A Feyenoord academy graduate scoring the opening goal on his debut, two come-back goals, tactical tweaks, a sending off and a late ‘golazo’ to equalize the score in the final minutes… Some matches just have it all. This year’s edition of ‘the Classic’ Feyenoord – Ajax was an action-packed affair.
Playing without the injured Schaken, Cissé and Goossens, Ronald Koeman opted to start academy graduate Jean-Paul Boëtius in the left wing. In earlier matches this season, Koeman had opted for a 4-4-2 in the absence of several offensive players, but against Ajax he would have wanted a broad screen of pressure that the rather flat nature of a 4-4-2 could never have offered.
Ajax’ new found 4-3-3
Unchanged in comparison to the win over Manchester City, just a few days earlier, Ajax fielded Christian Eriksen in a deep-lying striker role and kept captain Siem de Jong in midfield. Tobias Sana was again preferred over Derk Boerrigter.
Pressure and a false nine
The story of the first part of the game definitely evolved around the principle of applying the right amount of pressure. We’ve seen in the Ajax vs Manchester City match that when allowed the space to build from the back, Ajax can be difficult to play against. City’s narrow 4-2-3-1 allowed Ajax easy ways out from under the central pressure and both full-backs showed their on-the-ball skills.
Just like Ajax’ earlier Eredivisie opponent’s have generally tried to do this season, Koeman made it clear that he demanded early pressure from his team. With their three men up front they pressured Ajax’ back line, and work horse Lex Immers was ever close to prevent Ajax from circulating the ball through Poulsen in central midfield.
The problems for Feyenoord early in the game arose from those instances where Ajax somehow found a way around the first line of pressure and succeeded in finding midfield players De Jong and Schöne. With Eriksen playing the false nine role, Ajax could overload the area just in front of the central defenders that is normally covered by the holding midfielder in a 4-3-3, Jordy Clasie in this case. However, Clasie was overloaded by the presence of Eriksen and the nominal two offensive Ajax midfielders De Jong and Schöne. Meanwhile, Babel and Sana took turns to fill in the central offensive zone, which in turn offered space on the wings for Ajax’ full-backs to advance into.
Theoretically, Feyenoord had two options to dealing with this situation. They could withdraw one of the central midfielders to about the level of Clasie and protect the back four with a double pivot. This would deny Eriksen the playing space that he would need to exert any danger, but it would also limit Feyenoord’s power to press Ajax early on.
The other solution would be to have one of the central defenders step out of the back line and track Eriksen in deeper positions. However, this would allow Ajax the chance to try and exploit holes in what would then temporarily become a back three. Think of overlapping runs from midfield, like the opening goal that Schöne scored against Heracles last week, or inside forward runs by Babel from the left wing.
Initially, Feyenoord failed to apply any of these solutions and they paid the price on Eriksen’s opening goal. The Danish youngster used his ambidexterity very well in controlling the ball while running at high speed and finished off a move where his deep position allowed him the space to run at De Vrij. Later on in the game, De Vrij would follow Eriksen deeper into the midfield and this false nine phenomenon was much less of an advantage to Ajax.
Feyenoord’s direct game
With Ajax’ false nine granting them an extra man in central midfield, Feyenoord’s reply was a very direct passing game that involved Graziano Pellè in an important role as target man striker. The physically strong Italian proved difficult to play for Alderweireld and Moisander, with the latter even on the receiving end of a (softly given) second yellow card late in the second half. After the early opening goal, Feyenoord involved their full-backs much better, and found ways to play either lateral from Ajax’ packed central midfield, or just plain over it, directly seeking target man Pellè.
The first half equalizing goal was scored by 18-year old Dutch Under-19 international Jean-Paul Boëtius, who finished off a Wesley Verhoek that Lex Immers should have placed in the back of the net already. Another slight tweak that gave Feyenoord more options was that they played slightly deeper in possession, opening up more space for Clasie to work in.
The second half
Only minutes into the second half, Ajax scored from an indirect free-kick, as Siem de Jong connected on Eriksen’s cross. This started a period of patient possession play by Ajax, who looked to waste time in a perfectly allowed way, while Feyenoord increased their urgency with an even more direct approach.
The turning point of the second half was definitely the sending off of Moisander. Although this particular card was given quite easily, the Finish international already has a track record of receiving one yellow card per four to five Eredivisie games, totaling between 6 and 7 over the past seasons. Moisander already seemed firmly on track with four cards in Ajax’ first six Eredivisie matches of the present season.
Feyenoord switched to a 3-4-3 formation, with Achahbar for Mathijsen and De Boer replied by going 4-4-1, hoping to soak up the pressure. Mitchell Dijks completed the back four, with Schöne out, Babel up front and Eriksen pulled back to midfield.
Encircling Ajax under intense pressure, Feyenoord got the equalizer that their 11v10 dominance deserved. Graziano Pellè, who had been playing to set his team mates up all ninety minutes so far, took control of a cross from an indirect free-kick and scored a true golazo by firing in the volley on the turn, leaving Vermeer without a chance.
In the end
An action packed affair, that’s what this year’s first edition of the ‘Klassieker’ was. Initially, Ajax looked to take full advantage of their false-nine striker, but later on Feyenoord dealt much better with this challenge. The two sides looked very different in terms of style, with Ajax playing their typical controlled passing game, firmly taking hold of the centre of the pitch, and Feyenoord playing very direct, making use of the wide areas and fully exploiting the qualities that striker Pellè offers them. A draw should be counted a fair result as Ajax conceding two equalizers in two consecutive Eredivisie matches.
Last season, Ajax took 34 single goal leads, of which only 7 (21%) were defended unsuccessfully. This season, to date, Ajax has taken 12 single goal leads, of which 6 (50%) were defended unsuccessfully. Small numbers, but still, there may be something in it…