PSV finally win the title race that never was

It feels like a long time ago since Willem II goalkeeper Kostas Lamprou set PSV on the road to the Eredivisie title.

The Feyenoord loanee completely misjudged and failed to control a high ball played towards his box. The shot stopper’s first touch saw it bounce high above him and he lost out on the battle for the header to PSV attacker Jurgen Locadia, who knocked home his side’s first goal of the season.

It was a gift.

As was Memphis Depay’s goal just a couple of minutes later, taking on an awful pass from a Willem II defender before running on and smashing it home. PSV, though, still made it a rough afternoon for themselves, with the pressure being piled on them by Jurgen Streppel’s team in the second half thanks to Bruno Andrade halving the deficit. In fact, the game was only done and dusted when Lamprou was dismissed and Depay scored a penalty late on.

If PSV’s start to the campaign was underwhelming, Ajax’s was deceiving. The Amsterdam club beat Vitesse 4-1 in the ArenA, but it was a tighter affair than the scoreline suggested.

Oh how the trajectories of both teams changed in the months leading up to the definitive 31st round of fixtures.

Anyone watching Ajax for the first time this season would have thought they were merely going through the motions against struggling NAC Breda in the capital on Sunday. Sadly, though, such a turgid, ineffective, slow and pitiful performance has almost become the norm for Frank de Boer’s team.

It was a dark day for Ajax. The previous night, their reign of dominance over the league had been brought to an end.

The wheels were set in motion just four minutes into PSV’s clash with Heerenveen on Saturday, when Luciano Narsingh burst down the right side. Luuk de Jong, running through the centre, began to drift out towards the left as he charged into the box, while Depay, coming in from the left, targeted the front post. All eyes were on the latter, but Narsingh sent an excellent cross deep into the penalty area, where De Jong calmly but perfectly headed it across the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner.

It was a fine team goal. Charging forward with pace, Depay and De Jong knew exactly where they should be and where each other was – an illustration of just how smoothly the understanding between PSV’s key men has developed over the course of the season.

Depay showed off one of his key skills later on too, smashing in a superb free kick, before Narsingh and De Jong added two more. The only black mark was the goal of Joey van den Berg, who snubbed the attempted bribe of 20 crates of beer from the PSV fans to try and delay their title party. It was futile.

And so, in style, PSV brought an end to seven years of misery. Having watched AZ and Twente enjoy success in the league before their fierce rivals marveled in four seasons as kings, the wait is over.

Having been top of the division since week two, they have walked the league this term and the title race was over and done with as a contest long ago. If not back in week 19 when Ajax were lucky to hold Feyenoord to a 0-0 draw in Amsterdam to fall six points behind Phillip Cocu’s men, then the following week when a 1-0 defeat to Vitesse saw the deficit grow to nine, or, at the very latest, after the next matchday – a 1-0 home loss to AZ which saw them fall 12 behind.

PSV’s march to the title has made the season rather underwhelming, especially as Ajax have faced no real battle from AZ or Feyenoord for second place, while Dordrecht have had the only automatic relegation spot nailed down since the 11th week.

Cocu’s side have been the main attraction to the league this season, although Feyenoord have made for great watching and were unlucky to be undermined by their poor start under Fred Rutten. Meanwhile, the progress of PEC Zwolle and the great impression Willem II and Excelsior have made in their first season back in the top flight were also interesting stories.

It has not all been as easy as it looks for PSV, though, as they have had some lucky escapes throughout the season. The Boeren have lost four games and have drawn one, but too many times at the start of the season they were second best.

So predictable were they that by the time their meeting with PEC Zwolle came, the victory for Ron Jans’ side looked a simple call, while the loss to Heerenveen was almost telegraphed in advance too. In a lot of cases, though, PSV were put under a lot of pressure and still came out with three points.

