The season so far has been a tumultuous one for Ajax, from the tragic collapse in pre season of young star Abdelhak Nouri, which ended the youngsters career and greatly affected his quality of life, to the decision of the impressive coach Peter Bosz to leave after a single season for Borussia Dortmund the club from Amsterdam seem to have playing under a cloud for the entire season. There was a definite sense going in to this game that the club needed something significant in order to kickstart their campaign, at the end of the season we may look back on this match as the turning point of the season.
Under first year head coach Marcel Keizer there had been some minor discontent among the fanbase as Ajax were in turn eliminated from the Champions League, by Nice, and then the Europa League, by Rosenborg, combined with the slow start to the season. This unrest has been mitigated somewhat by the fact that Ajax continue to play attacking, progressive football under Keizer. Indeed if we look at the underlying numbers then it could be argued that this team are outperforming the team under Bosz last season. Figures provided by the excellent @11tegen11 and correct before this round of matches show Ajax to have an average expected goals per match of 1.93 compared to 1.23 at the same point of last season. A significant increase which suggests that at some point they will start to catch up to their statistical output.
You can point to the dip in performance of Kasper Dolberg for example as a player that is not providing the same output in terms of goals and assists as last season, at some point soon however his quality will come to the fore and we can expect his performance to improve markedly, In football these individual dips in form can have a significant impact on team performance, especially when they come from a player as important to the club as Dolberg.
The most significant piece of team news in this match came from the Ajax camp with the pre match announcement that midfield starlet Frenkie De Jong would be starting for the home side, the midfielder has been extremely impressive in his appearances this season and including him in the starting line up for his match was an obvious show of faith from Keizer. Prior to the match however there was some confusion as to where the youngster would start. There seemed no doubt that Keizer would stick to his, and the clubs, preferred 4-3-3 system but Lasse Schonem Donny Van De Beek and Hakim Ziyech were all named to start and would surely keep their midfield roles. But there was no recognised left back?
In the end the Austrian defender Maximillian Wober shifted over to left back and Frenkie De Jong came in to the centre of the defence along with Matthijs De Ligt. A bold move perhaps but the youngster went on to be named man of the match as the operated very much as a distributor from the back line often stepping forward and breaking lines with quality passes.
Other than this switch there were no surprises from Ajax. Andre Onana started in goal with Joel Veltman, Matthijs De Ligt, Frenkie De Jong and Maximillian Wober in defence. Donny Van De Been, Lasse Schone and Hakim Ziyech played in midfield with David Neres wide on the right and Justin Kluivert wide on the left. Kasper Dolberg was the lone striker.
PSV on the other hand lined up in what resembled a 4-2-3-1 system. Jeroen Zoet started in goal with a back four of Santiago Arias, Daniel Schwaab, Nicolas Ismiat-Mirin and Joshua Brenet. Derrick Lucassen and Joshua Brenet played in the midfield behind Luuk De Jong, who came on early for an injured Jurgen Locadia, Marco Van Ginkel and Gaston Pereiro. Hirving Lozano was given the lone forward role.
Positioning of Matthijs De Ligt
The big question heading in to this match surrounded the configuration of the Ajax defensive unit with Frenkie De Jong expected to be a more attacking central defender than we would normally see. As the match progressed both Veltman and right back and Wober at left back retained a more defensive role and essentially formed a wide three man defence with De Ligt central in possession of the ball. The role of the full backs allowed De Jong to move in to the midfield but it was also a testament to the trust that Keizer and his coaching staff have in the 18 year old De Ligt.
Here we see Ajax in possession of the ball with PSV set up in a medium block. You can see that De Ligt is the deepest player, almost playing as a sweeper whilst the fullbacks are wide but not looking to move forward in to more attacking positions. The configuration in this image is excellent in the short term for retaining possession and moving the ball laterally across the pitch, in terms of ball progression however the three central players in this midfield block would look to rotate in to the spaces behind the initial pressing line of PSV.
For the duration of the match PSV found it difficult to set up in an effective defensive structure against the movement and rotations from Ajax.
Again here we see the wide three man defensive structure from Ajax in their build up phase. Wober, De Ligt and Veltman are stretched across the width of the field allowing Ajax to shift the ball across the field, this in turn moves the PSV defensive block out of position and creates passing lanes to allow Ajax to progress the ball in to the oppositions half.
In the centre, linking the defensive and midfield units, we see that Frenkie De Jong has stepped forward to force the pressing players from PSV to cover his position, this prevents PSV from effectively closing down the man in possession.
Frenkie De Jong
As already mentioned above Frenkie De Jong went on to be named man of the match in this game and with good reason. His ability and use of the ball in the central areas were key in enabling Ajax to break down the defensive block of PSV. One of the most effective movements in football comes when central defenders are able to drive with the ball out of the defensive line in to the midfield area. With his ability to carry the ball forwards and his appreciation of space De Jong excelled from the back line.
De Jong was also excellent in drifting forwards in to areas in between the lines of pressure from PSV. This allowed Ajax to progress the ball forwards.
Here we see the starting position for De Jong in the defensive line. As he takes possession of the ball he immediately steps forward in to the opposition half carrying the ball at pace. This movement provokes two PSV players to move towards the ball carrier in order to close down the threat.
It is this moment as the defenders move across that De Jong is able to shift the ball in to the left half space where there is now a free man able to take possession of the ball and move into a large area of free space.
Here the movement started with De Ligt in the defensive line. Instead of maintaining a connection across the field as a normal central defender would we see De Jong immediately start to move in to the midfield area. As the first ball comes from De Ligt in to the midfield De Jong then continues his run and is able to collect the ball in space in front of the PSV defensive line.
These situations were exceptionally difficult for PSV to defend against throughout the match.
PSV lack of defensive coherence
One of the biggest issues for PSV, who went in to this match as league leaders, was the lack of a coherent defensive structure. It was far too easy time and time again for Ajax to play through them and progress the ball up to the edge of the PSV penalty area.
As soon as Ajax went a goal ahead and PSV were forced to play a more expansive game we saw spaces open up that Ajax were able to exploit, in particular in the wide areas.
Here we see Ajax attack in a quick transition as PSV push forward to look for an equaliser. With the space in the wide areas and the pace of Neres on the right and Kluivert on the left these spaces were easily exploited via quick direct passes that changed the angle of attack quickly.
This is the build up to the second Ajax goal. The defensive orientation from PSV is exceptionally poor as the five attacking players from Ajax are split across the width of the field, this flattens out the defensive line for PSV and prevents them from occupying the space in front of the penalty area. It is this space that Lasse Schone exploits as he drives forward unchallenged with the ball before striking it low in to the bottom corner.
Going in to this match more was expected of PSV. The side from Eindhoven were after all the league leaders but in the end Phillip Cocu was completely out thought by Marcel Keizer as the Ajax coach sprung a series of surprises that enabled his side to progress the ball forwards in a manner that overwhelmed the PSV defensive structure.
Ajax controlled the game from start to finish and were by far the better side, indeed in the end a 3-0 scoreline did not even flatter them, it could have been more.
The question is whether this will be the start of a true revival in the fortunes of Ajax and whether we will see the side from Amsterdam push forwards to regain their title as league champions.