Tag Archives: Ajax

Title Contenders By The Numbers – Early Days Edition

Logo_EredivisieWith five matches played, we’ll look at some shot numbers across the Eredivisie Title favorites. Yes, it’s early days, and a lot of this may look different when, after another five matches, team numbers will start to settle at levels closer to their true values. Also, casually, this post will touch on shot quality a lot more than I did in the past. We’ll slowly work to a way of combining shot quality and quantity. An improved TSR, so to say.

 

Struggles

So far, over the first five matches, in terms of points won, each one of Twente, Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord has already had its struggles and none has won more than three matches yet. A look at the numbers will reveal where each team has failed to live up to expectations.

There’s only one team that owns the Eredivisie right now. The Dusan Tadic show that Twente is, dominates in terms of shot creation (123 shots for) and prevention (34 against). By definition, you’ll have the highest Total Shot Rate (TSR) then: 0.783. If you’re still not familiar with football analysis’ most significant stat, let me explain by saying that Twente creates over three times more shots than they concede. A simple plot of each team’s shots for (horizontal axis) and against (vertical axis) will help illustrate just how far ahead of the rest of the pack Twente is: nearly off the chart!

 

So, if Twente owns the Eredivisie, they lead the table, right?

Well, no, or at least, not yet. Oddly enough, Twente had trouble scoring in three of their first five matches, leading to two home draws already, and a 1-0 loss at Vitesse. At least they did win the other two games, to make it a 2-2-1 W-D-L record. Twente’s main problem was clutch scoring: 10 of their 11 goals were scored in the two wins. That will always mess up overall ratings like TSR.

 

Shot Quality

Twente’s struggles to score become apparent when we factor in the quality of the 100+ shots that they created. The inclusion of Eredivisie data in Squakwa.com enables us to collect several shot characteristics that reflect shot quality. Shot location is the most important factor here, but also shots and headers need to be separated, as they have different conversion rates.

Overall, we can stratify Twente’s shots for location and shot type in order to compare against a league wide conversion. The average team would have scored around 9.5% of Twente’s 123 shots. With this shot quality for (SQF) of just 0.105, Twente comes in just 15th. By the way, combining shot quality and frequency, the model expects Twente to score 12.9 goals (0.105 * 123), which is somewhat behind their actual 11 goals scored.

 

Misleading TSR

Behind Twente, it’s the usual suspects that complete the TSR top-3: Ajax (0,591) and PSV (0,578). Ajax, however, is one fine example of a misleading TSR! Their 52 shots conceded comes in 2nd lowest in the Eredivisie, but it’s the quality of conceded shots that is a source for major concern. Of 52 shots conceded by Ajax, a worrying 37 (71.1%) have come from inside the box and of those 37, the majority have come from central inside the box positions!

This all leads to a shot quality against (SQA) that is not even close to any other team in the Eredivisie: 0.155. So, despite coming in second in terms of the raw number of shots conceded, Ajax comes in 10th in terms of Expected Goals conceded (8.1), which ties in nicely with their 8 goals conceded!

 

PSV

PSV also deserve a mention in the shot quality column, but for their poor SQF. With an expected conversion of just 0.077 they rank 17th in terms of offensive Shot Quality. They did, however, hide that by significantly outperforming the model in terms of actual goals scored. Despite an expected 6.5 goals scored in the model, they managed 12 in real life.

This chart shows PSV’s shots and goals. At first glance, it’s not too bad, is it? But beware, the golden balls representing goals will soon start to dry up as too many of their attempts are from outside the box and from wide areas within the box. Yes, they often play compact and tight defenses, but the lack of central zone shooting will cost PSV dearly at some point in the season.

PSV attempted 85 shots, of which 38 (44.7%) were from outside the box. Those shots resulted in two goals, while PSV’s 10 remaining goals were scored with their 47 attempts from inside the box. Another reason for PSV’s poor offensive Shot Quality is the fact that from their shots from inside the box, under a quarter were fired in from nice central zones, and the far majority from lateral shooting positions.

 

Feyenoord

Should we mention Feyenoord here? Well, last season’s number three had certainly hoped to be title contenders this year around, but three losses to open the season have lead to a 2-0-3 record now. Let’s look one layer deeper…

Shots created: 64 (13th), shots conceded 73 (7th), for a TSR of 0.467 (11th). Not good.

Shot quality for: 0.088 (16th, ouch), shot quality against 0.110 (12th, ouch again).

We can factor that into the TSR by looking at Expected Goals scored (5.6) and conceded (8.0), which gives and Expected Goals Ratio of 5.6 / 5.6 + 8.0 = 0.412 (15th).

You still there? Good. For Feyenoord’s 12th place 0.492 TSR would is bad already, but a correction for shot quality drops them down, even to 15th. One small side note: Feyenoord played part of the match against Twente with nine men, which may skew the numbers. A bit.

 

In the end

Of the title contenders Twente, Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, who had the best start over five matches? This in depth look at the numbers makes a firm case for Twente, as clutch scoring and a disappointing offensive shots quality are better problems to have than what the other teams are dealing with. Also, what Twente lack in terms of offensive shot quality, they make up for in terms of raw numbers with over 20 shots created per match.

