The first of this season’s clashes between two of the Eredivisie top three teams produced a passionate match that ended in a 2-2 draw, respecting the fact that, in terms of footballing quality, both sides put in an equal share. However, during various phases of the game one of either teams dominated the other, making this an attractive match with an unpredictable outcome till the very end.
Manager Fred Rutten had an almost full-strength squad at his disposal. Only central defender Wilfred Bouma wasn’t fit to start the game, making Derijck and Marcelo the preferred centre back pairing. Striker Tim Matavz, a late summer signing from Groningen, made his first Eredivisie start of the season, after starting earlier this week against Legia Warszawa in the Europa League.
Ajax’ starting XI issues
In contrast to Rutten, De Boer did have some choices to make ahead of this important game. Right winger Sulejmani injured his hamstring in the Champions League match against Lyon and will be sidelined for up to four weeks. Furthermore, De Boer would be looking to strengthen his defensive midfield, as starting a midfield three of deep-lying playmaker Janssen, creative central midfielder Eriksen and all-round man Siem de Jong would carry the risk of being overrun by the ball playing qualities of PSV’s Strootman-Toivonen-Wijnaldum triangle.
In the build up to this game, roughly two variants have been proposed for De Boer to solve these issues. As a first option, and Ajax did play this variant for the first few minutes of the game, Sigthorsson could be shifted out to the right wing, with Siem de Jong filling in the striker role and Anita being brought into the squad in defensive midfield. The second option, which Ajax played from the 5th minute on, was to play Christian Eriksen in an inside right wing role, leaving Sigthorsson up front and, again, bringing Anita into the central defensive midfield.
PSV exerted some frantic pressing early on, resulting in a 2nd minute opening goal by Tim Matavz. To those familiar with the recent breakdown of PSV’s game it should come to no surprise that the attack was constructed along the left wing. Gregory van der Wiel missed a crucial challenge, which unleashed Pieters wide, allowing to cross for Matavz who was left in acres of space by Alderweireld. With just two minutes on the clock, Ajax continued an impressive negative record of eight straight away games where they conceded the first goal. This time had it all to do in Eindhoven.
With this score line, an interesting battle evolved. As outlined above, Ajax had made some forced, yet crucial, changes to their right wing line-up. Eriksen often drifted inside, thereby strengthening the central midfield area and vacating space for Van der Wiel to express his forward drive. Understandably, this worked quite well when Ajax had possession of the ball, but it also meant that they conceded way too much space on PSV’s dangerous left flank. PSV’s attacks were well frustrated centrally, where De Jong and Eriksen cut out the passing to Strootman, but Ajax allowed an easy way out. PSV simply built through Pieters, who often doubled up with Mertens to overload Ajax’ right flank. This imbalance was further enhanced by Ajax’ tendency, just like Legia did, to allow left central back Marcelo much more time on the ball than his right sided central defensive partner, Derijck in this case.
Ajax’ gradual recovery
A fifteen minute injury break, involving PSV goal keeper Tyton, who was knocked out in a clash with defender Derijck, induced a kind of extra half time break, halfway through the first half. After this period, Ajax crowned a more dominant spell with Sigthorsson’s equalizer, after the Icelandic striker showed his physical qualities in winning the ball in the edge of PSV’s box.
Ajax captain Vertonghen regularly dribbled into the midfield, providing the extra man in midfield here, while PSV’s problems defending their lead seemed to concentrate in their midfield area. The midfield three of Strootman-Toivonen-Wijnaldum, much praised for their qualities ion possession, often seemed unable to win the ball back other than by making numerous fouls during this phase of the match.
The second half
Much like they did in the first half, PSV started with a high degree of pressing, which resulted in them regaining the initiative. It seems like playing for a goal suits the qualities of the current squad much better than sitting on a lead, as with the present 1-1 score line, PSV created the better chances, ultimately leading to Wijnaldum’s penalty kick goal after Van der Wiel went in clumsily on Mertens on the edge of the box.
The openness of the second half had much to do with the lack of defensive input by both team’s offensive midfielders and wingers. On PSV’s side, Toivonen and, less so, Wijnaldum all too often refrained from adequately tracking back, while left winger Mertens seemed instructed to leave Van der Wiel to left back Pieters in order to take advantage as soon as PSV regained possession.
Ajax, on the other hand, rendered too much freedom to PSV’s left back Pieters as Eriksen often drifted inside. On top of that, as they were a goal down for much of the first and second half, Siem de Jong positioned himself closer and closer to the striker position in search for the equalizer. This may also have contributed to the high midfield foul rate, as most markers closed down men in possession from quite a distance, rather than pressing them back from an organized defensive line.
The big man
Frank de Boer took many by surprise by introducing strong target man Bulykin for Sigthorsson around the hour mark. Ajax took a more opportunistic approach to the game and wasn’t shy of leaping the ball forward to the big man, with Siem de Jong now playing quite close to Bulykin, looking to collect and flick-ons.
In the end, much like their 3-3 draw at VVV last week, PSV proved unable to hold onto a lead. Rutten didn’t adapt his formation to Ajax’ more pragmatic playing style, and, with chances appearing on both ends of the pitch, ultimately paid the price. Introducing defensive midfielder Ojo for either Wijnaldum or Toivonen would have seemed appropriate, as both offensive midfielders didn’t cover themselves in glory with regard to their defensive input.
Ajax got their equalizer through a poacher’s finish by Bulykin, who beat last year’s ADO team mate Derijck for a cross by Van der Wiel, who saw his offensive input rewarded, but shouldn’t forget his share in conceding the penalty goal earlier that half.
In the end
A draw seems a fair result to the game, and at least both teams got there in more spectacular fashion than they did in last year’s 0-0 in both of their Eredivisie clashes. Any football fans that may have turned their attention to the Eredivisie just for this high billed game have been rewarded with a very open, high scoring and attractive game, but the stigma of the Eredivisie being a low quality league regarding defensive organization might just have gotten a bit stronger today.