Tactical preview PSV – Ajax: Ajax must take control before half-time

Most European leagues have long since been decided. Bayern München have already been crowned as Bundesliga champions. Juventus will win Serie A, Barcelona will claim La Liga and Manchester United will regain the Premier League. Only a few leagues are still open and the Eredivisie is one of them. This Sunday PSV and Ajax will face each other in a match that will go a long way in deciding who will be Dutch league champions in 2013, but who will win in a match pitting PSV’s counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 against Ajax’ possession-oriented 4-3-3?

Earlier this season


Dutch Super Cup: Ola Toivonen (black circle, without ball) puts pressure on Toby Alderweireld in possession. Kevin Strootman (orange) and Jeremain Lens (red) are covering Vurnon Anita (orange). PSV cut out all passing lanes to the centre.

Ajax and PSV have faced each other twice this season. Back in August, they contested the Dutch Super Cup. Dutch cup winner PSV dominated this match completely. PSV sat relatively deep and only started pressing Ajax in midfield. The Amsterdam defence pushed up and PSV ruthlessly exploited the space behind Ajax’s high line time and time again. Whenever PSV won the ball, pacey forwards Jeremain Lens, Luciano Narsingh and Dries Mertens were able to run at goal. Swedish attacking midfielder Ola Toivonen was also able to find the net twice in this match. An easy 4-2 victory for PSV was the logical result. Vurnon Anita, Theo Janssen en Aras Özbiliz featured for Ajax, but are no longer at the club.

Their second meeting this season was in December. In this match Ajax showed a remarkable improvement. Managing to convert their possession advantange into a large number of big chances, they completely dominated the first half. Frank de Boer’s team combined this with a very intense pressing game targetting the Eindhoven defence and goalkeeper Boy Waterman in particular. PSV got very little time to pass out of defence – not exactly a strong point of the team in the first place – and were forced to resort to long balls, many of which were misplaced.

In PSV’s build-up phase Ajax often pressed the defence with two players. They did this in two ways. Whenever PSV’s defence was set up in a straight line, wingers Viktor Fischer (left) and Derk Boerrigter (right) positioned themselves in between PSV’s central defenders and full backs. From this position they would then put pressure on the back line and the goalkeeper. Striker Danny Hoesen would then drop deeper and make sure Mark van Bommel couldn’t collect the ball in midfield.

The second option, which was used most often, occured when PSV’s full backs were pushed up higher. Fischer and Boerrigter would follow them back, while Hoesen would stay up front. Either Christian Eriksen or Siem de Jong would then run out of midfield to press the central defenders.


Second match: Ajax presses in the first minute. Eriksen runs at GK Waterman. Hoesen cuts out the pass to Marcelo. Waterman is forced to play it long.

Ola Toivonen’s absence was a big problem for Dick Advocaat’s team. If PSV play the long ball, he can hold up play very well. His replacement, Giorgino Wijnaldum, doesn’t have the same ability. PSV couldn’t play out of defence and couldn’t win aerial duels either. The end result was Boy Waterman endlessly playing long balls that ended in Ajax winning possession.

Another difference between the two fixtures was Ajax’s centre forward. Icelandic striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson played in the Super Cup match, but was hardly present. Sigthorsson is a static striker and PSV’s defensive duo had no problems with him. In the league match he was replaced by young striker Danny Hoesen, a much more agile forward. He gave Marcelo and Derijck – less than mobile defenders – tremendous problems and scored the 2-1. Considering this, it would perhaps not be a bad idea to start with Ryan Babel or Hoesen.

In both matches between the two sides, Ajax scored from a corner. They also managed to hit the bar and the post from similar situations. This is something Dick Advocaat should be wary of. Advocaat blames the lack of sheer defensive quality for PSV’s weakness in dead ball situations, but this is only half the story. Tactically PSV repeatedly gets it wrong when defending corners. They use man marking and routinely leave the most dangerous zones unmanned. Whenever an opponent beats his man, there is immediate danger.


The danger of man marking at corners: the orange rectangle marks a particularly dangerous zone. There is no PSV player anywhere near it. Toby Alderweireld easily beats his man, will run into the orange zone and his header will hit the bar.