Ajax have a horribly high quality of shots against, which explains their high amount of goals conceded (8 in 5 matches, versus 31 in 34 matches over last season). PSV have the reverse problem: a very disappointing shot quality for, but for the moment it is concealed behind an impossible conversion rate of nearly twice the model’s expectations. Feyenoord are mainly mentioned here for last year’s 3rd place finish, as their numbers indicate mid-table quality so far. Sure, they will regress to their true level a bit, but their disappointing opening is down to more than just bad luck.

 

TSR = Total Shots Rate

SQF = Shot Quality For

SQA = Shot Quality Against

 

data: squawka.com

Ajax is better than PSV in the Game State that matters most

Football analytics is a young business. And as such, it is still a rapidly developing field, where new concepts are launched all around. Some of these concepts are there to stay, others disappear as quickly as they came. For me, Game States definitely belong to that first group.

With Game State we indicate the score differential of the match in-play. Each match opens with both teams at GS 0, and a scoring team moves to GS +1, with the conceding team moving to GS -1. This Game State obviously has a big influence on how teams approach the game at hand. However, in traditional – if I may say so in this young business – football analytics groups all match events together, regardless of Game State.

The best concepts in football analytics make rational sense as well as intuitive sense. And such is the case with Game States. A team holding a narrow lead is a different team than a team that defends that lead. Obviously, better teams hold more leads than they defend, but even within teams, the shifts that occur when Game States change are fairly homogeneous. We’ve learned before that moving from GS 0 to GS +1 brings an average team a 10% decrease in Total Shot Rate, while the opponent increases 10% simply because of the shift in Game State.

On this day before the big game, PSV – Ajax, we look at the two best teams of the Eredivisie with a focus on their performance levels at the most crucial Game State: GS 0. The main reason for doing so, and I can safely say this out loud now, is that I have my doubt about the accuracy of the Total Shot Rate model used to predicted the final Eredivisie standing. It has significantly overestimated PSV and underestimated Ajax.

The model uses the Relative Shot Rate (RSR) to estimate the total points at the end of the season. RSR is a variation on the Total Shot Rate (TSR). Early in the season, the RSR has advantages over TSR, because teams have encountered a different strength of opposition, but by now those advantages have gone and RSR is nearly equal to TSR. At the moment, PSV’s TSR stands at 0.671 with Ajax at 0.632. Now what does this figure tell?

PSV has a higher ratio of chances created and conceded. Does this single figure make PSV the better team? No, because you may generate all the chances you want, you’ll need conversion as a skill to turn shots into goals.

PSV’s shooting percentage stands at 17.0%, which compares favorably to Ajax’ 15.4%. Does a higher TSR in combination with a higher shooting percentage make PSV the better team? No, because you can score all you want, you’ll need to prevent the opponent from scoring from their shots too, and this is where saving percentage comes into play.

PSV’s saving percentage is 87.4%, compared to Ajax’ 89.5%. But wait, that’s about the same difference as we found at shooting percentage, only this time PSV comes out on top. That’s true, and so both teams have a comparable PDO, which is the sum of shooting percentage and saves percentage. PSV’s PDO is 1044, and Ajax’ PDO is 1048.

Performance metrics at all Game States
TSR Sh%   Sv% PDO
Ajax 0.632 0.154 0.895 1048
PSV 0.671 0.170 0.874 1044

So, if we wrap these numbers up we can safely say that PSV generates a higher ratio of shots. Taking shooting and saving into account, both teams are roughly equally efficient. Now why doesn’t PSV live up to the expectations of our TSR model?

The answer is to be found in game states. We can repeat the exact same exercise of looking at shot rate, shooting percentage and saves percentage for each game state. I won’t go over every single number, but instead focus on the most crucial Game State: GS 0. The average Eredivisie team plays out nearly 50% of shots at this Game State, but since Ajax and PSV are the two top teams, they can be expected to play out less shots at GS 0. Of all shots in Ajax’ matches, 41.9% take place at GS 0. For PSV this number is 35.4%.

Here’s the table for PSV and Ajax in terms of TSR, shooting and saving efficiency, and PDO at    GS 0. Note that PDO in this case provides a nice summary of efficiency, wrapping up both offensive (shooting) and defensive (saving) skills.

Performance metrics at GS 0
TSR Sh% Sv% PDO
Ajax 0.668 0.128 0.924 1052
PSV 0.604 0.151 0.867 1018

The TSR tells us that at the most crucial Game State (GS 0), Ajax is by a distance the better team in terms of shot creation. PSV partially makes up for the lower TSR with their shooting percentage of 15.1%, which is higher than Ajax’ 12.8%. However, PSV loses this advantage in saves percentage, because their 86.7% is much lower than Ajax’ 92.4%. The combined efficiency is higher at Ajax, indicated by a PDO at GS 0 of 1052, compared to 1018 for PSV.

So, analyzing all shots in every match in one group, PSV seems the better team.

But at GS 0, the most crucial stage of the match, Ajax creates a better shot ratio, and is more effective. They gain more leads, which is a good thing in itself, but it also allows them to play more time at favorable game states, leading to an even better performance.

 

This post is a translation of yesterday’s article for ‘De Zestien’, the football blog of Dutch national newspaper ‘De Volkskrant’. Admittedly, it turned into a rewrite, more than a translation.

Feyenoord 2 – 2 Ajax: An action packed ‘Klassieker’

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.

 

Feyenoord’s 4-3-3

The starting line-ups.

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

The line-ups just before Feyenoord’s second equalizer.

