The 2018/19 Eredivisie campaign soon reaches its conclusion. Only one fixture remaining but the title has perhaps already been sealed. More or less. That is unless there’s a miracle in the 34th fixture.
Ajax have always been a strong contender for the title. PSV may have been dominating the first half of the season, but Ajax keep going right until the end. De Godenzonen managed to force de Boeren to concede the top spot after defeating them 3-1 at home in late March.
Both AZ and PSV approached the game with the same ambition, but different intention. This resulted in quite a thrilling game, one where tactical smarts played a prominent part in it.
There were cheers from the away end of the stadium very early in the game. Utrecht had just scored a goal to make it 1-0 against Ajax at the Johan Cruijff Arena. That Othman Boussaid goal gave PSV some sort of hope back in their chase for the league title.
The smiles soon faded away as the away side themselves conceded a goal, which proved fatal to their title run.
PSV are trailing three points behind Ajax after their loss to AZ with one game left still to play. But the fact that they have a 14 goal difference making it virtually impossible for Luuk de Jong and co. to steal the throne.
Starting XI: Bizot – Svensson, Vlaar, Koopmeiners, Ouwejan – Maher – Stengs, Midtsjo, Til, Gudmundsson – Seuntjens
Bench: Velthuizen, Schendelaar, van Rhijn, Hatzidiakos, Bergsma, Helmer, Goudmijn, Johnsen, Idrissi, Wuytens, Boadu, Wijndal
Coach: John van den Brom
Starting XI: Zoet – Dumfries, Schwaab, Viergever, Angelino – Rosario, Sadilek – Bergwijn, de Jong, Gakpo – Malen
Bench: Room, van de Meulenhof, Behich, Obispo, Teze, Hendrix, Rigo, Pereiro, Ramselaar, Ihattaren, Gutierrez, Aboukhlal
Coach: Mark van Bommel
AZ played with a 4-1-4-1 shape on paper, but there seemed to be a lot of flexibility there.
There was only a single change in the team with left-back Thomas Ouwejan starting the game ahead of Owen Wijndal.
At times they would shift into sort of a 4-2-3-1 when on the ball – with Til in the AM spot. Occasionally, they’d also move into a 4-4-2 shape – especially in a transition from attack to defence (after losing possession).
Adam Maher was given a great responsibility in defence here. The 25-year-old midfielder slotted himself occasionally as the fifth defender – usually positioning himself in between defenders. Dropping into the box whenever needed and covered a massive amount of ground in the defensive third.
AZ operated with the same kind of strategy throughout the game, only with a slight change in terms of playing mentality.
Mark van Bommel deployed a familiar, yet slightly different setup in this game.
As we can see, the former Dutch international opted with the usual 4-2-3-1 formation. The twist though was that target man de Jong was played behind Donyell Malen – who started as the spearhead.
Unsurprisingly, this proved ineffective as you’ll see later on in this tactical analysis.
In the midfield, Pablo Rosario paired up with Michal Sadilek once again. The small Czech midfielder seemed to play as a deep-lying playmaker here. He seemed to hold his position while Rosario was instructed to cover more ground and help win the ball up front.
There wasn’t much change tactically, perhaps only a gentle tweak as the game wore on.
Only in the dying minutes, van Bommel decided to restore de Jong to his favoured position and role but it was too little, too late.
Cagey affair, but not short of chances
Both teams started the game very cautiously. Shyly going forward, preferring to play around inside their own halves respectively.
The home team had most of the possession in the first half, but the away side had more attempts on goal.
AZ were playing with their possession-based style, very patient on the ball. Playing it out from the back and never rushing forward. Van den Brom’s side tended to move the ball laterally while working their way into the box. They seemed to be trying to break through centrally, exploiting the spaces behind the defence with incisive through balls and benefiting from the pace and athleticism of Mats Seuntjens and the intelligence of Til.
Their buildup really started from deep, with the goalkeeper usually rolling it out to the closest defender (usually Vlaar or Koopmeiners). The Cheeseheads were happy to absorb the pressure, attracting their opposition to close them down. The others, meanwhile, would move around actively, opening up spaces and providing passing options.
As mentioned before, AZ would shift into more of a 4-2-3-1 system when on the ball with Til in a more advanced position. The young AZ captain was allowed immense freedom in his movements. Dropping deep, roaming wide, and occasionally swapping positions with winger Calvin Stengs.
The latter also seemed to cover a fairly large part of the pitch. His impressive work rate was undoubtedly vital in both his team’s attacks and defence.
AZ’s smart defensive organisation
In defence, AZ formed a very narrow defensive line. Both full-backs would tuck themselves in, while wingers would track back and cover the wider areas. This allowed them to easily create an overload on one side of the field, while still being able to guard the other side.
