PSV 2-3 Ajax: Eriksen’s influence helps Ajax attack down the wings
Ajax recorded a crucial victory over their major rivals for the league title.
Frank De Boer brought Christian Poulsen into the side in the holding role, meaning Lasse Schone moved out to the right in place of Derk Boerrigter, who was on the bench.
Dick Advocaat left out Tim Matavz, with Dries Mertens returning to the side on the left flank, and Jeremain Lens playing as the primary striker.
In terms of quality, this match was underwhelming – neither played their best football.
Clash of styles
There was a big contrast between the sides in terms of style – Ajax were attempting to play clever passing combinations through midfield and into the final third (although as De Boer acknowledged, they rarely put together good passing moves) while PSV boasted more physicality, especially in the centre of midfield.
As a result, the first ‘battle’ was about what type of game it would be – based around technical skills, or raw power? The answer was somewhere in between, although after a quick opening to the game, Ajax settled down and broadly imposed their passing football on the contest.
Poulsen was never going to lead Ajax’s slick passing, but his role in this match was crucial. He stayed in a very deep holding role in front of the back four, away from the attention of Ola Toivonen, who should have done more to close him down. This allowed the Ajax centre-backs to spread and the full-backs to push higher up, turning Ajax into something more like a 3-4-3. With the focus on attacking down the wings, that was crucial.
Importantly, Poulsen also helped Ajax compete in terms of physicality. After just two minutes he fouled Mark van Bommel – the foul itself was hardly crucial in the outcome of the game, but it demonstrated that Ajax wouldn’t be overpowered. Van Bommel was later seen complaining to Poulsen about his persistent fouling, which may be the most ironic incident in the history of football.
PSV needed to take control of the game while it was still in its early, frantic stages – but they dropped off into a solid defensive shape too quickly, allowing Ajax to pass from the back.
PSV’s attacks generally came from direct attacks through the middle – Toivonen took up clever positions to receive forward passes, and was a key player in the opening moments. PSV also worked the ball wide, although whereas Ajax would have used these situations to further their passing moves with numerical supremacy in wide positions, PSV’s approach was more simple – hitting crosses into the box. Their crossing statistics were dreadful, with Mertens the main culprit: 14 attempted crosses, just one successful.
The game’s key player was Christian Eriksen, the most creative talent on show. He played an interesting role, often dropping deep to assist Poulsen but shuttling forward into attack, and he finished the game as Ajax’s most prolific passer (56) – considering PSV’s top passer was the technically limited centre-back Marcelo (67), it was clear which side were better off with this situation.
On paper Eriksen was up against Van Bommel, but he positioned himself cleverly, away from opponents. Most importantly, he moved towards the channels to combine with the wide players, creating passing triangles and allowing Ajax to work the ball into the box from wide. Eriksen got down the right flank to provide the opener – a scrappy goal for Kolbeinn Sigþórsson.
But while Eriksen was the most pivotal player in the final third, PSV were keen to press him when he received the ball under pressure in his own half. After 8 minutes, cheers went up around the ground when two PSV players forced him to slice the ball out of play on the left and pressing Eriksen in a deep position would have significantly greater effect on the game later in the first half – the Dane lost possession to Kevin Strootman, who teed up Lens for an equaliser.
Ajax down flanks
From the early stages, it was obvious that PSV’s full-backs were sticking tight to Ajax’s wingers when they came inside, which often left space for Ajax’s full-backs to break into – in particular, with Ricardo van Rhijn down the right. Eriksen was often the facilitator for these attacks with clever balls out wide.
But Ajax’s second came with Eriksen exploiting the space himself. Some fabulously simple movement from left-winger Viktor Fischer dragged Atiba Hutchinson up the pitch, Eriksen motored into the space and cut inside to score.
Advocaat reformatted his frontline with the introduction of Matavz in place of Georgino Wijnaldum, with Lens moving wide. Now, PSV had a spell of pressure as Ajax sat too deep – a succession of crosses and free-kicks eventually resulted in the second equaliser.
Ajax attack Pieters
Then came the two key substitutions of the game. On 73 minutes, Advocaat removed left-back Jetro Willems and brought on Erik Pieters, a man who has played only 67 minutes of football in the last 12 months (with that appearance, against Zwolle in January, cut short by a red card).
Immediately, De Boer decided Ajax should attack Pieters, and since Schone is a right-sided midfielder rather than a proper winger – a substitute was needed. De Boer’s change was very attack-minded considering Ajax would have been content with a point: Poulsen was sacrificed with Schone going into his position, and Boerrigter on down the right.
And, within two minutes, it worked. Typically, Eriksen found space in midfield and knocked a hopeful ball in behind Pieters – Boerrigter got to the through-ball before him, and slipped it past the goalkeeper for the goal that effectively wins Ajax the title.
Ajax didn’t play their best football, but they were the better side here. Their narrow win came via a combination of their natural game (passing and focus on width) and some reactive management from De Boer, attacking Pieters immediately after his introduction.
Eriksen, for positive and negative reasons, was the game’s key player. He dictated the play, had a hand in all three Ajax goals, but was caught in possession for PSV’s first equaliser.PSV 2-3 Ajax: Eriksen’s influence helps Ajax attack down the wings