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…

Ajax 3 – 1 Manchester City: Smart tactical move helps Ajax win first Champions League points

With a nice tactical twist by Frank de Boer, Ajax turned the score around to beat Manchester City 3-1 after conceding the first goal. Goals by captain Siem de Jong, Niklas Moisander and Christian Eriksen earned Ajax’ first points of the Champions League campaign and put City’s future in this competition in severe doubt.

 

Ajax’ 4-3-3 that was a 4-5-1

The starting line-ups.

Although not known for his tactical flexibility and tweaks during matches, De Boer has shown in this year’s edition of the Champions League to be well able to adapt his team’s playing style to the formidable quality of the teams that Ajax has faced so far. Against Dortmund and Real Madrid, Ajax operated very deep, with Ryan Babel as the sole true offense player in a target man role in a formation that turned out to be a deep 4-5-1 under offensive pressure.

Today, however, De Boer fielded a novelty, at least for Ajax, in a different way to try and solve the same problem. Today Ryan Babel came in from the left wing, with Christian Eriksen – only 20 years of age, but with 155 (!) senior matches under his belt already – playing a deep-lying striker role, reminiscent of the false nine principle, frequently helping out in midfield during City’s possession. Captain Siem de Jong added physical presence to Ajax’ midfield and provided overlapping runs from midfield where possible, in line with the false ten concept. On the right wing, 23-year old Tobias Sana, a new signing this summer, will have aimed to improve on being the defensive liability in his difficult first two Champions League outings, but only half and half succeeded at that.

 

Manchester City’s 4-2-3-1 that became a 4-4-2

The versatility of this Manchester City starting eleven is huge. Not just in terms of different players available, but just with a midfield four of Barry, Milner, Yaya Touré and Nasri, City started with an XI able to play 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-2-2-2 or any cross-over between these. Tonight it started out as a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation, but switched to a more orthodox 4-4-2 during the first half. As always, their offense rotated and switched positions frequently, with all three of Dzeko, Aguero and Nasri showing up in striker or wide forward positions at times during the first half.

 

The first half

Ajax started the game quite positive, in line with Frank de Boer’s quote before the game that “a draw would be useless…” With City playing compact in their narrow 4-2-3-1 formation, Ajax proved able to circulate the ball, but couldn’t quite penetrate City’s half yet. With remarkably advanced full-backs given the otherwise defensive adaptations installed, Ajax proved able to find space in wide areas. Both Blind and Van Rhijn were frequently left in acres of space by City.

In defense, Ajax’ formation frequently changed to a 4-1-4-1, with striker Eriksen withdrawn in midfield and Ryan Babel moving inside to the striker zone. In this regard, the choice to switch Eriksen and De Jong from their usual roles worked quite well. Eriksen was able to pick up balls at feet in his beloved central offensive area and the young Dane fired in two of Ajax’ first shots of the game. Meanwhile, Siem de Jong contributed to Ajax’ physical presence in midfield and proved essential in Ajax’ first goal of the game.

Despite Ajax’ dominance in wide areas, it was City that opened the score. Ironically, with Ajax’ full-back being very involved, the first offensive contribution from a City full-back initiated the move. Micah Richards played a delicious through-ball to exploit a distance between Ajax’ centre-backs that would never have been termed a gap at Eredivisie level. His pass set free James Milner, the ball was circulated wide and Nasri fired in coolly in the far corner.

After taking the lead, City attempted to strengthen their wide areas by switching from the narrow 4-2-3-1 to a genuine 4-4-2. Central midfielders Barry and Touré still sat a bit deeper than the rest of the midfield, but Nasri at the left and Milner on the right side provided more cover for their full-backs. At least, in theory they should, but as tracking overlapping full-backs has never been Nasri’s strength, Ajax kept on finding space on their right wing.

Exactly this space proved vital in the build up to the equalizing goal. Captain Siem de Jong set off a move that was in fact a very long distance one-two pass with right full-back Van Rhijn, to finish the move with a well-controlled one-touch shot from just outside the box.

 

The second half

In the second half, just before conceding the third goal, City lined-up in a 4-4-2 that was a 3-4-1-2 in possession, with Nasri drifting all over the pitch and Milner and Kolarov bombing forward in wide areas.

Having conceded the equalizer on the brink of half-time, different questions were asked of City in the second half. Knowing that only a win would keep their hopes of qualifying alive, they significantly increase the stance of their back line. This, combined with the fact that Ajax kept the line as high as they normally do, ensured a game played with much more urgency than before.

Ajax did concede possession earlier and City indeed had a few chances, but it was Ajax that grabbed the lead. Niklas Moisander, a summer signing from AZ Alkmaar, headed in at the near post from a well-struck corner by ‘Man of the Match’ Christian Eriksen. Just ten minutes later, as City was getting ready to build the pressure, Ajax had the luck that had escaped them earlier in this Champions League campaign as Eriksen saw a deflected shot fly in for the 3-1 score line. However, this move was initiated by decent early pressure that allowed Schöne to win a dangerous turnover deep in City’s half.

 

Gung Ho

Now trailing by two goals, Mancini gradually threw on his full strike force. Just before Eriksen’s goal, he had already introduced wing-back Kolarov for Lescott, but near the end of the match the full forces of Dzeko, Aguero, Balotelli, Tevez and Nasri were fielded together. This left the midfield in the hands of just Touré centrally with wide support of Kolarov and Clichy.