AZ originally intended to defend high and press aggressively but had to sit deep in their own half. They were on the receiving end of their opposition’s attacks.
Til and co. would try to soak up the attacks, then hit back with a blistering pace. After winning back possession, they’d launch a quick counter-attack instantaneously.
PSV’s aggressive approach
Quite different than their opponent, PSV played with a more straightforward manner. They played out from the back a lot but moved forward rather quickly. They placed great emphasis on moving the ball vertically with a high tempo passing exchange.
Both their fullbacks pushed up high, helping their team to open spaces in wider areas – where they’d like to exploit.
Van Bommel’s side seemed to press very aggressively. They put a lot of men forward to close down and cut out passing options. They also kept their defensive line high to support the frontline pressure. All that to no avail, as AZ managed to seamlessly break through the line of pressure almost all of the time.
This PSV side seemed to transition very quickly after winning the ball, immediately executing a counter-attack after regaining possession.
They were playing with what seemed to be their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, but regularly switching back and forth between it and 4-4-2. Malen was given more flexibility and freedom in his positioning, while de Jong would stay central, but often went deeper to help retrieve the ball and create the play.
Lack of cutting edge
PSV weren’t able to break through centrally. The presence of de Jong at a strange AM spot didn’t help either. In fact, it was problematic. It was a questionable decision by van Bommel, who perhaps wanted to try something new in this game. The 28-year-old target man lacked the vision and the sharp, defence-cutting passes needed to break down AZ’s wall.
De Boeren were really devoid of creativity in the middle of the pitch. They had Rosario, who’s more of a ball-winner rather than a playmaker, but their main creative man Sadilek didn’t seem up to the task. The latter didn’t play a lot of part in progressing the ball, mostly moving the ball laterally.
They really showed a lack of cutting edge in this game. And as the game went on, it started to become more frustrating – not only for the players but also for the viewers.
Attacking with intent
PSV came from the dressing room after the break with much more attacking poise. Their first half was hardly a fruitful one, but they’d try to break the deadlock with another 45 minutes still to play.
They brought more men forward, leaving effectively only two behind in their desperate bid to grab the important goal.
Meanwhile, their opposition was content with defending with 10 men behind the ball in their own half. Van den Brom’s side were focused on swarming the box in great numbers. They knew that PSV’s idea the whole time was to get the ball to either flank and cross it in.
Only three minutes after the second half kick-off, PSV’s attack was tamed. Their domination of the ball was briefly interrupted by a quickfire, cleanly-executed counter-attack.
Rosario received the ball, but quickly lost it to Til near the box. The AZ captain managed to find Seuntjens with a sweet through ball leaving him with a world of space in front of him.
The Dutch striker was kept onside by Nick Viergever and he duly punished the poor defence of PSV. Seuntjens beat Viergever with his pace, then delivered the ball onto the feet of Til who made a run into the box. The latter controlled the ball and finished it calmly.
PSV were carved apart far too easily, especially on the counter. This happened several more times in the game but did not make such a considerable impact on the result. Stengs actually came very nearly to scoring a goal but the ball hit the post and bounced away.
AZ proceeded to retreat into their own half and defend their lead while their counterpart still trying to figure out how to put the ball past their net.
PSV rue missed chances
As the game was at its final stages, PSV became absolutely desperate for a goal. Yet they were still afraid to concede another.
Van Bommel decided to reinforce the attack by bringing in some offensive-minded players.
A more active Gutierrez replaced Sadilek much earlier, then Gakpo and Rosario were taken off. Youngsters Zakaria Aboukhlal and Mohammed Ihattaren came on to replace them respectively.
De Jong reverted into his original role as the main striker while Malen played behind him. Just like how it should have been in the first place.
But try as they might, PSV just weren’t able to score a goal against a defensively disciplined AZ. They created lots of chances. Lots of great chances actually, ones that looked easier to score than miss.
Both teams had a number of shots, but only a little of them were accurate. The home side had 12 attempts at goal, but only two (16.67%) reached the intended target. The away team, on the other hand, created three shots on target (21.43%) out of the total 14.
PSV’s 2.09 xG value suggests that they actually had some excellent chance to score a goal throughout the game, but didn’t manage to convert any. Meanwhile, AZ only had 0.94 xG yet they were far more effective in front of goal.
Mark van Bommel was visibly upset and disappointed as he immediately charges into the dressing room. Seemingly forgetting to shake the hands of the opposing manager – perhaps intentionally. He seemed to not have any more words to say, yet a lot to express to his team that day.
The defending champions had to concede their throne to a young, yet highly exciting Ajax side. Their defeat at the hands of AZ delivered the fatal blow, but their failure to win in five out of 10 matches between fixture 20 to 29 surely played a huge part. If there’s anybody to blame for losing out on the title, it is their own selves.
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