Can Bosz’s Ajax prevent a PSV era of dominance?
When Frank de Boer was appointed Ajax boss in December 2010, no one was quite sure what to expect. The former Netherlands captain had never coached at a senior level before, with his only experience coming from his spell in charge of the club’s youth team and in the background staff at the national team.
The ex-Barcelona player had the backing of footballing icon Johan Cruijff, with his velvet revolution gaining ground and about to change the club completely – whether for better or worse remains the subject of debate.
De Boer had the faith of the club and the fans because of his legendary status as a player and that he is a thorough Cruijff disciple. However, the likelihood of success in a rookie coach taking over a traditional superpower that had failed to win an Eredivisie title in seven years and was witnessing an immense civil war behind the scenes was unclear.
Three and a half years later, though, with four league titles to his name, De Boer had driven his side to a streak of domestic success that even the likes of Louis van Gaal and Rinus Michels had not achieved.
With Feyenoord building their way back up from an almost completely ruinous era and PSV crumbling consistently under the challenge, there was a feeling of confidence in the Dutch capital that Ajax’s reign was not going to end any time soon.
But during Ajax’s undisputed era at the top, down south, something new was stirring. In 2013, just as with De Boer, one of Dutch football’s biggest names was taking over at the helm of the club at which he built his reputation. A former Barcelona player whose main experience as a coach came from a spell in charge of the team’s youth team and working on the background staff of the national team, was ready for his first big permanent job.
Just like with De Boer, the expectations were mixed. A perennial giant going through a dry spell of titles due to poor recruitment and planning hiring a rookie trainer, no one really knew what was coming from PSV and Phillip Cocu.
If anything, the expectations on Cocu were slightly less than those surrounding his former team-mate. He had already been given a crack at the top PSV job, having replaced Fred Rutten in March 2012 in a caretaker capacity. He was not given it on a permanent basis, though, as Philip Cocu felt he needed another year to develop with the youth team, while Dick Advocaat led the first-team to second place.
While Cocu’s permanent tenure got off to a good start, they followed up a 4-1 demolition of Ajax with a run of one win in nine games, completely derailing their title challenge. The Eindhovenaren recovered through the second half of the season, but the damage was done and they finished fourth – 12 points behind Ajax, who won their fourth straight Eredivisie crown.
The next season, however, was a different story. Powered by Memphis Depay, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jetro Willems, combined with the very smart additions of Andres Guardado and Luuk de Jong, Cocu’s men obliterated the league.
Memphis topped the goals charts with 22, De Jong was second with 20 and a further 10 assists, while left-back Willems was in astounding form on the left flank, getting 13 assists – a figure bettered only by FC Twente attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech.
In the end, PSV humiliated Ajax by finishing 17 points clear at the top.
It wasn’t entirely down to PSV, though. Ajax had completely stagnated, so had De Boer and the “technical heart” of the club.
Technical director Marc Overmars, who has this summer been linked to a key role at Chelsea, has been remarkably ineffective, even reckless, arguably stupid, at times. The signing of Lerin Duarte to replace Christian Eriksen was absurd from the very beginning, and is one they were warned about by Wim Jonk – one of the key men in the youth academy. The former Ajax and Inter man argued against many of the key decisions the club raised, but instead of embracing his ideas, he was pushed out of the club, prompting a protest from others within the famous academy.
It is, in a sense, indicative of Ajax’s problems, as well as De Boer’s and even of Dutch football’s issues – arrogance brought on by success leading to negligence and sloppiness. De Boer, once invigorating and exciting, stopped thinking and developing, Ajax failed to see the issues in their youth system and underestimated their rivals.
PSV, on the other hand, looked to claw their way back. They built a long-term strategy. Their scouting has improved, their transfer policy is smart and, long seen as a missing link of the club, they are looking to better the youth system and the integration of its graduates into the first-team.
Where Ajax have begun to ail, PSV now thrive.
Last season was a challenge for De Boer. Once seen as a potential successor to Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, to Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and a rival to Mauricio Pochettino for the Tottenham job, his reputation was dropping. He needed to approach the 2015-16 campaign with new ideas, reinvigorate his team and push them on to reclaim their title.
Ajax had not lost any key players ahead of the 2015-16 campaign – a rare luxury – whereas PSV had lost Memphis and Wijnaldum, as well as less heralded starter Karim Rekik.
While Ajax signed good players in Nemanja Gudelj, Arkadiusz Milik and Amin Younes, De Boer’s style was too pensive, predictable, slow, timid and one dimensional to get the best out of them. Furthermore, they brought in John Heitinga, who was nothing more than a cheerleader on the sidelines and added absolutely nothing to the team.