Spaces were wide open on City’s side of the pitch, but Ajax failed to extend the score further, with Sana missing an excellent one-on-one opportunity. At the other end, both Dzeko and Nasri saw close range attempts either saved or go wide.

 

In the end

Despite Mancini’s in-game change of formation and his gung ho substitutions, the winning tactical move of this game was made before kick-off. Fielding Eriksen in a withdrawn striker role killed two birds with one stone. Siem de Jong provided the energy, work rate and physical qualities that would have been lacking with Eriksen besides Schöne in central midfield, and Eriksen provided excellent movement between the lines and made dangerous runs at City’s centre-backs.

But the most obvious battle during this match was City’s initial narrow formation versus Ajax’ wide overlapping full-backs. Blind and Van Rhijn regularly provided the outlet that was missing in earlier Champions League games and City allowed Ajax to escape their pressure in this way. Mancini did try to fix his wide areas, but despite the wealth of world class strikers thrown on the pitch, decent wingers would brought more pressure to Ajax.

 

Ajax 2 – 2 AZ: Both teams unable to defend their leads

Defending champions Ajax shared the points with AZ. Both teams led during long spells of the game, Ajax during most of the first half and AZ during most of the second. Nevertheless, both teams couldn’t hold onto their leads and at a 2-2 final score, the points were shared.

 

Ajax’ 4-3-3

The starting line-ups

Ajax had to do without an impressive list of players. Christian Eriksen, Eyong Enoh, Nicolai Boilesen, Miralem Sulejmani all missed out, while Vertonghen, Bulykin, Lodeiro, Aissati and Özbiliz were among a longer list of players that left the club this summer.

What remained was Ajax’ possession based 4-3-3 system. Compared to the 4-2 loss against PSV in the Johan Cruijff Schaal, Frank de Boer applied changes in all three lines, with Daley Blind playing left-back, accommodating Ricardo van Rhijn in central defense and Gregory van der Wiel returned at right-back. In midfield, Thulani Serero was preferred, keeping  Theo Janssen on the bench. The front line consisted of Lasse Schöne in an inside forward role from the left wing, striker Sightorsson and pacy right winger Lukoki.

 

AZ’s 4-3-3

Both sides operated in very comparable formations, but AZ did so with a starting eleven that featured in this same line-up in most of their pre-season matches. The main summer departures are dead ball specialist Rasmus Elm, left-back Simon Poulsen and industrious left winger Brett Holman.

In today’s line-up, new signing and brother of Rasmus, Viktor Elm was the most defensive midfielder, with another new signing, Donny Gorter, who came from NAC, at left-back. Upfront, Maarten Martens was shifted to the wing, with Erik Falkenburg filling in in central midfield.

 

The early goal

The opening phase of the game saw Ajax exert their expected dominance of possession, with AZ limited to short bursts of play themselves. The most interesting zone in this regard was definitely the Daley Blind versus Roy Beerens area. The Ajax left-back featured in a very offensive role, looking to overlap on inside winger Schöne, who played a central offensive midfield role at his former club N.E.C. With Blind regularly being pushed up high in the left flank, the right wing zone was the area of choice for AZ to direct their long breaking balls early on.

However, before this contest could really come to fruition, Gregory van der Wiel found the top corner with a delicious long range effort to give Ajax the lead within ten minutes.

 

Possession as a defensive strategy

Sitting on an early lead, Ajax adopted their possession dominance as a pure defensive strategy. That is not to say they weren’t looking to extend the lead, but to say they used the long spells of possession in order to reduce the amount of chances created by AZ.

Stretching the length of possessions serves as legal time wasting. Keeping hold of the ball, rather than attempting more risky final third passes, obviously reduces the amount of playing time left, and thereby the number of possession the opposing team will get to reduce the lead.

Ajax looked easy in possession, kept the ball around the midfield line without significant AZ pressure, and thereby succeeded in lowering the number of possession spells that AZ was going to get. This also allowed the Ajax players to reduce the amount of energy spent in possession, in order to keep up with the desired high level of pressing when out of possession. On top of long possession spells, Ajax kept a very high defensive line and used a combination of early pressing and an active offside trap to limit AZ to short bursts of possession and hardly any combinations near Vermeer’s goal.

An important area where Ajax was particularly strong last season was in defending narrow leads. Ajax led their opponents by a single goal on 32 occasions and only allowed an equalizer in 8 of those situations. This ratio of 75% successful defended leads was the highest of all title favorites. For comparison, Feyenoord successfully defended 71% of single goal leads, PSV 64%, Twente 63%, AZ 62%, and Heerenveen 59%.

 

The Altidore minutes

Within five minutes of the second half, AZ had not only equalized the score, but a quick double fire by Jozy Altidore gave AZ the lead shortly after half time. The US international beat his marker Alderweireld on both occasions and showed an excellent conversion in front of goal.

AZ also took a different approach in possession in the second half. Their first half possessions were mainly played into space, looking the exploit the pace of Beerens and the space in behind Blind, but the second half saw AZ pass balls into the feet of Altidore. The US forward definitely has the physical abilities to act as a target man and he successfully extended AZ’s possessions. This was most notable of course in AZ’s double fire salvo to open the second half, but it extended throughout most of the second half, accumulating in a 45% overall possession rate, which compares favorably with most teams playing Ajax in the ArenA.

 

A late equalizer

The cliché ‘two different halves’ seems very applicable here. While Ajax led for over the major share of the first half, AZ did so for the major share of the second half. And also, unsuccessful in the end. At half time, Ajax introduced new signing Tobias Sana on the left wing for the injured Schöne and the young Swede put on an inspired show.

