PSV beat Ajax on formally neutral ground, but within their home ArenA with a superior performance on the night and a fitting 4-2 score line to go with it. Ajax manager Frank de Boer was delivered some tactical home work for the next time Ajax will meet the bigger teams, and Advocaat showed a stable, compact formation that exploited their athletic offensive qualities well.
A little ‘Johan Cruijff Schaal’ history
The Johan Cruijff Schaal, or Dutch Super Cup, has been played out for 21 years in a row now, and prior to this match, no less than 15 of these 21 Cups have been won by either PSV (8) or Ajax (7). Obviously, these two teams have also contested the most Super Cup matches, with 6 of the past 21 Super Cups contested in an Ajax – PSV final.
Remarkably, only one of these six clashes between Ajax and PSV have been won by the reigning champion, which goes back to the 2002/03 season when Ajax had prior won the double. Even more remarkable, and perhaps a nice illustration of the lack of predictive power of a single match or the fact that real prizes are won in spring, is the relationship between winning the Dutch Super Cup and the following title challenge. Of the past 21 Super Cup winners, only 5 teams went on the win the title and it’s been twelve years since a team last won both the Dutch Super Cup and the subsequent Eredivisie title (PSV in 2000/01).
In his second full season as manager, the hand of Frank de Boer becomes more and more visible in Ajax’ playing style. Controlling possession is a key component of their game and the subsequent control of where the majority share of possession is being played out seems crucial in controlling the outcome of the game. Today, Ajax succeeded in dominating possession stats, but in the absence of a true offensive playmaker, failed in turning possession into offensive play.
The most obvious departure in Amsterdam is of course captain and defense leader Jan Vertonghen, who left for Tottenham Hotspur. Furthermore, stand-in striker Bulykin and fringe players Aissatti and Lodeiro left the club. Ajax attracted central midfielder Lasse Schöne on a free transfer from N.E.C. and recently added Swedish right winger Tobias Sana to their squad, after failing to meet the financial demands of Heerenveen regarding Luciano Narsingh. Notable promotions from their own youth academy include Viktor Fisher and Mitchell Dijks, who started this match on the left wing and left back respectively.
Ajax were without Van der Wiel and Eriksen who enjoy a slower build-up to this season after participating in Euro 2012, and without the injured Boerrigter and Sulejmani and Boilesen who haven’t returned to match fitness yet.
PSV under Advocaat
In tactical terms, the most interesting change at PSV is of course the return of Dick Advocaat over former manager Fred Rutten. Under Rutten, PSV initially played a controlled 4-2-3-1, but in the past season Rutten mostly opted for a more adventurous 4-3-3, including both Toivonen and Wijnaldum in central midfield. Despite last year’s excellent result in terms of Total Shot Rate (TSR 0.680), which even topped Ajax’ TSR of 0.678, PSV failed to mount a serious title and fell seven points short in the end.
Advocaat returns to the 4-2-3-1 formation, as was already noted when bringing in veteran midfielder Van Bommel, to feature beside rising star Kevin Strootman.
The most notable loss in PSV’s squad should be Zakarya Labyad, who left for Sporting Portugal, but PSV managed to strengthen their squad in more than one area. First of all, veteran midfielder Mark van Bommel returned to be appointed captain immediately. Further additions include the aforementioned winger Luciano Narsingh, who topped last season’s assists charts when providing for Bas Dost at Heerenveen, and Mathias ‘Zanka’ Jørgensen, a powerful central defender who came from Copenhagen. Zanka, who earned his nickname from a character in the movie ‘Cool Runnings’, didn’t feature in this game yet.
The first half
PSV’s opening goal, where Ola Toivonen headed in at the unmarked near post, came that early that there was hardly time to observe both teams’ game plans. Leading as early as from the third minute, PSV seemed compact and comfortable. They kept both Van Bommel and Strootman quite close to their defense and packed the most important part of the pitch with numbers. On top of that powerful six men block, all three of Mertens, Lens and Narsingh added pace to exploit any turnovers won in open play.
These turnovers mostly arose from Ajax’ problems in possession when building from the back. It seems that a crucial role in their 4-3-3 formation is what Christian Eriksen generally adds to the team. A midfielder that is happy to actually receive the ball in midfield and looks to build from there. Today, with Theo Janssen Ajax had a player who prefers to receive balls deeper in midfield and spray long passes, like he started doing after the passing had generally gone astray during the first fifteen minutes. Besides Janssen, Siem de Jong is more a receiver of offensive passes than a creative force in midfield. With the playmaking efforts of Eriksen beside him, Siem de Jong would be much more of a threat.
This point regarding Ajax’ lack of an offensive playmaker was well illustrated with the introduction of Lasse Schöne during the second half. Although fielded formally on the left wing, Schöne, is by trade a central midfielder and this went to show in his inside playmaker role during the second half. This phase, shortly after his introduction, also marked the best period Ajax had in terms of providing counter play against their generally superior opponents.
Ajax struggled to create from open play, and PSV comfortably sat on their early two goal lead after Lens exploited his pace in excellent fashion to dummy Blind for the second goal. On the brink of half time, Toby Alderweireld headed home from a corner, to give Ajax some hope of restoring matters in the second half.
The second half
No substitutions were made at half time yet, but Ajax made a few slight tactical alterations. Most notably, Sigthorsson used more positional freedom and aimed to dislodge the comfortable Van Bommel-Strootman block by dropping deeper from his striker spot. In turn, this opened up space for Siem de Jong to make his overlapping runs.
PSV obviously had no need for major changes, and this was shown in the fact that only ten minutes into the second half they increased their lead again. Jetro Willems overlapped on a turnover on the left PSV wing and his shot, annex cross, found Toivonen for a simple tap-in to make it 3-1.
At this point, Ajax manager Frank de Boer played his best move of the game. It didn’t exactly pay off on the score board, but introducing Lasse Schöne, as explained before, provided Ajax’ baseline offensive intentions with finally a player who’s comfortably as an offensive playmaker.
The Amsterdam hopes came back with Marcelo’s own goal when the defender mishit his clearance of an early Özbiliz cross, but in a closing phase with vast and wide spaces all over the place, PSV managed to put the game beyond doubt in the final minute, when Wijnaldum crowned his substitute appearance with the final goal of the game.
In the end
PSV seems off to a nice start of their campaign. The installment of Van Bommel besides Strootman will do the latter a lot of good, lifting a lot of work off his shoulders and freeing up space and cover for Strootman’s offensive qualities to shine. The versatility offered by Strootman will also enable PSV to fluidly shift between 4-2-3-1’s and 4-3-3’s when circumstances so demand. A second mention goes out to PSV’s impressive offensive line, where all three of Mertens, Lens and Narsingh throw in that much athletic qualities that they will no doubt overwhelm the average Eredivisie opponent.
Ajax manager De Boer claimed beforehand that this was the final match of the pre-season campaign, to contrast well with his rival Advocaat, who firmly casted his eye on winning the Johan Cruijff Schaal. De Boer may hide behind a series of absentees, but the omission of an offensive playmaker is something that could have been avoided by including Schöne in the starting line-up.
A second worry might be the freedom for PSV’s offensive midfielder. Toivonen and his replacement Wijnaldum both scored from open play, which highlighted the general problems for a single holding midfielder to cover both horizontal and vertical runs. In national competition, Ajax will probably overpower most of their opponents even without tackling this issue, but lessons provided by these kind of matches should not be ignored in the face of another Champions League campaign.