Cocu, though, was able to bring in Hector Moreno from Espanyol, sign Guardado on a permanent deal and land Davy Pröpper from Vitesse. Maxime Lestienne came in on loan and impressed immensely as the successor to Memphis, but just before the clash against Ajax in the capital, he had to withdraw because of the death of his mother. Shortly afterwards, his father fell ill and Lestienne stayed in Belgium to be close to his family. His dad’s subsequent death hit Lestienne hard and it took a long time for him to return to action. Sadly, he could not get back to the level he had shown in the early stages of the campaign and has now left to join Rubin Kazan.
As significant a blow as that was for PSV ahead of the game in Amsterdam, Cocu was lucky to be able to call on young Uruguayan attacker Gaston Pereiro, who fired them to victory against Ajax in his first start with two goals in a 2-1 win.
Later, PSV would bring Marco van Ginkel in on loan from Chelsea, who, with eight goals in 13 league games, would have a crucial say in the title race.
Cocu’s men maintained their push to defend their crown, meanwhile they did one thing De Boer’s Ajax had always set out to do but never accomplished – progress beyond the group stage of the Champions League. Finishing above Manchester United, they faced Atletico Madrid in the second round, losing to the eventual finalists on penalties.
Where PSV impressed in Europe, Ajax were catastrophic. In a Europa League group consisting of Fenerbahce, Celtic and Molde, they finished third with just one win – not once in their six games did they really look dominant or in control, they never impressed.
PSV had many issues throughout the campaign, though. Their midfield lacked balance and, just like the 2014-15 season, Dutch teams were too poorly set up to pounce on their weaknesses. Even in the Champions League they got by on luck in many occasions.
But with their depth and attacking potency, PSV pushed on and sat top of the table until late March, when a 2-0 defeat to Ajax towards the end of the season saw them fall behind their rivals. The Amsterdam giants looked certain to get their crown back heading into the final game of the season. PSV were playing sixth-placed PEC Zwolle away, where they suffered their first defeat of the previous campaign, while Ajax, who just needed a win, took on second bottom De Graafschap, who were sure of a place in the relegation playoff places.
PSV did their part, winning 3-1, and as Ajax went 1-0 up in Doetinchem, it seemed De Boer’s men had it sealed. But as Bryan Smeets charged unmarked from the centre circle to the edge of Ajax’s box to meet a square pass from the flank, sending it rolling past Jasper Cillessen, the intensity grew ten-fold.
With a lot of time left, Ajax pushed on for their second goal, but indicative of the troubles that had haunted them all season, they were lacking intelligence, pace, and imagination to really create any chances. In fact, De Graafschap nearly put one it at the end, only for Cillessen to save it.
When the full-time whistle went, it was all confirmed. PSV were champions, Ajax had failed disastrously. De Boer left shortly afterwards, a year too late, arguably, and the ‘Sons of the Gods’ have been left with quite a rebuilding job.
PSV, are on the rise. They have benefited immensely from the plan they have built and the signings they have made. And meanwhile, Ajax shown no signs of learning from their mistakes. They have made a smart move in bringing in Peter Bosz – a former Feyenoord technical director and Vitesse coach – to replace De Boer, but there is no clear plan when it comes to the signings they have made.
PSV sold centre-back Jeffrey Bruma to Wolfsburg for a fair price and signed the accomplished 27-year-old Daniel Schwaab. Ajax, on the other hand, signed 32-year-old Heiko Westermann from Real Betis for the same position – a slow defender who does not inspire any kind of optimism. Young Colombians Mateo Casierra and Davinson Sanchez could shine, but it is another case of Ajax hoovering up young talents without being sure what to do with the ones they already have.
Meanwhile, Milik has departed, joining Napoli for €32 million. The Poland international had a brilliant second half of the season and finished with 21 goals in 31 games. Bosz has youngster Kasper Dolberg and Cassierra to fall back on, while Richairo Zivkovic is still an option.
Bosz experimented with a different set up in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over PAOK, opting for a 5-3-2 system in an illustration of his tactical flexibility and an openness to experimentation and new ideas that Ajax have been lacking for two years. It will take some time for Bosz’s team to get used to the playing style, though, and the defensive deficiencies were well on display in the midweek fixture and must be rectified immediately.
Crucially, it is truly hard to see how Ajax are going to bounce back and regain their status as the true kings of the Eredivisie. They have ample issues, whereas PSV are solid in so many areas – on the field, of course, but off it, they know exactly what they are doing and technical director Marcel Brands deserves so much credit for that, probably more than Cocu.
The power has shifted. The Eindhovenaren are in better shape now than Ajax were at any point in their four-year reign of dominance under De Boer.
PSV are clearly the favourites heading into the new campaign, but more than that, everything seems to suggests we are on the cusp of seeing a truly impressive and extended era of supremacy from the Philips Stadion outfit. Importantly, they deserve it.