Sana provided Blind with an excellent back heel key pass and also hit the crossbar with a short range effort himself. His work rate, dribbling skills and pace provided much of the dynamism Ajax needed in order to find a way back into the match.

The most consistent provider of Ajax chances was Jody Lukoki. The young winger has an excellent acceleration and, compared to last year, his crosses into the box seemed to have gained in quality. It was one of his dribbles that delivered the ball to Sigthorsson, who found the back of the net with a half volley on the turn to make it 2-2.

 

In the end

Based on the first half, Ajax seemed to cruise to another home victory, but their stretch of 14 Eredivisie games won did come to an end. AZ changed their approach in possession and fought their way back into the match. Target man Jozy Altidore beat Toby Alderweireld twice in a few minutes to prove his worth to the team in finishing clinically. Near the end of the match, Ajax equalized through Sightorsson, which seemed deserved, if only based on the 16 to 7 shots ratio.

PSV 4 – 2 Ajax: First blow by Advocaat

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).

 

Ajax’ 4-3-3

The starting line-ups

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.

Twente 1 – 2 Ajax: A major step towards the Eredivisie title for Ajax

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!

 

Twente’s 4-3-3

The starting line-ups

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.

 

Ajax’ 4-3-3

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…

Ajax 2 – 0 PSV: Impressive pressing performance leaves PSV no chance

This clash between two Eredivisie title contenders may go down as one of the best games Ajax played under their current manager, Frank de Boer. The home side pressed PSV all over the pitch and the successive dominance in possession allowed them to continue an intense pressing level throughout the full ninety minutes. PSV proved unable to work their way around the pressure, and after going a goal down, new manager Philip Cocu could not turn this game around.

This match report has been composed with the use of match data that were provided by Infostrada Sports.

 

Ajax’ 4-3-3 that wasn’t really a 4-3-3

The line-ups for this match, with the size of the dot corresponding to the number of completed passes. Note Aissatti

No less than six players out of the presumed best XI missed out today. Long-term injuries have kept the entire front three of Sigthorsson, Boerrigter and Sulejmani sidelined, while midfielder Theo Janssen (suspended) and injured defenders Gregory van der Wiel and Nicolai Boilesen also missed out. Frank de Boer today picked Daley Blind at left-back, ahead of the recently disappointing young defender Koppers.

In midfield, De Boer made the interesting choice to go with both Eyong Enoh and Vurnon Anita, something he was reluctant to do at first, but a solution that worked out extremely well. Siem de Jong featured in the striker role, be it with a lot of positional freedom, allowing Christian Eriksen to overlap. Eriksen played a more central and more offensive role today due to the coverage provided by the double pivot of central defensive midfielders behind him.

 

PSV’s 4-3-3

With a fully fit selection available, PSV should have been expected the have the better of Ajax in this department. Philip Cocu, who took over after the departure of Fred Rutten, elected Georginio Wijnaldum over Jeremain Lens at the right wing, although, after losing a series of duels to Blind, he was at times swapped with central midfielder Zakarya Labyad.

At right-back, Stanislav Mannolev seems to have fallen out of favor, mainly due to his defensive liabilities and his eye-catching lack of control that limits his offensive output. Atiba Hutchinson got the start, with excellent performances against Heerenveen’s Assaidi recently.

 

The first half

There is one word to describe the events of this match: pressure. Ajax played the way Frank de Boer would have liked them to play for longer, pressing their opponents all over the pitch, making it barely possible for PSV to string more than a few passes together.

Such an intense pressing strategy is employed more often, but regularly fails to win enough possession for the home team to be able to keep up with the amount of energy it costs. It often fades around the fifteenth minute, with the away side slowly gaining an advantage when playing around the pressing team. Not so today though, as Ajax gained roughly 66% of possession early on and proved able to press PSV during the remaining part of the match. The math is quite simple here, conserve the ball a lot and you’ll be able to limit the amount of time the intense pressure is required.

 

The problem for Ajax

Winning possession is one thing, turning it into goal scoring chances is quite another. In the first half, Ajax’ chances were limited to long range shots and an odd of target header from a corner. Ajax mainly spent their possession in midfield, where they enjoyed a rather simple acquired numerical advantage. Striker Siem de Jong drifted deep, even below the level of the midfielders, adding up the extra man. As mentioned before, playing both Enoh and Anita provided Eriksen with double the amount of defensive midfield cover that he’s used to, liberating more of his offensive threat.

All in all, the first half showed a dominant Ajax side, a PSV side that looked robbed of any opportunity to circulate possession and a limited number of goal scoring chances. An impressive stat to show Ajax’ pressing was PSV’s number of first half goal scoring chances: zero.  Striker Matavz and left winger Mertens completed one and two passes respectively in the first half, an expression of how early Ajax’ pressing generally intercepted possession, or reversely, how unable PSV proved to deal with it.

One more stat? Okay, Vermeer completed all but one of his 18 first half passes, while Tyton failed to complete a single passing attempt out of eleven.

This graph presents the number of completed passes per team as the match goes from 0 to 90 minutes. This allows insight into which team dominated which phases of the match. Ajax outpassed PSV in nearly all 5 minute sections of this match, with their most dominant spell during the 55th-65th minute, when they scored their goals.

