first half, the more advanced defensive line in Twente’s second half saw his role much more negated later on.
All in all, an advert for the Eredivisie with both teams giving it their all, aided by an attractive score line and the suspense and moments of individual brilliance that this kind of top match deserves.