Before the start of the present Eredivisie season, this match may have been heralded as a potential title decider, given the fact that both teams battled it out last year in both a title decider on the final match day and the Dutch Cup final. But given Ajax’ comfortable six points lead going into this match, the present match was more about the race for second place. Infostrada Sports’ Euroclubindex rated Ajax’ chances of winning the title before this match over 99%, giving Twente only an outside chance of winning the title of 0.2%.
There’s more to these two clubs than their past season rivalry though… Ajax’ passing midfielder Theo Janssen won the Eredivisie ‘Player of the Year’ 2010/11 honours in a Twente shirt and red-hot striker Luuk de Jong meets his older brother Siem as both spearhead their teams’ respective strike forces!
Despite Twente’s managerial change, halfway through this season, results haven’t picked up in the second half of the season. Guided by Co Adriaanse, they won 1.94 points per game, while the PPG under McClaren was 1.93 before the start of this game. Though unchanged in terms of PPG, Twente under McClaren scored less (2.36 goals per game vs 2.53) and conceded more (1.29 vs 1.06) compared to Adriaanse. This might indicate a drop in results over the long run…
In tactical terms, Twente takes a more cautious approach, the whole ‘Chadli as a central playmaker’ experiment has ended prematurely and target man Mark Janko has even left the club. In Twente’s previous match, McClaren left Chadli out of the starting XI, but the Belgian managed to provide the game winning goal in the dying seconds, coming off the bench. This time, Chadli started from the beginning.
The rise of Frank de Boer’s Ajax in the second half of the season has been more than impressive. While winning ‘only’ 1.94 PPG in the first half of the season, their second half has been truly outstanding, with 2.43 PPG before this match at Twente. While their goals scoring rate has only marginally contributed to this improvement (2.71 vs 2.86 goals per game), it’s their goals per game conceded (1.35 vs 0.79) that has made the difference. Ajax’ first half of the season has been characterized by an unfamiliar low GK saves percentage, but their second half of the season has marked the expected ‘regression to the mean’ phenomenon.
In tactical terms, De Boer has shown to stay true to his possession-based 4-3-3 system and recently important players like Boerrigter and Van der Wiel have returned to action.
The first half
The game started out with a comfortable control of possession by Ajax. Twente did try to take a leaf out of Feyenoord’s book, judging by the way they attempted to pressure Ajax early on, but they never really got their pressure game going. In possession, Ajax positioned their full-backs rather high up the pitch, with Van der Wiel more prominently involved than Blind today. Defending midfielder Anita dropped deep between, or even beyond the level of both centre-backs, who spread wide across the pitch.
This set-up allowed Ajax’ midfielders to make intricate passing triangles and, contrasting with the Feyenoord game, where their back line was more narrow, they comfortably avoided Twente’s pressure. In order to exert their pressure, Twente striker Luuk de Jong was assisted by midfielder Willem Janssen, who tried to track Anita into his deep position. This depleted Twente’s midfield population and proved a crucial part of their problems in this match.
Van der Wiel
Other problems for Twente were found on their left wing. Ajax right winger Ismael Aisatti played a nice inside winger role, and posed a decision making problem for his marker Tiendalli. Either Tiendalli would track Aisatti and leave space for Van der Wiel to make his impressive overlapping runs, or he would stay wide, leaving Aisatti to the spare centre back. But this alternative solution would allow Ajax to outnumber Twente in central midfield, given Willem Janssen’s previously described dislocation.
All in all, Ajax generally proved comfortable in possession and apart from an incidental good dribble by Ola John, who hit the post with his shot, the best chances were created by Ajax.
In a role reminiscent of his idol Dani Alves, Gregory van der Wiel featured prominently in Ajax’ best chances. His overlapping runs made excellent use of the space created by Aisatti and the relatively high position of Twente’s back line, which was needed for their pressing. For Ajax’ 28th minute opening goal he shook off Ola John on a delicate Alderweireld through ball and rounded Mihaylov, who gently fouled him. Against his old club, Theo Janssen only just converted the penalty to give Ajax the lead.
The second half
Steve McClaren obviously felt the need for change, making a half-time substitution as he removed Willem Janssen for Wesley Verhoek, shifting Nacer Chadli back into central midfield, with the obvious intention to get the Belgian playmaker more involved. On top of that, the introduction of Verhoek should give Twente more width in search of the equalizing goal.
Initially, Twente gained more ground, proved able to stroke more passes together, but they didn’t solve their midfield problem. Ajax wasn’t afraid to drop deep, even in possession, and the probing runs of Van der Wiel seemed to make Twente hesitant to advance their defensive line all too far forward. The stretched midfield allowed Ajax more advantage then it did to Twente, given Ajax’ excellent passing triangles and their numerical advantage with Aisatti’s tricky inside winger role.
Two more goals
In spite of their tactical worries, Twente did find the equalizer in the 71st minute. Leroy Fer hammered the ball home after Ajax failed to adequately clear a corner kick that crowned a series of Twente crosses with even centre-back Douglas involved, making a dangerous bicycle kick attempt from close range.
Twente’s advantage was short-lived though, as another one of those overlapping runs by Gregory van der Wiel allowed him to get at the end of a cross by substitute left winger Ebecilio. Van der Wiel neatly curled the ball into the top corner with his left foot, thereby winning the match for his team and ending any speculation as to who would win the MotM award today.
In the end
A convincing performance by an Ajax side that has practically secured the Eredivisie title by now. Twente proved unable to deal with the technical and positional skills in possession and, needing a win in their search for second place, refrained from letting Ajax enjoy possession in harmless areas. In contrast, Twente allowed Willem Janssen to pressure very high up the pitch, and fell into the midfield trap that consisted of Aisatti’s inside winger role. Van der Wiel’s overlapping runs won the game today…