Before the season began, PSV were considered the favourites to win the title. They have the best strike force in the division and their midfield is exceptional by Dutch standards. The return of Mark van Bommel also gave PSV confidence in their quest to win their first league title since 2008. On numerous occassions this season, that confidence has been justified.

PSV’s main weapon, unusually for Dutch teams, is the counter attack. They are very adept at turning defence into attack. The double pivot of Strootman and van Bommel often win the ball in midfield and PSV’s wingers dart into space immediately. PSV rush past the defence and rarely get caught. It’s not for nothing only Barcelona have scored more league goals than Dick Advocaat’s team this season.

PSV is particularly at scoring in the final stretch of the game. The opponents concede more space – because they’re tired or have to take risks – and the fast attack can exploit this expertly. PSV has scored 88 league goals this season. 33 of them came in the first half. In the last fifteen minutes of the game, PSV have scored 31 goals.

The pace of PSV is something that should worry Ajax, whose trademark high line in defence can be exploited. This was made obvious in the second match between the two sides. Ajax completely dominated the first half, but at half time the score was 1-1, after Jeremain Lens had scored from a quick counter. PSV have a large number of players with a great deal of technical skill ; Dries Mertens, Jeremain Lens and Memphis Depay are all well capable of beating their man and following it up with an accurate cross or a shot at goal.

An overlooked quality of PSV is their wide range of options up front. Ola Toivonen and Giorgino Wijnaldum both play as an attacking midfielder, but have a very different understanding of the role. The same goes for strikers Jeremain Lens en Tim Matavz. Should Advocaat’s original tactical plan backfire, he has the ability to change things around.

PSV will most likely start with a double pivot of Strootman and van Bommel behind attacking midfielder Ola Toivonen. All thee players are physically strong and will look to turn the match into a battle, something Ajax will try to avoid.

The main problem facing PSV is their shaky defence. Full backs Atiba Hutchinson and Jetro Willems aren’t particularly good, but their central defence is downright horrid.


The above image illustrates this very well. It shows a clear lack of organisation. Three PSV defenders are miles out of position and Marcelo has to cover two attackers.


Months later, it becomes apparent that PSV have not progressed one bit. The back four are all over the place and it’s completely unclear who is doing what.

Their defence doesn’t offer much in possession either. Belgian Timothy Derijck is the only one with a modicum of skill in this area, but he’s easy to mark out of the game. This leaves Marcelo who lacks the technical skill and creativity to do anything other than dribble into midfield and pass to whoever is nearest.

The defensive troubles are made worse whenever PSV face an attacking right back. Left winger Dries Mertens is an excellent player, but tracking back is not his strong suit. The fact that Mertens often remains in an attacking position is, of course, one of the reasons why PSV is so dangerous on the counter. Any overlapping right back has no chance of reaching him in time to stop the counter. This is a trade-off between attacking thrust and defensive stability. Ajax right back Ricardo van Rhijn will have to be careful.

The fact that PSV commit a large number of fouls, should surprise no one. Mark van Bommel plays for them, after all. Dick Advocaat’s team foul considerably more than Frank de Boer’s. PSV make 417 and Ajax make 292. This could become a problem for PSV, considering their weakness at defending set plays.


Positiespel Ajax

Ajax’s possession-oriented game, creating triangles in midfield.

Frank de Boer has led Ajax to two league titles in a row. A clear mark of his tenure as Ajax coach has been the emphasis on having possession. Having built a team of tactically and positionally aware players, Frank de Boer’s Ajax has an average of 61% possession in the Eredivisie. None of Ajax’s eleven players is uncomfortable on the ball, even goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer. In previous years, Ajax had Jan Vertonghen who could carry the ball out of defence and become an auxiliary midfielder. His departure for Tottenham has made Ajax somewhat more predictable. His replacement Niklas Moisander and his former partner in defence (and compatriot) Toby Alderweireld are good passers, but lack the creativity that Vertonghen brought to the side. It’s not unusual to see either of them dribble into midfield and then look lost. Both of them have the ability to strike the ball, but their attacking contributions aren’t always great.

