Tactical preview Ajax v Feyenoord: – Ajax favourites against wounded Feyenoord
Ajax – Feyenoord is always one of the biggest matches in the Eredivisie season, but this year’s edition has not been met with much media attention. Due to the oddly timed international break and the friendly between Portugal and The Netherlands, coverage of De Klassieker has been underwhelming. Ronald Koeman is most likely not at all unhappy at the relative lack of scrutiny by the Dutch media. Feyenoord have had their worst start to the season in over 50 years and last weekend’s loss against FC Twente was their first defeat in 28 home matches.
Ajax have also started their campaign fairly poorly. Their opening match against Roda JC was an exhibition, but against AZ Alkmaar, Frank de Boer’s team were a shambles. Both teams therefore have something to prove ahead of Sunday’s match. Somewhat improbably both Ajax and Feyenoord are missing their captain and right-back. Daryl Janmaat and Siem de Jong are injured, while Ricardo van Rhijn, Stefan de Vrij and Feyenoord’s second-choice right back Jordy van Deelen are all suspended. Janmaat will be subject of a late fitness test, but even if he does feature, he won’t be close to full fitness.
A red card is often such an important moment in a match that any problems a team exhibited before are immediately forgotten. This was to the benefit of Ajax and Feyenoord last week. They had poor matches against AZ and FC Twente even before their players were sent off.
Ajax have had difficulty figuring out how to use new signing Bojan. The young Spaniard started his Ajax period in exciting fashion, scoring a goal and creating an assist against Werder Bremen along the way, but since then he’s had a few tough weeks. This is not so much a reflection of his lack of skill, but more the result of Ajax being unable to integrate Bojan into their system. Bojan is not a winger, he is a wide forward. This doesn’t have to be a problem, but if the ex-Barça player continually runs into the penalty area, someone needs to appear in the right winger zone. If no one does this, Ajax lack width on the right. This is of course a serious problem for a team which plays possession football.
Van Rhijn fails to attack
Against AZ Alkmaar, this exact problem occurred. Right-back Ricardo van Rhijn received a red card midway through the second-half, but this hardly made any difference in his attacking contributions. Van Rhijn didn’t often appear in the opposition half and when he did, he rarely crossed the halfway line by more than a few yards. He mostly passed into central midfield, not the kind of contribution you expect from an attacking full back.
Ruben Ligeon will be van Rhijn’s replacement on Sunday and he too will be expected to charge forward and support Bojan. Ronald Koeman has two main options for the left winger spot – John Goossens and Sekou Cissé – but neither of them have the type of pace that should push back Ligeon in fear of a counter.
Supply to Eriksen
Another problem for Ajax against AZ was the supply to Christian Eriksen. The young Dane is the playmaker of the Amsterdam club and much of their tactical set-up is aimed at giving Eriksen the chance to create. In Ajax’s first match against Roda JC this went very well. Eriksen was in acres of space and managed to pass to and from the edge of the penalty area.
Against AZ this part of Ajax’s game didn’t come off as planned. Eriksen received the ball often, but mostly in deeper positions. The midfielder was unable to control the match and most of his passes didn’t even come remotely close to the opposition box. This raises the question of what AZ did and Roda didn’t. Or, to phrase it differently, what can Feyenoord do to contain Eriksen?
The answer doesn’t necessarily involve marking Eriksen out of the game. Neither AZ nor Feyenoord have the type of defensive midfielders capable of stopping the Danish player when he’s in a dangerous position. The plan should involve making sure Eriksen isn’t reached in the first place. His supply line must be cut.
Against Roda JC centre back Niklas Moisander was constantly in acres of space. He managed to attempt 150 passes, succeeding in a staggering 98%. A large percentage of his passes went straight to Eriksen. Against AZ, the Finnish defender was restricted to just 62 passes and Eriksen’s influence waned accordingly. If Feyenoord is able to close down Moisander, this will have negatively influence Eriksen’s performance as well.
The absence of De Jong
Siem de Jong is out due to a collapsed lung and is expected not to be out of action for at least six weeks. Lasse Schone is expected to replace him. The Dane is a solid midfielder, but is not known as such a decisive match factor in the way De Jong can be. With the captain out, Ajax will be more reliant on Eriksen than ever.
To summarise, stopping Eriksen will be the main incentive for Feyenoord. For them, it is probably the best way to break down the attacking play of the Amsterdammers. The line between Moisander and Eriksen will be instrumental in this, which means Pelle and Immers should fulfil defensive duties in that area. Unfortunately, defensive work isn’t exactly the strongest aspect of their game and you can expect Eriksen to see plenty of the ball.
