This match was the first competitive match for Erik Ten Hag as head coach at Ajax. His appointment was confirmed during the winter break following the dismissal of Marcel Keizer along with his entire technical staff. Ten Hag actually set history here, becoming the first Ajax coach to make his competitive debut against fierce rivals Feyenoord.
Beyond that narrative and even beyond the passionate rivalry between the two sets of fans, however, Ajax still trail PSV at the top of the table. Therefore, this match took on increased significance for the home side.
There were questions to be answered going into this match under Ten Hag, mainly how the new coach would utilise the mercurial Frenkie De Jong. At the end of the first half of the season, after an injury to Austrian central defender Maximilian Wöber, we saw De Jong used in a central defensive role rather than being used purely as a defensive player. However, De Jong still looked to dictate the tempo of the game from the back line stepping into the midfield and even towards the final third. Whether Ten Hag would keep the same structure and roles remained to be seen.
The team news when released suggested that Ten Hag would not make sweeping changes in terms of personnel or structure with Ajax lining up in their traditional 4-3-3 structure.
Frenkie De Jong retained his place in the defensive line and with Kasper Dolberg still recovering from injury, the veteran Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was the lone striker. Beyond that, the most interesting piece of team news lay in the fact that new Argentinian left back Nicolás Tagliafico would make his debut for the club.
Other than that it was very much business as usual with Joël Veltman continuing as captain and Matthijs De Ligt as the defensive rock at centre back. In midfield, Lasse Schone was the controlling midfielder and Donny Van De Beek and Hakim Ziyech were more offensive central midfielders. David Neres continued on the right-hand side and Justin Kluivert on the left.
Ajax dominate the first half but can’t breakthrough
The first half quickly developed into a recognisable pattern with Ajax dominating possession of the ball as Feyenoord looked to play in quick transitions with quick passes forward to Jörgensen. Unfortunately for the away side, the big Danish striker was often isolated when receiving the ball and these brief attacking moments were comfortably turned away by the Ajax defence.
In the initial phases Ajax were also slow to move the ball into the final third of the field. They are a well balanced attacking side looking to play through the half spaces and the wide areas but with Huntelaar in attack instead of Dolberg there is less mobility across the width of the penalty area.
In the build-up phase, Frenkie De Jong was again key with his ability to move out of the defensive line to create space and angles.
Here we see Veltman in possession of the ball in the right-back slot. Jorgensen is the lone pressing player for Feyenoord and he angles his body to ensure that the pass across to De Jong is covered. Instead of remaining static and forcing Veltman to play the ball under pressure De Jong instead bursts forward out of the defensive line and into the space more traditionally occupied by the controlling midfielder.
In making these movements we see the possibilities in having a player in the defensive line capable of moving into space and receiving the ball in tight areas. With Feyenoord sitting in a relatively passive block we saw Ajax able to play through the initial press relatively easily.
You can see here again the importance of having a player able to drive forward with the ball to break the opposition lines when facing teams who sit back to defend. Feyenoord have five players across the defensive line but De Jong takes the ball and drives forward in the half space. The run from Justin Kluivert is key as he moves inside, dragging the covering defender with him.
This movement creates the lane for De Jong to play the ball releasing the wide player who is able to attack the Feyenoord penalty area.
There were times over the course of the match that Feyenoord were so deep in their own half that both De Ligt and De Jong almost became auxiliary midfielders.
Here with Feyenoord sitting deep, we start to see Ajax step forward and condense the play into the opposition half. In this image, I have highlighted the positioning of De Ligt (in possession) De Jong and Schone. Whilst it is not unusual to see a controlling midfielder drop back into the defensive line it is another story altogether when the two central defenders step into the midfield line.
Ajax break through the Feyenoord defence and comfortably see out the game
In the opening stages of the second half, we saw Ajax score twice through Donny Van De Beek and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Interestingly each goal was scored following excellent work in the wide areas by the Ajax fullbacks.
The first goal came from a cut back from new left-back Nicolas Tagliafico, but it was the vision earlier in the movement from Frenkie De Jong that created the opportunity for Tagliafico to get the low cross into the penalty area.
Once again the opportunity is created by Frenkie De Jong stepping into the midfield from the defensive line. As he moves into the left half space there is little pressure on the ball. Ahead of him the movement from Tagliafico is excellent.
He makes a third man run in behind the fullback with the initial movement opening up a passing lane for the ball to move out to Kluivert in the wide area. When Kluivert is able to receive the ball and play it on to the feet of Tagliafico, the Argentinian fullback is running into space and with his momentum he comfortably reaches the touchline.
After taking a 2-0 lead Ajax comfortably shut the game down. They still provided an attacking threat but with the dismissal for a second yellow card of Feyenoord forward Jörgensen meant that there was no real way back for the away side. We did, however, see Ajax revert to a system that they had used before the winter break when the roles of the two fullbacks changed to provide a more defensively stable overall structure.
While on the left-hand side we saw Nicolás Tagliafico continue to push forward whenever possible, the same was not true for Veltman on the right-hand side. Instead Veltman retained a more defensive position as Ajax looked to see out the game. He sat deeper and effectively created a back three with De Ligt and De Jong, although the latter still drifted forward into midfield areas whenever the opportunity presented itself. This slight switch of structure has been utilised previously this season by Ajax.
In the end, Ajax ran out comfortable 2-0 winners in this match. If nothing else the match served to reassure fans of the club that there would be little in the way of radical change under Ten Hag. Instead the new coach set up and instructed his players very much in the Ajax way.
There is an argument that Ajax were unlucky in the first half of the season under Keizer and they never quite performed up to their expected goals numbers. If there is a movement more to the mean over the second half of the season then we can expect to see Ajax close the gap on PSV at the top of the table.
Featured image provided by elchubut.com.ar.