Crucially, they have had the tools to compensate for issues in their own system – a lack of balance in midfield early on initially unimproved by Andres Guardado being thrust into a deep position, coupled with the centre-backs’ inability to close down outside the box. Depay, De Jong, Wijnaldum and Willems have all been pivotal, while Maher’s development is back on track with some star performances in the midfield.

Depay is the league’s top goalscorer with 20 goals and three assists, following close behind is De Jong on 19 and eight and Wijnaldum has netted 12 times this term and set up a further three. Incredibly, Willems, a left-back, is joint top of the assist charts with 12.

Depay and Wijnaldum have outgrown the league and will leave this summer, Willems arguably has too and there remains uncertainty over the likelihood of him staying.

Individual quality has been the key component to PSV this term, but it’s harsh to say they have relied on it entirely.

Under Frank de Boer, the second half of the each season has generally belonged to Ajax and is the period in which they have tended to take control of the league. That has not been the case this year, however, as the Godenzonen have arguably regressed even further since the turn of the year.

Their rivals, on the other hand, have developed immensely as a team over the course of this campaign.

While PSV were lucky in some cases in the first half of the season, they have been dominant in most games since the beginning of 2015 – even in their 3-1 defeat at home to Ajax, they were by far the better team. Karim Rekik and Jeffrey Bruma have improved as the season has worn on, while Santiago Arias has been a sound right-back.

Guardado’s influence has increased dramatically as he settled in, so much so that he has become almost an adopted son of Eindhoven and the club have made a great move by making his loan move permanent for less than €3 million.

The Mexican midfielder’s importance cannot be overstated and neither can that of De Jong. The striker’s effectiveness was called into question quite heavily at the start of the campaign, but from the early weeks it became evident that his movement and well rounded game has become a key asset and has helped get the better out of several players.

De Jong’s ability to drop deep often allows Depay to come inside and pose a more direct threat, while Willems becomes more of a winger than a left-back and whips in some remarkable crosses.

Maher had a rough first period at PSV but has developed a great understanding with Guardado and Wijnaldum in midfield to help get the best out of the midfield.

Tactically, Cocu has been too reluctant to adopt a more counter attacking system in many games, but he has shown some flexibility on that front at points in games which has been encouraging.

That is something which has shown a difference between he and De Boer this term. The Ajax boss has been short of ideas this season. Whereas he was able to make some critical and unforeseen adjustments to the team in previous years to help revitalise them on their way to the title, this time he has merely tried to repeat those changes with different personnel, looking to get impossible results. He has shown a real inability to alter a game, too, which is a worry for one of the brightest coaches to emerge from Netherlands in recent years.

The key strength of De Boer’s team over the years has been their ability to play as a unit more so than individuals, but they have failed to exceed in that aspect this year. The individual quality of Ricardo Kishna and Anwar El Ghazi has helped them, as has the development of Davy Klaassen, but a lack of inspiration and pace in build up play has hindered them severely.

PSV have not had that issue. Blessed with an abundance of pace and skill, they have developed into a ferocious machine.

Where Ajax have stagnated and are in need of new ideas, PSV have had the freedom of being a fresh young side able to fully capitalise on having three of the biggest talents in the country.

The summer departures of Depay and Wijnaldum – and possibly Willems and Rekik – will damage them severely. But with Maher, Guardado, De Jong, Narsingh, Locadia and Bruma still there to build around, they can recover.

The talent of Ajax’s squad, though, cannot be dismissed. With Klaassen, El Ghazi, Arek Milik, Richairo Zivkovic, Daley Sinkgraven, Riechedly Bazoer and Jasper Cillessen already in the team with Nemanja Gudelj coming in, they have incredible personnel. De Boer will stay for another season and how he recovers from this abysmal campaign will prove to be a massive test for him.

The Amsterdammers will come back stronger next season, Feyenoord, under Giovanni van Bronckhorst could too, meaning PSV will have a proper fight on their hands.

This campaign belongs to Cocu and his team, however, and they deserve the glory.

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