Leftback Daley Blind often positions himself in an advanced position. His runs from deep provide Ajax with an extra passing option in midfield and up front. Blind provides extra width, enabling left winger Viktor Fischer to cut inside. This results in constant movement in attack and Ajax often catch out a defence unsure of who to mark at any given moment. De Boer has a noted preference for playing with an attacker who cuts inside on one flank and an out-and-out winger on the other. It is, however, not impossible that Danish midfielder Lasse Schöne will start on the right. This would provide Ajax with another passer in midfield, better enabling them to hoard possession. It would come at the expense of attacking thrust, but Ajax would perhaps not be unhappy to leave Eindhoven with a draw.

The fact that Ajax record on average of 61% possession, is not just done to their ability to pass the ball. The other side of the equation is their relentless pressing. One of the characteristics of this Ajax side has been the introduction of counter pressing: pressing when you’ve just lost the ball. Inspired by Josep Guardiola’s Barcelona, de Boer’s reasoning is as follows: winning the ball requires energy. A player who has just won the ball from you, is therefore temporarily low on energy. It follows that it is unlikely he will pass accurately. Therefore, this is one of the best moments to press intensely.

Despite the fact that Ajax are currently in the top spot, their performances away from home against other top teams haven’t been particularly good. Ajax didn’t win any of their away games in Europe and the matches against other title candidates didn’t go much better. In six matches against top opposition they managed to take home 2 points and scored just 6 goals while conceding 14.


Ajax is particularly vulnerable in defensive transistions. The defenders can’t always cope with the space behind them, due to relative lack of pace. Whenever Ajax face a team with fast attackers, they inevitably run into trouble. The most recent example of this was their match against Heracles Almelo who play Geoffrey Castillion up front. He was a constant danger, even though Ajax won comfortably in the end. AZ’s Jozy Altidore (pictured) was another example. PSV’s speed should give Ajax a lot of trouble on Sunday.

Blind has had a wonderful season, but he remains vulnerable against strong and fast wingers, which he will likely face again on Sunday. Right back van Rhijn has serious problems whenever he faces a player who cuts inside. This is understandable when you face Cristiano Ronaldo or Mario Götze, but even Feyenoord’s Jean-Paul Boëtius gave him tremendous problems. Dries Mertens will offer a similar challenge.

Christian Eriksen and Siem de Jong are midfielders with a large amount of technical skill, but lack physical strength. This does not have to be a problem. Technically and tactically skilled players can often avoid the midfield battle. Ajax has not always managed this however. They were knocked out of the Europa League by Steaua Bucharest mainly for this reason. The Romanians turned it into a scrap and Ajax lost. Should they fail to avoid a similar scenario on Sunday, PSV will likely take advantage.

While Ajax have a reliable supply of goals, the lack of fire power up front remains a problem. Midfielders Siem de Jong (11 goals) and Christian Eriksen (8) take on a large percentage of the scoring. Of the attackers only left winger Viktor Fischer (also 8) is a reliable goal threat. Kolbein Sigthorsson (3) and Derk Boerrigter (4) aren’t even close to reaching the number of goals you would expect at a team like Ajax.


This match will play a big part in deciding who will end up Eredivisie champions this season, but it will also be an interesting tactical battle. The weaknesses of one team are often exactly the things the opponent is good at. It remains to be seen who will force their tactical plan on the opponent.

Ajax will try to hoard possession as they always do. PSV will likely look to counter, even at home. It’s likely we’ll see Ajax press PSV’s defence intensely as this paid dividends earlier this season. PSV on the other hand will likely sit relatively deep and make sure Ajax’s defensive line is relatively high before trying to win the ball in midfield and countering.

The previous two games were both high-scoring affairs with 6 and 4 goals. This promises to be another such game. Both teams will create plenty of chances. PSV will get space to run into, so they will likely score. On the other hand, it’s almost inevitable that their shaky defence will condede. The match will most likely be won or lost in midfield. Can Ajax pass around Toivonen, Strootman and van Bommel? If so, they’ve taken a big step to securing a win. However, if PSV’s midfield can overpower Frank de Boer’s side, they could well dominate this match.

Ajax would be wise to score before half time. PSV need to win and if Ajax’s aren’t out of sight at the end of the match, Dick Advocaat’s side will overrun Ajax. They are fitter and have more strength. The longer the match goes on, the bigger the advantage will get. Ajax need to strike first and do it quickly, as PSV will get ever more dangerous.

This article was written by Nikos Overheul (@noverheul) and Pieter Zwart (@PieterZwartNL)

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