De Klassieker: Feyenoord v Ajax – Two weakened giants up for exciting battle
The harbour city versus the capital. The region where the money is being made versus the region where the money is being spent. The hard-working versus the arrogant. There are not enough cliches to describe the intense hatred between Rotterdam and Amsterdam, but the two biggest cities never confront anywhere more than on the pitch, when Feyenoord and Ajax battle it out for who is the biggest in the Eredivisie.
This week’s Klassieker match comes at a time in which both perennial Dutch giants are in a rather fragile period.
Having seen Siem de Jong and Daley Blind depart for the Premier League, Ajax are entering a new era. The duo were the only members of the team who had played an important part in each of the four Eredivisie titles they have won under Frank de Boer and now the unprecedented reign of dominance is under serious threat.
Although selling the two crucial players was, for a long time, imminent, Ajax were in no better position to deal with the loss of such personnel. De Jong, the captain, has been replaced on the pitch by talented young midfielder Davy Klaassen, but his character and leadership are sorely missed. Blind’s move to Manchester United has left a sizeable void in the midfield. His ability to dictate a game and break up opponents’ attacks is something which the side is lacking at the moment, as centre-back turned midfielder Nick Viergever doesn’t have the same presence as the Netherlands international.
Last season was particularly testing one for De Boer and his Ajax team. The loss of Eriksen hit them hard and left them with no creativity, while defensively they were rather poor. His decision to move Blind from left-back to centre of midfield, Lasse Schone from midfield to the wing and Siem de Jong from attacking midfield to striker was the turning point of the season. It shifted the creativity to the wings and shored up the midfield and then, from matchday 18 to the end of the campaign, they sat top of the Eredivisie and lifted a fourth consecutive league title – with De Boer the first coach in the league’s history to do so.
This year, though, it’s difficult to see such a relatively quick fix for the capital club. Ajax are very much slow starters under De Boer and the team are still to click together again, but the problems are plentiful and they present a whole new worry for De Boer.
Their opening day 4-1 win over Vitesse was deceiving, they narrowly beat an AZ team which gave away far too much space in midfield before they were well-beaten by PSV and Groningen, losing two league games in a row for the first time since January 2012. They returned to winning ways last week with a 2-1 win over Heracles in the Amsterdam ArenA, but still the bottom side, who have no points in the league at this point, caused them a few problems.
Ajax have weak points throughout the team. While backed by a strong goalkeeper in Jasper Cillessen, their back four is hindered by a left-back, Nicolai Boilesen, with poor positioning, a lack of strength and defensive apathy, meanwhile centre-back Joel Veltman has a tendency to dive into tackles and often loses his man.
In midfield, there is no balance or defensive solidity. Viergever, Thulani Serero and Klaassen are poor at tracking runs of attackers coming from deep. Going forward, there is absolutely no creativity, something the team has been lacking since Eriksen’s departure last year. Klaassen is more in the mould of De Jong, linking up with the attackers and posing a goalscoring threat, while Serero can run all day without actually doing much.
In the front three, De Boer has a severe striker problem. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson is the only option who fits Ajax’s style of swapping positions and bringing others into play, moving wide and even dropping deep, but he has neither the pace nor the technical ability to thrive as the club’s main striker. New signing Arkadiusz Milik scored two goals against Heracles, but is yet to settle into the new role and take on the responsibilities demanded of an Ajax striker, while the 18-year-old Richairo Zivkovic has been spending the early weeks of the campaign in the Jong Ajax team.
This is one of the weakest squads the Amsterdam ArenA has seen for some time and it’s a worrying time for the Ajax supremo. If this team were heading into a Klassieker match with Ronald Koeman’s Feyenoord team of last season, the Rotterdam side would be heavy favourites, but they are not.
Feyenoord are also dealing with serious problems at the moment. The very heart of the squad which pulled the team from a perilous position just a few years ago and financial ruin has been ripped out. Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Daryl Janmaat and Graziano Pelle have all followed in the footsteps of coach Ronald Koeman and moved on to bigger leagues. Like Ajax, the Rotterdam giants have raked in a large sum of money from their summer dealings, but have been unable to reinvest in the squad. Feyenoord have made great signings in Bilal Basacikoglu, Karim El-Ahmadi, Kenneth Vermeer and Jens Toornstra, but signing the trio of Colin Kazim-Richards (on loan), Khalid Boulahrouz and Luke Wilkshire contains a risk, leaving significant worries for new coach Fred Rutten.
After five weeks, the club have won just one game, having beaten ADO Den Haag in the opening weekend. Since then, they have drawn with Heerenveen, thrown away a lead against Utrecht and lost to newly promoted Willem II – all at home, while they failed to make the difference at Twente, drawing 0-0.
Defensively tame, extremely inefficient up front and with fans begrudging a lack of passion and fight, their start to the new campaign has been atrocious. Last week’s 2-1 defeat to Willem II came as a huge blow, summing up the situation they find themselves in at the moment.
Pelle’s move to Southampton has left them with no real presence up front. His replacement, Mitchell te Vrede has hit more shots than any other player in the league after five games, scoring three of them – one of which merely bounced off of him and went in. The Italian striker’s departure has affected the form of Jean-Paul Boetius among others, with the promising, skilful and quick young winger suffering the wrath of De Kuip in last week’s match for his poor displays.
The club’s ability to keep Jordy Clasie, Tonny Vilhena, Boetius and Terence Kongolo is a huge boost, but at the moment, there has been no sign that the club can get come close to matching the runner-up spot they clinched last season.
Three of last season’s key defenders have departed, leaving Sven van Beek and Joris Mathijsen as the makeshift central partnership – one lacks strength and experience, the other lacks pace. Yet, only two teams have conceded fewer shots than the De Kuip side.
The return of Karim El-Ahmadi adds great steel and resolution to the midfield and a great passer of the ball returns, while in Clasie they have a diminutive general in the centre of the park. In the attacking midfield role, though, they have a real problem. Rutten stands by his decision to play Lex Immers, whose touch, pace and creativity are minimal, yet new €3.5 million signing from Utrecht, Jens Toornstra, is seen as a much better option but so far has taken a spot on the bench.
The woeful performances and lack of energy and fight in the team presents a real worry for Rutten and some are beginning to question if he is the right man to motivate these players, many more were never happy with his appointment in the first place.
Each Klassieker match is a momentous occasion, it is not like any other game in the Eredivisie. Ajax are unbeaten in the last five in all competitions, while Feyenoord haven’t beaten them in Amsterdam since 2005.
Both sides have downgraded a great deal over the last two years, meaning this Sunday’s clash is one between two rather underwhelming sides. However, that doesn’t mean it will be a dull one. With the chances Ajax give away and the number of shots Feyenoord have, mixed with the mobility of Ajax’s front three and Feyenoord’s weaknesses in defence mean this game has the makings of a rather exciting and open affair.
There is added spice, too, in the return of Kenneth Vermeer – the goalkeeper who moved from Ajax to Feyenoord in the summer transfer window – who must recover from a poor debut in De Kuip, a stadium he ironically enough has never won a game in despite six tries.
While the sides may be struggling and lacking momentum at this early point in the season, De Klassieker still promises to be an enticing clash.