The Cooling Down: Ajax’s poor performances a worry despite perfect results

Despite sitting top of the table after three games, with three wins, eight goals scored and none conceded, Ajax fans have found very little to get excited about in the early stages of the season.

The Godenzonen were cast out of the Champions League at the first hurdle by Rapid Vienna and take a mere 1-0 lead into their Europa League playoff second leg away to Czech side Jablonec. And while the results in the Eredivisie have been bright so far, Frank de Boer and his side will be hoping to put in more convincing performances to go along with them, as both the manager and the players have a point to prove after last year’s dismal football.

Last season, Ajax looked less and less inspired every week and it seemed that De Boer, after winning the league title in each of his first four seasons in charge, had completely run out of ideas.

This season is going to be a massive test for the former Barcelona player. He must inject a new spark into his side if he is to give any indication that he can live up to the earlier promise which suggested he is one of the most promising coaches in Europe.

There has been an air of luck around their opening three Eredivisie games. Two long range strikes proved decisive in their 3-0 win over AZ, while in the week following an early goal killed the contest off against Willem II in Amsterdam before a late Anwar El Ghazi double.

It compounded in Sunday’s 2-0 win over NEC in Nijmegen, a match so turgid that it killed off any enthusiasm built up from the weekend’s earlier Eredivisie games, with Cambuur’s 6-1 humiliation at home to Heracles and PEC Zwolle beat FC Twente 2-1 FC Twente the pick of the bunch.

After just three weeks, of course, it would be unfair and unreasonable to demand that Ajax demolish teams from start to finish with exuberant and electrifying displays, particularly when some teams are set out to merely restrict space upfield. But the issue is that the performances remain as flat as they have been for the last two years, despite changes in the team to counteract that very issue.

That is what is particularly worrying – Sunday’s performance was entirely predictable. It was a lifeless and drab performance from an ineffective Ajax side who would still come out with three points against fairly pedestrian opponents.

“I am happy,” De Boer said on Sunday. “Even with the game. The only blemish is that we maybe could have won by four or five. We basically gave nothing away, while we have had five or six chances.”

Ajax gave little away because NEC did not seem too interested in creating much, but the visitors’ attacking play left a lot to be desired.

Arek Milik did well to open the scoring early in the second half with a powerful shot, though goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson could have done better. Then, Davy Klassen’s sweet pass found substitute Daley Sinkgraven on the right side, with the midfielder’s square ball being knocked in by NEC defender Rens van Eijden after 86 minutes.

They may sit top of the table, but there is still a great deal of work to do if Ajax are to remain there come the end of the season. Sluggish and obvious, the midfield continues to lack any real imagination, while the few bright and daring runs off the ball that occur are rarely awarded with suitable passes if they are spotted at all.

The athleticism of Nemanja Gudelj and the pace that comes with the likes of El Ghazi, Sinkgraven and Viktor Fischer is not being utilised effectively at all as Ajax remain far too slow in their build up play, which is making it too easy for teams to keep them at bay. The gap between the defence and midfield is still too big, too, making it impossible for them to threaten with pace through the middle.

Apart from the three wins in the league, the main positive is perhaps that Jasper Cillessen has only had to make three saves across the opening three games, something the defence should be praised for. Kenny Tete (on as a substitute on Sunday) and Jairo Riedewald look the part in a much-changed back line which is full of talented young individuals but is still coming to terms with working as a unit. The power and strength of Mitchell Dijks has shown that he can play a big role in the attack and the defence. The academy graduate, signed back from Willem II this summer, can act as a winger and float crosses in and he is defensively more reliable than Nicolai Boilesen.

There is a solid basis for De Boer and Ajax to build on. With the defence promising and the midfield talented, Ajax will again prove difficult to beat. But there will come a point when teams begin to find a way through and the moments of individual class that decided the first three games are not a reliable tactic. When this youthful side shows its vulnerability and becomes inconsistent upfront, Ajax will need to be more imaginative when in possession.

Neither Ajax nor PSV were particularly enlightening at this time last season (and are not again this year), but the Eindhoven side managed to grow as a unit and found a way to dominate games. Their rivals stagnated and the inability to really develop as a team allowed Philip Cocu’s men to walk to the title. De Boer and Ajax will be desperate to bring something new this season, we’re just not sure what it is yet.

Moroccan magic strikes the Eredivisie again

As noted in this column last week by Michiel Jongsma, Oussamma Tannane is looking like a completely different beast this season. He took that to a whole new level on Saturday when Heracles travelled north to take on Cambuur. The Moroccan winger scored an incredible four goals in the first half for the Almelo side in an easy 6-1 win over Henk de Jong’s men, becoming the first player since Luis Suarez in 2010 to get a quartet of goals in one half. Heracles are now fourth in the table with six points and of course Tannane sits atop the goalscoring chart with five.