The second half

With PSV limiting themselves to stopping Ajax’ threat and Ajax winning their dominance with a false nine striker role, providing goal scoring threats from within the box seemed a concern for the home side. It took a brilliant short corner routine (or a fluke cross?) by Ismael Aissatti to open the score, again from outside the box. He curled one over the arms of Tyton, just into the far top corner of the goal.

Ajax now defended a lead, so possession became a goal in itself, rather than a way to obtain goals. Immediately after the 56th minute goal, Ajax went on to dominate possession for the next ten minutes, as is shown in the passing chart. By that time they had doubled their lead through a Siem de Jong penalty, won by, again, Aissatti.

Cocu’s only change that had any chance of turning things around came in between both Ajax’ goals, as he removed his slightly injured captain Toivonen, who disappointed throughout. The PSV captain generally needs his side to be present on the opponent’s half to make an impact and his performance in terms of creation is generally limited.

Cocu introduced pacy winger Lens, but his presence obviously did not solve PSV problem of being unable to pass through Ajax’ numerical advantage in midfield. With their offensive three of Matavz, Mertens and Lens completing only 17 passes in the final third of the game, PSV was never able to construct any offensive threat. Ajax generally intercepted the ball early in PSV’s game, with Vertonghen particularly on song today. The Ajax captain made 14 of his 27 (!) interceptions while defending the lead, with the pair of Enoh and Anita throwing in another 15.

 

In the end

Pressing is a key element of how Frank de Boer wants his Ajax side to play. And today turned out very well. Pressing may very well backfire on a team, for example when not holding on to the ball enough themselves, making the spells of pressing needed longer and more frequent. Today’s pressing was in part a success due to the lack of PSV pressing. This allowed Ajax a rather easy time on the ball, as was evident from the 695 passes with a near 80% completion rate.

Siem de Jong’s false nine role proved crucial in gaining the upper hand in midfield, but again, Ajax had trouble turning their possession into quality goal scoring chances. Overall number of 11 Ajax shots, 7 of which on target, versus 3 PSV shots, 2 of which on target, don’t tell the whole story. Most of Ajax’ attempts stood a relative small chance of going in and it took a moment of individual brilliance (let’s give Aissatti the benefit of doubt, should it exist) to open the score.

PSV should take a critical look at their plans going into this game. While they did defend compact, like they normally do, they failed to press Ajax and thereby allowed Ajax longer spells of possession than strictly needed. And even though no imminent goal scoring danger was created, Ajax was allowed to conserve energy that was unleashed as soon as PSV had regained possession. Homework for Cocu.

 

 

This report could not have been made without the generous support of Infostrada Sports.

Ajax 0 – 2 Utrecht: From bad to worse for Ajax…

Frank de Boer lost his first Eredivisie home game as an Ajax manager, while Utrecht set a unique series of four wins out of the past for meetings with their fierce rivals. With the complete forward three and back four of his presumed starting XI missing, De Boer never got his team going, while Utrecht proved well organized in defense and  taking maximum advantage of the opportunities presented.

This is the first 11tegen11 article to use in-match data. Credit goes to Infostrada Sports, without whom this article could never have been created.

 

Ajax’ 4-3-3

The starting line-ups of Ajax' 4-3-3 and Utrecht's 4-4-2. Bigger dots indicate more passes received, ranging from Anita's 72 to vd Maarel and Fernandez' 11.

Ajax played an improvised and very young starting XI, with only Enoh, Janssen and Vermeer aged over 23. At the back, Daley Blind made only his tenth Eredivisie start as a centre-back, while his partner Ricardo van Rhijn (3) and left-back Dico Koppers (2) were only just past their starting debuts. Up front, Siem de Jong played the striker role, with Özbiliz and Ebecilio on the wings. Ajax’ midfield seemed least undone by the wave of injuries that hit the squad hard, the midfield three of Eriksen-Janssen-Enoh had started the past four matches too.

 

Utrecht’s 4-4-2

For this match, Jan Wouters changed his usual 4-3-3 formation in order to exploit Ajax’ presumed weaknesses. He declared prior to the game that his choice for a flat 4-4-2 system was motivated by the fact that Ajax was forced to start a young centre-back pairing, which he wanted target with the physical presence of Demouge and Gerndt. In midfield, Utrecht missed Martensson, which meant a return to the starting XI for Ajax loanee Rodney Sneijder.

 

The opening phase

Utrecht’s game plan was easy to decipher right from the kick-off, and it worked very well. Jan Wouters’ team looked quite comfortable out of possession, keeping the two banks of four tight together and refraining from playing an all too high defensive line altogether. Going into this game, Utrecht were one of only two sides that had more possession away from home than at home, even having the lowest overall possession at home of all teams (43.3%).

In possession, they quickly passed the ball forward to target man Frank Demouge. The Utrecht striker smartly dropped off the front line a bit, to win balls in the air in the area of the pitch that was generally covered by Enoh, which allowed Demouge to exploit his length advantage.

Ajax, meanwhile, once again enjoyed possession in their own half. Just like in their away loss at Feyenoord, the Amsterdam side seemed impotent in possession, having all sorts of trouble circulating the ball into the final third of the pitch. Ajax ‘outpassed’ their opponents  in sheer number of passes (694 vs 374) and pass completion (76% vs 59%), but this dominance never reflected in the danger it created. The majority of passes were made too far away from Utrecht’s goal, as indicated by the fact that Ajax’ back four of Anita (94), Blind (76), Van Rhijn (74) and Koppers (70) were responsible for 59.6% of all passes.

