In-form Ajax are ready to win it
By Babette van Haaren
“Once it’s running, Ajax could be a machine that cannot be stopped,” said former captain Jan Vertonghen. It’s something they have proven in each of the past two seasons. The Amsterdammers have secured two championship titles after trailing the top of the table by more than ten points. The second coming of Frank de Boer has been the best thing that could happen to the Dutch giant.
Upon his return to the club as head coach following the departure of the sacked Martin Jol in December 2011, De Boer immediately reinstated the playing style for which Ajax is celebrated across the world – the philosophy that brought the club remarkable success in the 1970s and again in the ‘90s. “Defending starts with the forwards. When we lose the ball, we don’t stop. We start to press in order to get the ball back as quick as possible. Pressing left, right, above and below. Always and everywhere. That’s what I say to my players”. It sounds like music to the ears of many people who have an affinity with Ajax.
High pressuring is an important thing in De Boer’s football philosophy. He says: “To dose is something you do when you have the ball, not when you don’t have it. When you have the ball, play it calmly around, take a breather and then start with a new attack.” To sum up the other parts of his and Ajax’s philosophy: 4-3-3 with wide wingers and constant movement with and without the ball.
It’s that philosophy that has also brought Ajax success in recent years. Once spring is on the horizon, Ajax become the machine Vertonghen talked about. In the 2010/11 season they were unbeaten in the last 17 games, winning 15 of them. As a result, the club was rewarded with its 30th championship in history and the fans finally saw that third star on the iconic red & white shirt. A season later, Ajax won their last 15 matches and were once again the ones who held the trophy as De Boer became the first Ajax coach to win back-to-back titles since Louis van Gaal in 1995 and ‘96.
It’s a little different this season. Ajax have never trailed a big gap due to inconsistency of their main rivals PSV, Vitesse and Feyenoord. Still, it seems like they are again becoming the machine they were in the previous two years. As centre-back Toby Alderweireld puts it: “We are now a properly adjusted machine.”
The Belgian is right. Ajax have been in great form recently. The Godenzonen have won their last five games, scoring 16 goals in the process while conceding only three. The team will be looking to take the feeling from the last few fixtures to Eindhoven. Like previous seasons, Ajax are coming good when it really matters.
The capital club are now favourites to lift the title this season and De Boer is not one to disagree, but the former Ajax and Barcelona star remains wary. “I’ve been saying it for a few weeks. We’re doing well at the moment but that feeling can change from one moment to another.” The game against PSV is crucial to maintain the positive feeling. If the players return from Eindhoven as winners, they will have taken a massive step to the 32nd championship in the club’s history and the third one in a row. Ajax will keep their three point lead over Vitesse (assuming they will win their away game against Roda JC) intact and will move six points clear from biggest rivals PSV. With four very winnable games remaining, people will have their money on the Dutch giant. A loss, on the other hand, could mean a disaster. PSV and Vitesse will equal the Amsterdammers on points and it could see Feyenoord, who trail by four at the moment, brought back into contention as well. The title race will be more exciting than ever before.
With the exception of goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, who saw red in last week’s 4-0 win over Heracles, and Barcelona loanee winger Isaac Cuenca*, who was likely to return but has not gained full fitness yet, Ajax travel to Eindhoven with a full squad. Reserve goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen will replace the suspended Vermeer. The 23-year-old may have made just two league appearances for his side this season, he is in no way an inexperienced shot stopper, having spent a full season in the first-team of NEC before his move to the Amsterdam ArenA. Despite speculation of a possible return of Manchester United legend and current Ajax marketing director Edwin van der Sar, the substitute goalkeeper will be either Peter Leeuwenburgh (U19) or Chiel Kramer (Jong Ajax)*.
With their wide range of attacking options including the likes of Viktor Fischer, Kolbeinn Sigthórsson, Danny Hoesen, Ryan Babel, Christian Eriksen, Lasse Schøne and captain Siem de Jong and backed by a solid defense Ajax have a good chance of beating PSV in their own house.
*Updated on the 12th of April, 16:45 CET.