Just three days after overcoming a deliberately weakened Lille side, PSV faced the perfect opportunity to create a definite gap with title rivals Ajax in this home game. Ajax, playing a 4-3-3 system, just like Lille did in Eindhoven a few days ago, looked to reduce the gap with PSV to just two points, aiming to keep their title ambitions alive, as was reflected in Frank de Boer’s words, going into this game: “It’s D-day!”.
Two interesting match-ups
Studying the starting line-ups of PSV and Ajax, the most intriguing match-ups were to be found in the Van der Wiel vs Dszudszak and the Pieters vs Sulejmani confrontations. Both of Holland’s present first choice full-backs, fielded for different side, were to be expected to fight out crucial battle versus their opponent’s most threatening attacking player.
From a tactical perspective, just like mentioned in the report of the Lille game, the midfield line-ups from a mirror image of each other with PSV fielding two more conservative midfielders versus Ajax’ two more offensive midfielders. Atiba Hutchinson is PSV’s ‘destructive’ midfielder, mainly occupied with man-marking the opponent’s main attacking midfielder, in this case Eriksen. Captain Orlando Engelaar on the other hand should be PSV’s ‘constructive’ midfielder, but struggle to bring the amount of offensive passing and creativity that PSV lacks since Afellay left for Barcelona during the winter break.
Pressing all over
PSV started the game with furious pressing, even consequently pushing up to Stekelenburg all the time and, despite they could never maintain the intensity of pressing displayed during the opening minutes, this resulted in their 60-40 possession dominance throughout the first half. And with the midfield fairly marked out because of the equal 3 vs 3 line-up, the preferred passing route, just like in the Lille game, was over both flanks. Dszudszak got involved a lot and fought hard battle with Van der Wiel, who did a decent job in terms of tackling, but in return could not make any attacking contribution. This left Ajax without one of their major advantages they usually exploit and kept them from taking advantage of the weaker part of Dszudszak’s game, his defending against full-backs making runs from deep.
Unlike PSV, Ajax hardly circulated the ball from the full-backs to their wingers, but merely looked to construct their attacks from the centre of defense. Jan Vertonghen regularly used his cross-pass to Sulejmani and at occasions, joined the midfield in a libero role. But with El Hamdaoui struggling to receive the ball at feet, Ajax missed a focal point in their central attack.
On that right flank Ajax had a strongpoint in Sulejmani’s speed advantage over Pieters, which kept PSV from pressing their defensive line all too far forward. This contributed to the turning point of the first half. PSV clearly dominated the first fifteen minutes, albeit without creating any real goal scoring chances. From that moment on, Eriksen took a more advanced stance, looking to get into space between PSV’s holding midfielders and their defensive line. So PSV had to make reduce the gap between the holding midfielders and the defensive line in some way. This implied to either slightly withdraw the holding midfielder, lowering the intensity of their pressing in the process, or the advance their defensive line, which would increase the risk of Ajax’ pace wingers getting in behind their men.
PSV made the most sensible choice by lowering the amount of pressure, thereby letting Ajax back into the game and a true midfield battle arose. Both teams were not shy of confronting their opponents with strong tackles and yellow cards for Vertonghen, Manolev and Engelaar were the result. Although goal scoring chance were still scarce, the close midfield game had a lot of excitement in it, at least during the first half.
The second half
PSV looked happy enough with the pattern of the game during the first half, while Ajax did make some changes during half time. Not in terms of substitutions, but in terms of tactics that is. Full-backs Anita and particularly Van der Wiel threw themselves forward on occasions, although constantly aware of the threat posed by PSV’s wingers. On the right flank the support lent by Van der Wiel provide Sulejmani with the opportunity to pose somewhat more of a threat compared to the first half.
On the other hand, this implied that PSV got some more space to work with and it resulted in a few Dszudszak crosses coming in from the left. Unfortunately for PSV, striker Markus Berg had another of his rather anonymous games and never connected with his fellow attackers. With Toivonen fairly well marked out by Enoh, PSV struggled in the centre part of their attack.
Ajax, despite having balanced the play from their early first half change on, did not succeed in creating too much goal scoring chances themselves. The best Ajax came up with were a handful of long range shots as, just like his PSV counterpart, also El Hamdaoui had a hard time battling it out with PSV’s centre-backs.
As the game went to the closing stage, both teams seemed to favor ‘not losing’ over winning the game at all cost and, with rivals Twente losing at the hands of AZ in a match played at the same time, rightly so. The final phase of the game saw PSV inverting their wingers in a final attempt to clutch the win, but with both defenses easily outnumbering their opponent’s attackers, clear goal scoring chances were few. PSV found another good performance by Stekelenburg on their way during the handful of shots on goal they had.
In the end
Let us remember the first half of the game over the second. Both teams tried to work around a balanced midfield with the two sets of three midfielders cancelling each other out. PSV mainly circulated the ball through the flanks, while Ajax, partly due to PSV’s effective pressing, frequently used the long ball. PSV found the balance between pressing their opponents just enough without giving up space behind their defensive line or running out of steam near the end of the game. In the end, both teams showed to be very evenly matched and also in terms of tactics their formations neutralized each other’s main attacking threat.