Judging by the pass count, Ajax had quite some trouble getting left winger Ebecilio into the game. He received only 29 passes throughout the game, compared to Özbiliz’ 47. On top of that, both of Ajax wingers did not contribute anything in terms of offensive threat. Both completed around 55% of their passes, indicating that Ajax lost a lot of possession on the wings, an indirect compliment to Utrechts organized defensive, with excellent games by both full-backs who were well assisted by the defensive work of wide midfielders Kali and Duplan.

Utrecht’s defensive organization was further reflected in their interceptions. While overall, Utrecht did not make significantly more interceptions that Ajax did, they did so in a different part of the pitch. The majority of the 124 turnovers that Ajax won were won in defense (71), while Utrecht often intercepted the ball earlier, winning 49 of their 132 turnovers in midfield. Upon such turnovers, they quickly launched balls forward in the direction of Demouge.

Close to half time, Utrecht took the lead. The first forward run by one of their full-backs allowed Dave Bulthuis to cross from the left wing. Kenneth Vermeer made a mess of his high ball clearance and the ball simply fell to Duplan, who found the back of the empty net with Utrecht’s first shot on target.

 

The second half

Changes were needed the get Ajax going, and indeed some changes were made. Theo Janssen did not return to the pitch, his place taken by Nicolas Lodeiro, which moved De Jong into a central midfield / second striker role. Full-backs Anita and particularly Koppers were pushed forward more too. The switch around in midfield solved part of the problems that Ajax had. In the first half, De Jong lacked all sorts of support, with Janssen refraining from overlapping, and Eriksen more in a distributing role than coming at the end of moves.

Much of the impotence of Ajax was demonstrated by the fact that by the hour mark Ajax fired in its second shot on target of the game. Ajax’ inefficiency in possession was also demonstrated by looking at the length of possession spells of both teams. Ajax’ average length of possession was 23 seconds, compared to Utrecht’s 14.5. However, Ajax average length of possession that generated a shot was only 9.4, compared to Utrecht’s 35!

This illustrates the fact that, despite dominating possession, Ajax depended on turnovers in Utrecht’s half, which were mostly a result of individual errors by Utrecht players. Combine the fact that Ajax needed opposition half turnovers to create shots the (above presented) fact that most turnovers were won by defensive players and the problem is well shown. Winning most balls in your own half, while being unable to create anything from longer possession spells indicates quite a flawed concept.

Utrecht, on the contrary, were very effective in their longer possession. Admittedly, their possessions were generally shorter, but on longer spells they did managed to create danger. Think of long balls up to the target man striker. Since Demouge loses the ball a lot in such a tactic, possession spells were generally short, but once he did hold the ball up, Utrecht connected very well.

 

Fading to the end

The graph below illustrates both teams’ completed passes per chunk of five minutes. As can be seen from the graph, Ajax faded around the hour mark. From that moment on, their passing dominance disappeared and only a single shot on target resulted from what should have been on offensive spell in chasing the equalizer. Near the end of the match, Eduard Duplan doubled his tally, with only Utrecht’s second shot on target in the game, further hurting Vermeer’s terrible save percentage, which will see him re-take the bottom spot in the Eredivisie in this regard, with 28.0% of shots on target finding the back of his net.

These lines represent the amount of passes completed per five minutes of game time. Ajax' dominance in this regard lasted 60 minutes, while Utrechts remained fairly constant in terms of the amount of passes completed.

 

In the end

This was probably the worst performance that I’ve seen by an Ajax team and for sure the worst of the season. That sounds harsh, but there are objective parameters to go with that. De Boer lost his first Eredivisie home game, Ajax failed to keep a clean sheet for the eighth of nine home Eredivisie games this year, Vermeer failed to keep any of the two shots on target out. Both Ajax’ 8 shots and their 4 shots on target were a season low.

If Ajax turned in its worst performance, the credit should go to Utrecht. Wouters’ switch to two up front worked very well and Demouge played a perfect target man role, targeting Enoh to win headers off. His partnership with Gerndt, who played an energetic and dynamic game around the more static strike was very well executed. In defensive regard, Utrecht’s midfield turned in a performance of high quality, the wide men keeping close to the full-backs, thereby eliminating Ajax’ wingers from the game, and the central midfielders winning balls early on.

 

Data for this article were provided by Infostrada Sports. Without their generous support, this article could not have been written!

Feyenoord 4 – 2 Ajax: Playing to win beats playing for possession

Fans enjoying the Eredivisie for action packed high-scoring games were well served, as Feyenoord came back after conceding the opening goal, to win the match 4-2. A hat-trick by Manchester City loanee John Guidetti and a superb midfield performance by Jordy Clasie guided the Rotterdam side past their fierce rivals, who once again paired ineffective possession with weak defending.

 

Feyenoord’s 4-3-3

The starting line-ups

Up until the final day it remained doubtful whether John Guidetti had recovered from his illness over the past week and was fit enough to start. Well, fit enough he was, as his superb conversion in this match showed. Feyenoord lacked Stefan de Vrij in central defense, though he made a return from injury in the final minutes of the game. Bruno Martins Indi partnered captain Ron Vlaar here.
In midfield, Kelvin Leerdam completed the midfield three of Clasie and Bakkal to replace Karim El Ahmadi, who plays in the African Cup of Nations. Kamohelo Mokotjo played a makeshift right-back role.

