What do you get when you put the two best coaches in the Eredivisie against each other in the Classic? A match in which both teams are fully able to take the sting out of the opponent’s game: a little entertainment for spectators, but more interesting from a tactical point of view. VoetbalPrimeur analyzes The Classic, Feyenoord and Ajax manage to make each other toothless, and Ajax is ultimately the most effective of the two.
Text: Evert van Zoolen
Feyenoord is doing well in defense
Prior to this match, Arne Slot had not conceded a single goal as a coach in matches against the traditional top three. Hence it was interesting to see if he can continue that streak on Sunday. Feyenoord defended the 4-4-2 system, with Guus Til playing football alongside Bryan Linssen. Just as in the match against PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord chose to either do this too high or, if the pressure didn’t work, to stand too low.
In moments of high pressure, Linsen first covered Lisandro Martinez and later in the match Daley Blind. In this way the ball was pushed towards Bear Shores. When Schurz got the ball, it was Thiel who came out to press. Sesame also immediately removed the line of traffic to Edson Alvarez. Alvarez’s shield turned out to be the most important of these two tasks for Till: When he had to choose between players, it was Schurz who was allowed to get the ball.
Til puts pressure on Schuurs, while also protecting the passing line to Álvarez. Source: ESPN.
In the moments Feyenoord managed to put pressure on Ajax, Fredrik covered Orsnes and Jens Tornstra came on. Toornsta has always chosen a position within the field, in order to be able to support the center when needed. At the same time, he was able to keep the pressure on the flabby Ajax midfielder.
The Toornstra goes out to Ryan Gravenbrich, who withdraws into the crowd. Source: ESPN.
If there is a “pressing moment”, Aursnes switches to Alvarez and Tornestra comes to support the midfield. Source: ESPN.
When Feyenoord could not put Ajax under high pressure, the team collapsed in their own half. The team was in a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 formation and kept the line spacing very small.
Feyenoord plays in its own half with a 4-4-1-1 formation and keeps the lines close to each other. Source: ESPN.
This provided Feyenoord with two main advantages. Firstly, there was very little space between the lines, which made it difficult for Ajax players to break free. Second, “standing low” means that there is little room behind the defense. Ajax players regularly ran into the space behind the Feyenoord defense, but since there was little space there, the Amsterdam team could not release someone.
Ajax is trying to find solutions
With Feyenoord taking a good defensive position, it was up to Ajax to come up with something against this. Ajax had a surplus in the back with Martinez (and later blind), Schurz and Alvarez against Linsen and Till. This is why Amsterdam regularly manages to reach half of Feyenoord in a controlled manner. If needed, goalkeeper Remko Pasveer can also help out with access to an additional free player.
On the other hand, in the Feyenoord half, it was more difficult for the Amsterdam team. As mentioned before, the spaces were very small and it was difficult for Ajax to find a free player. Ajax seemed keen to take advantage of the space on both sides. Especially when Marcus Pedersen was briefly pulled from his position, Ajax immediately ran into space behind him. On the opening stage, it led to Ajax’s first chance, after Blind – at the time still full-back – across the ball It immediately extended to Dusan Tadic.
Tadic dangles and pulls Pedersen along, and Gravenberch immediately makes a space run. Source: ESPN.
Ajax also knows how to neutralize Feyenoord
On the contrary, the Amsterdam team also managed to make it impossible for Feyenoord to play football. Ajax put a lot of pressure out of their usual situations. The three players in front chased after the Feyenoord defenders, and in the middle of the field sprang up the pairs of Stephen Bergwis-Orkon Coco, Gravenberch-Ursnes and Alvarez-Tell.
The biggest problem Ajax had previously was catching up with right winger Tornestra, when he was heading towards the midfield. When Slot AZ was still training, such a square in the midfield would be the key to victory over Ajax’s Eric ten Hag.
This time, Ten Hag chose to let Blind (and later Nicolás Tagliafico) cover Toornstra, when he moved towards the midfield on the side of the ball. If the ball is on the other side, the Ajax left-back will remain in his area. Only when Feyenoord was higher did Ajax run into problems several times. In those moments, Tadic had to move on after the next Pedersen.
On the ball side, Blind Tournstra covers when it comes to midfield. Source: ESPN.
Sometimes this means that Tadic has to go with Pedersen to his own half. Source: ESPN.
However, Feyenoord was unable to break out of Ajax’s pressure in a controlled manner before the break. To draw Ajax forward with short passes and then use the space Ajax created in the back with a long pass: that seems to be the battle plan. Only Feyenoord has always lost this long ball, so only Rotterdam have managed to create something of a danger with a number of substitution moments.
In the end it was Ajax who took the lead through this transformation. Feyenoord grabbed the ball and Pedersen immediately moved forward on the right. But Tornestra immediately put it back, after which Tadic broke with Persen on the left, passed the ball and Marcus Senesi saw the ball unfortunately slip into his own net.
Feyenoord has to gamble and lose
After the break Feyenoord was the best out of the dressing room. The Rotterdam members had to finish the backlog and thus decided to put more pressure on them. While Ajax was still allowed to play quietly in central defense in the first half, it has now been chased down to the goalkeeper.
Feyenoord put more pressure in the second half. Source: ESPN.
Feyenoord’s midfielders participated more effectively in the crowd, so that Feyenoord held the ball a little longer. In addition, Reiss Nelson did well in the first half and managed to create some danger with an action. However, Feyenoord ran into two problems that prevented him from taking actual control of the game.
First of all, the last pass wasn’t always good, so really big chances weren’t created. The greatest danger came in the second half from Nelson, but he only managed to pass his direct opponent from the outside, after which the low cross could be intercepted relatively easily by Ajax. Second, the organization behind the Feyenoord ball was not good. As a result, Ajax have always been able to move away in midfield while grabbing the ball or reaching for Sebastian Haller. Ajax didn’t create many transformations that followed, but that meant Feyenoord always had to retreat forty meters before he could attack again.
Putting more pressure on Feyenoord also carries risks. The mutual distances got bigger and when Ajax could play under this, there was immediately a lot of space. From such a situation, he eventually fell 0-2 in the final stage: Nelson Devin Wrench completely lost for a while, after which he could immediately rush towards goal. The Briton pulled the emergency brake and Tadic hit 0-2 on the ropes from eleven metres.
Wrench moves away from Nelson’s back, after which there is a lot of space at once. Source: ESPN.
Slot and Ten Hag force each other to the limit
For most of us, this classic is a race to forget. On a gray December day in an empty stadium, there was little to be enjoyed by a neutral TV viewer. On the other hand: This match can also be considered as an example of the development in Dutch football, with Erik ten Hag and Arne Sloot being the biggest banners. Where in the past we only thought about attacking, attacking and attacking, now we see two coaches who analyzed the opponent in detail and thus were able to neutralize each other’s strengths, with a defensive organization ready to the last detail.
Evert van Zoolen is an analyst for YouTube channel TheNextManager, has written for tactical websites and magazines such as Spielverlagerung, TrainersMagazine and Futbol Netradince and watched important matches for VoetbalPrimeur.
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