Few footballers differ in the way Christian Eriksen and Graziano Pelle do, but in one aspect they’re quite similar. Both are the attacking fulcrum of their team. The Italian is a classic target man as well as an assassin in front of goal and in this role, he had his best season ever last year. The qualities of Pelle are obvious, but in that he is the main danger for Feyenoord too. The striker isn’t only instrumental through his proficiency, but is the main hub for all Feyenoord’s attacks in general.
The pattern of the attacking play of Feyenoord is quite clear. From defence or midfield, the ball is given to Pelle, who in turn serves Immers. Immers is then setting up the right flank through Schaken or Janmaat, who look for Pelle to be the end point of the attack.
If Ajax can manage to isolate Pelle, they’re half way into winning the tie. Feyenoord manager Ronald Koeman accused Ajax last season of lacking a Plan B, but this is even more the case for his own team. Feyenoord runs out of options quickly once Pelle is out of the game.
The ability of Ajax to keep Pelle out of the game is an unquestionable one. They managed to do it last season, for example. Christian Poulsen is the standout man to pick up a job like this. He is the only defensive midfielder in Eredivisie who is at a similar level to the Italian striker when it comes to physique (*note by editor, not on looks obviously). This became clear in the previous encounter between Ajax and Feyenoord in the Amsterdam Arena. The Danish midfielder was constantly cutting the lines to Pelle, ensuring Feyenoord struggled to reach Pelle. Poulsen is likely to start again this Sunday and Pelle could have a hard time with the Dane around.
Provisory defence Feyenoord
As mentioned earlier, De Vrij, Janmaat and Jordy van Deelen are all likely to be absent this Sunday. The Rotterdammers will have to improvise to get their defence up. A big problem, considering that their backline is usually one of their main strengths.
Pelle quite naturally earned the most attention last season, being Feyenoords striker, but the defence of Feyenoord was absolute class too. Only Ajax and Twente conceded fewer goals. Feyenoord conceded the least shots of all teams in the Eredivisie last season and the amount of goals was influenced negatively due to the fact that Feyenoord were particularly poor at defending set-pieces.
With half of the regular defence out, the same level can’t be expected of the four starting against Ajax. It’s most likely that either Mathijsen or Martins Indi will occupy the role of right central defender, but both are left footed defenders and won’t be too comfortable in that role. If Janmaat isn’t fit in time, Koeman has to depend on Sven van Beek to fill in the right-back position, but given his lack of experience, he is not likely to cause Ajax a lot of problems.
Against FC Twente, right-back Jordy van Deelen had a fairly torrid time. Similar to his colleague at Ajax, van Rhijn, the Feyenoord back was sub-par prior to his dismissal. The link-up play between Dusan Tadic and Dico Koppers completely overpowered the Feyenoord defence. After half an hour, Tadic switched to a position hardly known in the Eredivisie. In Spanish, this role is being identified as an ‘interiore’. An interior is a creative left or right forward who moves to the centre as soon as their team has ball possession. The back of the opponent has to decide whether he leaves his flank open or if he gives his direct marker the freedom to roam behind the striker. Van Deelen decided to man mark Tadic, giving Dico Koppers all the space to create havoc on his flank.
The move of playing with a winger moving inside and a left-back engaging in attack is an element of Ajax’s attacking play too. Fischer might not be an interiore, as he mainly moves into the middle once he has the ball himself, but it is something that Feyenoord will find hard to cope with. Closing down a dynamic attack demands a lot of coordination from the defenders. Considering the injuries and suspensions the Feyenoorders have to cope with, it’s tough to see them not struggling against this Ajax side. Fischer made his presence onto the world stage with a terrific performance against Feyenoord last year, a reprise of that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Feyenoord haven’t won in the Amsterdam Arena since 2005-06 and there are few reasons to suspect them succeeding this time around. Ajax have proven they can nullify Pelle and as mentioned earlier that is the main attacking strength of Feyenoord. The Rotterdammers have in their turn failed to show a plan B when Pelle was shut down and don’t seem capable of deregulating Ajax’s attacking play either. Ajax are clear favourites for this one and there are hardly any reasons to question an Ajax win by the looks of it. A win would see Ajax move towards the top of the table again: A Feyenoord loss would see them rooted to the bottom.
This article is written by Nikos Overheul and appeared in Dutch at Catenaccio.nl . Nikos is our resident tactician and is renowned for his great insight in the tactical aspect of the game. Furthermore, he is one of the editors of Catenaccio, a well-respected independent football blog in Dutch. In writing this preview, Nikos used stats and graphics from Opta, WhoScored and Squawka. All of these websites are worth a follow, as well as obviously the writer.