Feyenoord dodge warning shot but should learn lessons from Ajax draw
As Sunday’s Klassieker derby between Feyenoord and Ajax entered the final 10 minutes, it appeared the latter were set to take an integral three points from the top of the table clash and greatly increase the pressure on their table-topping opponents.
Feyenoord, who had a perfect record in the Eredivisie heading into their 10th game and sat five points clear of their visitors, had fallen behind thanks to a well worked goal from 19-year-old Ajax forward Kasper Dolberg 10 minutes into the second half.
While the Rotterdam side were on top in the opening 45 minutes and gave nothing away. But for Bilal Basacikoglu’s poor finish on a one-on-one with Andre Onana and an awful shot in a golden area from Eric Botteghin, they could have been well ahead come the break. Then the fight seemed to have been knocked out of them with Dolberg’s lovely lift over Brad Jones. They pushed on after that goal, but the space to play with was limited up field and their wing-heavy play and lack of attacking focus meant their jabs were weak and ineffective.
But it seemed somewhat typical of Feyenoord and their ‘never give up’ attitude that Dirk Kuyt was able to head a cross from Eljero Elia bouncing beyond Andre Onana and into the net.
It was an exciting ending to a game that had been scrappy and underwhelming at times.
With Dolberg’s goal, assisted by the league’s most creative and talented player in Hakim Ziyech, Ajax were set to move to within two points of their fierce rivals and likely earn their place among Dutch fans and pundits as the favourites for the title.
And they still could be, but Kuyt has earned some much-needed breathing space for Feyenoord and himself.
Ever the embodiment of Feyenoord and their tense, warrior-like mentality, Mr Duracell remains loved by the fans and is a permanent presence in the starting XI and he has scored four goals in 10 games now.
His performances however have not inspired much confidence. He has played as an attacking midfielder this season, but does not provide the creativity they need there, and having him in the team still upsets the balance of the midfield, making it difficult for the team to provide ample protection in front of a weak central defence. There is nowhere else for him to go when Giovanni van Bronckhorst has a fully fit team to choose from.
Kuyt, of course, will feel vindicated by making the difference and his display overall was not bad, while Van Bronckhorst has another reason to avoid dropping him, but that could be at the detriment of the team.
Their determination and battling attitude continues to take them over the line, just as it did against NEC the previous week, but it cannot mask their deficiencies for too long.
Fragile, heavy on the wings and with weaknesses in the setup of the squad, the Rotterdammers have many issues to address and they are becoming more and more prevalent. Ziyech’s pass followed by a neat touch from Dolberg saw Ajax capitalise on these issues and take the lead in a situation that a capable defence would likely have shut out.
Had Kuyt failed to score, the talk after the game could have been largely about Dolberg and Ziyech being the lynchpin to Ajax’s title challenge. After all, their attack is well connected, they have a fantastic striker in the young Dane and he has suitable backup in Traore and Younes. Ajax are now more threatening than they have been for a few years and with PSV struggling in recent weeks, the opportunity had arisen for Ajax to show that should be considered favourites.
The first-half undermined Ajax and seemed to suggest Feyenoord were capable of making a statement. With Nicolai Jorgensen leading the attack and in form, Feyenoord have a great danger to them, but that their game plan is inherently flawed causes issues from the beginning.
It cannot really be said that Feyenoord are stagnating in anyway already, they have of course done well and there is a great deal to like about a team that contains Jorgensen, Rick Karsdorp, Terence Kongolo, Tonny Vilhena, Bilal Basacikoglu and, naturally, the reliable Jones. But their results against Heracles, PSV, even Willem II and NEC have hinted at some frailties and lack of versatility that will undermine them.
With a five-point gap 10 rounds into the competition, though, Feyenoord do have plenty to work with and PSV have done them some favours by relieving the pressure with a recent dip.
Ajax failed to pull closer to their rivals, but they had been looking much sharper in the build up to the game.
Ziyech, an €11 million signing from Twente in the summer, has had a great influence by making the attack better connected and fiercer. Dolberg is a fantastic threat on goal and has a good shot, while Bertrand Traore can offer a great threat from the right wing. Amin Younes on the opposite side is tricky, but he had very little luck against Feyenoord and his shooting is awful. Ziyech, then, has plenty of opportunities to carve out chances and he and Dolberg will be main players in Ajax’s challenge. Davy Klaassen, however, is failing to make an impact on games – as was witnessed on Sunday.
Ajax were disastrous in the first-half in all ways and need to find a way to up the tempo in attacks when Ziyech cannot find space. That could have been costly as it made it easy for Feyenoord to press on, wait for mistakes and create danger. Bosz’s men were able to turn things around in the second half and impose themselves on the game, but they hardly stepped up to battle for every ball the way their opponents did and they could use that urgency.
In the end, Davinson Sanchez was the only one who could to go into the battle of physicality with Ajax failing to rely on their technical skill. The gap was perhaps personified in the moment where Dolberg showed his impeccable sense of timing by backheeling the ball into his path, only to find a resilient Terence Kongolo rushing back and wiping out the danger in a flash with an impressive sliding tackle.