Tannane’s magic came just over 24 hours after another player of Moroccan descent had single-handedly destroyed Excelsior. Mimoun Mahi emerged from the bench for FC Groningen with the game goalless in the Euroborg and it took just five minutes for the 21-year-old to make his mark on the game, firing a well-struck free-kick into the back of the net. He then took on a pass from Bryan Linssen and slotted past the keeper from a difficult angle to kill the game off.

Meanwhile, fellow Morocco descendent Hakim Ziyech was on target for FC Twente and while he had a solid game himself, he could do nothing to prevent the Tukkers losing 2-1 up north.

PEC Zwolle – the fortress of solitude for the Eredivisie’s unwanted players

Watching Rick Dekker and Wouter Marinus shine for PEC Zwolle in the victory IJsseldelta Stadion was further evidence of an aspect which makes the Blauwvingers such an interesting club. Dekker, a former Feyenoord academy player, and Marinus, snapped up from Heerenveen’s youth system, have slotted perfectly well into the Zwolle first team, taking their second chance at Eredivisie football with both hands after having no luck in their previous clubs. The duo were also accompanied by Ajax loanees Queensy Menig and Sheraldo Becker, who also put in solid displays, to show just how much of a prosperous destination Zwolle is for young players who only need a chance to show what they can do. Kamohelo Mokotjo has been the prime example, but there is also a lot of hope for Max De Boom once he returns from his cruciate ligament injury. Furthermore, Abdel Malek El Hasnaoui and Mickey van der Hart have also joined from Ajax and are looking to prove their worth.

There are of course former Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV players spread throughout the Eredivisie, but the aspects of PEC seem to combine to create the perfect environment for them to shine. The prospect of lining up for an intelligent coach like Ron Jans in a well-organised attacking team that continues to impress with its great work must be a big attraction for the game’s youth. The benefits for the individuals seem plentiful and the team aren’t doing too badly either…

Will Twente’s troubles ever end?

Ever the oracle, Jongsma was also poignant in his criticism of FC Twente last week and not only did the Tukkers prove him right again on Sunday, if anything they showed that he was too lenient in his dismantling of Alfred Schreuder’s men. Twente have set out in both an ultra-defensive mode and with a more expansive focus so far this season – none of it has worked. The sheer lack of a game plan is abundantly clear. Towards the end of their game this week they could have scraped a draw, but it would have been a massive escape for the Enschede side had they done so because Zwolle really should have been out of sight by that time. Perhaps if Ron Jans’ men had not seemed desperate to kill them off with a long-range screamer then they might have. But maybe that’s a symbol of how far Twente have fallen – even their supposedly inferior neighbours are toying with them.

King Kuyt keeps on truckin’

Many people were optimistic about Dirk Kuyt’s return to De Kuip this season, but no one would have suspected that after three games the 35-year-old would have hit three shots and three goals for the Rotterdammers. Of course, all three have been penalties, but it’s an impressive rate to begin with. Anwar El Ghazi failed to net a third successive brace this week, so his consistency for goals and with it his target of 68 league goals might have died. Thus, at his current rate, Kuyt is nailed on to lift the golden boot this year with 34 in the Eredivisie.

The goals dry up

Ever the entertaining league, the Eredivisie consistently delivers an average of over three goals per game week by week and year by year. Matchday three, though, was particularly underwhelming in that sense, though, falling well below the average with only 21 goals across the nine games played. That average is of course boosted by the seven goal thriller played in Leeuwarden, forcing us to ask: Where have all the goals gone?! It’s surely just a one-off, but it does raise the serious concern that maybe, just maybe, the Dutch are starting to find out how to defend. It is, of course, very unlikely. Dutch children stop believing in an effective Eredivisie backline long before they discover that Santa Claus (or in their case, Sinterklaas) isn’t real, so we’ll likely be back to erratic defensive calamities next week.

FC Groningen 2 – 0 Excelsior
Roda JC 1 – 0 De Graafschap
sc Heerenveen 1 – 1 PSV
SC Cambuur Leeuwarden 1 – 6 Heracles Almelo
PEC Zwolle 2 – 1 FC Twente
N.E.C. 0 – 2 Ajax
AZ 0 – 0 Willem II
ADO Den Haag 1 – 1 FC Utrecht
Feyenoord 2 – 0 Vitesse

# Team Games Points +/-
1 Ajax 3 9 8
2 Feyenoord 3 9 5
3 PEC Zwolle 3 7 4
4 Heracles Almelo 3 6 6
5 Roda JC Kerkrade 3 6 0
6 ADO Den Haag 3 5 3
7 PSV 3 5 2
8 sc Heerenveen 3 5 2
9 Vitesse 3 4 1
10 FC Groningen 3 4 0
11 N.E.C. 3 3 -4
12 FC Utrecht 3 2 -1
13 AZ 3 2 -3
14 Willem II 3 2 -3
15 Excelsior 3 1 -3
16 FC Twente 3 1 -4
17 SC Cambuur Leeuwarden 3 1 -7
18 De Graafschap 3 0 -6

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