PSV-Ajax Tactical Review: Advocaat’s inflexibility proves fatal
PSV-Ajax was perhaps the most hyped Eredivisie match in recent history. Unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, the level of play didn’t quite live up to expectations. Despite featuring five goals, the game never got off the ground. Both teams played poorly and in the end the fixture was decided in favour of the team that made fewer serious mistakes.
The main difference in possession was the quality of the players who saw most of the ball. PSV’s most active player was Marcelo who is by some distance the worst passer in the team. Ajax’s tactic to allow him the ball worked well as he never did anything productive in possession. For Ajax, it was creative midfielder Christian Eriksen who had the most touches. If Eriksen is given time and space he can control the game. He managed two dribbles, four key passes and, most importantly, a goal. The Danish playmaker didn’t have a great game – he was at fault for Jeremain Lens’ 1-1 – but he was probably Ajax’s key player on the day.
Ajax’s main tactical triumph yesterday was their ability to largely avoid a midfield battle. The physicality of Kevin Strootman, Mark van Bommel and Ola Toivonen meant that Ajax would have likely lost this type of match. This was obvious in the build-up to Lens’ first goal. Eriksen dallied on the ball, lost a duel to Strootman and from the resulting counter came the equalizer. PSV’s failure to impose their style of play on Ajax meant that they were always fighting a losing battle. It is a testament to Ajax’s sloppiness and weak defence that PSV stayed in the match for as long as they did.
One of the biggest problems PSV had today was the very limited contribution of Georginio Wijnaldum. This wasn’t necessarily his fault. It was difficult to understand Dick Advocaat’s decision to include him in the starting eleven. Wijnaldum is a fine player, but his particular set of skills does not lend itself it a role out on the wing in a counter-attacking set-up. The ex-Feyenoord player offered nothing in this match and it was a clear mistake by Advocaat to keep him on the pitch for 66 minutes. Within that period Wijnaldum only had 18 touches and contributed nothing in defence. This is something for which Advocaat must shoulder the blame. Starting with the wrong tactical plan is forgivable, waiting more than an hour to correct an obvious mistake isn’t.
PSV recorded some genuinely unbelievable statistics during this match. They attempted 30 crosses of which only two reached a team mate. Dries Mertens alone tried to cross 14 times and was successful with just one. Crosses are a relatively ineffective way of creating chances at the best of times, but rarely are they as useless as they were tonight. Jeremain Lens was PSV’s best crosser on the pitch, but he was playing as a striker and as such was expected to be on the receiving end of any service into the penalty area. PSV continued to have faith in a strategy that was failing spectacularly and for obvious reasons. That, more than anything else, is why they deserved to lose.
While Ajax was the better side today, they should be wary of being too content with this result. Their performance was below par and it was only because PSV was even worse that Frank de Boer’s side won. De Boer said in his post-match interview that Ajax were unable to string together three passes or more and that this was the result of their own failings, rather than from any defensive heroics from Advocaat’s team.
This failure was perhaps best illustrated by Viktor Fischer who was stranded on the left flank. He was subbed off in the 70th minute, but only recorded 19 touches. He was often given space by PSV right-back Atiba Hutchinson, but his team mates rarely reached him. This is not an unusual occurence with Ajax. During their ill-fated visit to Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League, Isaac Cuenca often found himself in acres of space, but never got the ball. Ajax played through the centre and didn’t get any space there. Ajax is a team that relies on passing and movement, but on occasion they lack intelligence.
This win likely won Ajax their third consecutive title, but they didn’t exactly do it in style. Two of their three goals were the result of terrible individual errors by PSV players and Ajax rarely created chances. They nonetheless deserved to win this match and should they indeed lift the Eredivisie trophy again, they are to be considered worthy champions.
Article written by Nikos Overheul (@noverheul) and Pieter Zwart (@PieterZwartNL)