Heerenveen has had a mediocre season so far, being unable to string decent performances together. It is difficult to say which is cause and which effect, but their season has been characterized by a lack of stability in both first team line-ups and playing formation on one hand and sub-standard performances on the other hand. Today Jans went with Dost up front and played Beerens and Narsingh on the wings.
Viktor Elm filled in for suspended playmaker Oussama Assaidi, the star of their 6-2 win over Twente, and Haglund did likewise for Grindheim in central midfield. In defense, captain Michel Breuer has been shipped out to the left-back position and 19 year old Jeffrey Gouweleeuw made another start at centre-back.
Ajax manager Frank de Boer might hardly have dreamt of playing for the title at this stage of the season when he took over from Martin Jol mid season. But with both PSV and Twente dropping points during their disappointing recent weeks, both in the Eredivisie and in the Europa League, Ajax still holds their title chances in their own hands.
Against Heerenveen De Boer dropped El Hamdaoui, who disappointed in recent weeks, and went with Siem de Jong up front. This meant that Demi de Zeeuw started in central midfield in the place vacated by De Jong. Otherwise, beside long-term injured goal keeper Stekelenburg, Ajax lined up as expected.
The first half
Pressure is the one word that most characterizes Ajax under Frank de Boer. And this match was no exception. Moving well as a unit, Ajax’ offense and midfield aimed to make life difficult for Heerenveen’s defense in very early stage of their build-up of play. And they succeeded quite well, with the general passing direction for Heerenveen being side- or backwards, until Stuhr Ellegaard shipping the ball forward was the only option left.
Despite these positives, Ajax had a tough time on possession themselves too, making for a generally quite balance game early on. Remarkable in this regard was the narrow position of the wingers. Most notably Sulejmani, who played an inside left forward role, reminded of the Jol era, when Suarez generally played an inside wing forward role with loads of positional freedom.
While for Suarez this worked quite well, linking up with Pantelic (last season) or El Hamdaoui, for Sulejmani things did not quite work out, despite his excellent work rate. The problem here was that the three of De Jong, Eriksen, and Sulejmani aimed to make runs into the same space. This narrowed Ajax’ offense in general and led to extremely short and ineffective passes. All the while, Van der Wiel had his hands tied in marking Heerenveen’s best player, Roy Beerens, and was unable to overlap Sulejmani on the wing.
So, with Ajax unable to take advantage from their well executed pressing game and Heerenveen at first unable to play around their pressing opponents, the first twenty minutes passed easily. Until Vayrynen’s brilliant long range half volley that is. He took the ball very well from distance and saw Vermeer beaten.
But this might have been the shortest lead of this year’s Eredivisie, as Ajax equalized within twenty seconds. A quick ground combination involving a one-touch De Jong pass and Eriksen playing the ball over the top allowed Sulejmani to lob the ball over a stranded Stuhr Ellegaard.
The goal inspired both teams to look for more and in offensive terms both did not hold back. Heerenveen in particular did quite well during the second part of the first half. Roy Beerens had a magnificent game, easily dominating Van der Wiel and providing tall striker Bas Dost with useful balls from the left wing.
On the right wing, young Luciano Narsingh outplayed his even younger opponent Boilesen, winning more than a handful of corners in the process. And these corners, as well as a series of free kicks in their opponent’s half, allowed Heerenveen to look for the head of Dost who won quite a number of offensive headers, but saw his team mates unable to take advantage.
The second half
Just like their kick-off after Heerenveen’s opening goal, Ajax managed to score a very early goal again. And again, Siem de Jong’s role dropping from the centre forward position proved crucial. He controlled possession just outside the area and lobbed the ball in behind Heerenveen’s defensive line where Eriksen displayed his perfect two-footedness in a controlled ground finish.
The score line obviously altered Heerenveen’s approach of the second half. They conceded a lot more space in behind their defense in order to position their offensive midfielders (Elm and Vayrynen) in better positions to take advantage from the dominance that both wingers had over their direct opponents.
The game got more and to end and the space in behind Heerenveen’s defense allowed Ajax’ midfield more passing options, with balls over the top now being a better option than before, as both Ebecilio and Sulejmani (who switched sides too), were allowed space to regularly outpace their markers.
A potential game changing substation was made in the 75th minute as Jans made his regular move when being a goal down in the final fifteen minutes. He sacrificed a centre back (Kruiswijk) to advance Breuer into a midfield role. Calvin Jong-A-Pin, who replaced Kruiswijk, took up the left-back position. And just like that, Heerenveen took full control of the midfield, and with that, of the game. Ajax were hardly unable to control possession and the Heerenveen dominated the game from this moment on.
But despite their control, Heerenveen’s high crosses did not produce another goal, although they were quite close on more than one occasion, another reminder of problems Ajax faced earlier this same season, defending high crosses. In the end, Ajax managed to squeeze out the 2-1 win.
In the end
In a match that contained more suspense than quality, more offense than defense and more misses than saves, Ajax came out with a very important win. Heerenveen did not get the reward that their dominance towards the end of the game deserved, but to see the Eredivisie decided by a true final match day finale with Ajax hosting Twente is worth something too.