 

Ajax’ 4-3-3

The fact that Ajax was without long-term injured players like Sigthorsson, Boerrigter, and Boilesen is hardly news anymore, and today also centre-back Toby Alderweireld and right-back Gregory van der Wiel missed out. Ricardo van Rhijn played beside Jan Vertonghen, while Ajax’ left side was composed of Daley Blind at left-back and Lorenzo Ebecilio at the wing.

 

Up to the opening goal

Ajax simply was the dominant team during the first third of the match. Feyenoord allowed them to circulate the ball quite easily and surprisingly refrained from pressing Ajax high up the pitch. Ajax deployed their full-backs quite high up the pitch, even by their standards, with Enoh dropping in between the wide-spread centre backs.

With Feyenoord refraining from aggressive pressure far up the pitch, they had a numerical advantage in midfield, as their wingers tucked in well here. Ajax did indeed control most of the possession, but as this was mainly in their own half, not much came from it. Somehow Frank de Boer rates possession this highly that his team seems more content to cherish the ball near their own goal than to take the game to their opponents, at the expense of some quicker turnovers.

A simply equation in football could be that possession near your own goal plus pressure by the opponent equals turnovers in a dangerous area. And these own half turnovers kept on appearing, either as a result of some moments of Feyenoord pressure, or of simple passes going astray in Ajax defense and defensive midfield zone. While Ajax created some long distance shots with their long possession spells, Feyenoord’s breaks posed more of a goal scoring danger. Simple passes into the feet of Feyenoord players (van Rhijn), or conceding in your own half under pressure of a man-marker (Ebecilio) are just not things that should occur more than once a match. However, at Ajax, own half turnovers almost seem part of their routine, and they would go on to pay for it during the remainder of the game.

The difference between the value of possession in longer spells and the value of possession on quick breaks and turnovers was well illustrated in the opening goal. While Ajax’ long spells hardly created any danger, their opening goal results from a lightning quick counter that was initiated from a cleared Feyenoord corner.

 

Role reversal

As so often is the case, the score line dictates possession of the ball. And this match was an exaggerated example of the team leading the score conceding possession to the team chasing the equalizer. Ajax retreated relatively deep, while Feyenoord dominated possession. Knowing that to allow Ajax possession of the ball would grant them an easy time defending the lead, Feyenoord advanced their stance and started dominating, particularly down their right wing. Ruben Schaken had the better of Daley Blind on more than one occasion, and the far majority of Feyenoord’s crosses flew in from that side.

 

Feyenoord goals

Admittedly, the John Guidetti penalty that led to the equalizer was a cheap one, and a game changing event at the same time, but Ajax should never have allowed that one event to have such an impact on their game, while Feyenoord deserves credit for grabbing the initiative upon going a goal down and firmly holding onto it while the score was level again. One of the moments Ajax should look back on, just as much as they should on the penalty incident, is the one-on-one opportunity where Ebecilio wasted the chance to exploit Nelom’s error. A second Ajax goal at that point in the game would have made their victory quite likely.

Feyenoord’s second goal was scored from a direct free kick, conceded in a highly dangerous area of the pitch by Enoh. Jordy Clasie’s delivery was excellent and Guidetti scored a rebound from close range. However, some light can be shed on the highly undesirable trend of offensive players deliberately blocking defenders to allow their team mate a free chance. Just replay the second goal and note Mokotjo’s intentional block on Vertonghen. Hard to spot, yet important to erase from the game…

Feyenoord effectively won the game with their third goal, when Vurnon Anita lost an unnecessary high tackle on Guyon Fernandez and the Feyenoord winger found Otman Bakkal who slotted home in the far corner. Don’t miss Blind’s role on this goal, as the Ajax left-back is found marking some air in behind his own defensive line, thereby playing Bakkal onside and ruining his team’s offside trap.

 

The closing stages

At the hour mark, De Boer threw on the attackers in hope of chasing Feyenoord’s goal. As a result, the game became very much end-to-end and chances were found at either goal. First, Ajax capitalized on an error by Feyenoord goal keeper Erwin Mulder, who allowed Bulykin to block his clearance, only for the ball to find the net of the empty goal. But Ajax newly installed hope was very short-lived, as another right wing attack by Feyenoord allowed Guidetti to complete his hat-trick to settle the final score at 4-2.

 

In the end

Football is a complicated game in the fact that it involves a continuous flow of the game, with twenty-two players and a ball in motion. But let’s not overcomplicate in analyzing it. If you own a lot of the ball in your own half, you’re probably going to lose some of those balls on your own half too. The balance between aiming for possession and avoiding dangerous turnovers is something where Ajax need to improve. Playing as they prefer right now, will allow opponents the better chances, arising from quick breaks, while their own long spells of possession will find well organized defenses, resulting in very ineffective play. The fact that both Ajax goals today were scored seconds after turnovers may help Frank De Boer to awake from his possession obsession.

Feyenoord, as the winners of this game, deserve a lot of credit for the way they came back after the opening goal. They dominated Ajax weaker left wing, an area that seemed deliberately targeted by Koeman. John Guidetti’s performance in a match that was broadcast worldwide will do the City loanee a lot of good. Meanwhile, the true man-of-the-match would still be Jordy Clasie, who rapidly develops into one of the Eredivisie’s most all-round central midfielders.