PSV Eindhoven is one of the most well known and prosperous clubs in the Netherlands, alongside Ajax and Feyenoord; famously known as the ‘big three’ in the western country. By their standards, being crowned as league champions is unquestionably the primary goal, and reaching a Champions League spot is the minimum requirement. The club continues to live up to these high expectations with 24 Eredivisie titles. Nine of these have come in the last twenty years, accompanied by four silver and four bronze medals in the last two decades, highlighting their dominance and consistent performance in recent times.
With the 2019/20 campaign officially having been ended with eight rounds remaining, PSV reached the finish line in a rather unusual fourth place, trailing behind their two old rivals and an excellent AZ Alkmaar. Given their high standards mentioned earlier, unsurprisingly the club considers the season unsuccessful, disappointing and something to leave behind. This season is impossible to be compared to all the others, but it does not change the fact that the team underperformed heavily. After a successful first year leading his former club to the second place of Eredivisie, coach Mark Van Bommel was not able to keep up the momentum this next season, and eventually, in December 2019, he was released from his position.
Few would argue that Van Bommel’s tactics were not the only weak link in the team – the outcome is always the sum of several different factors and it was no different in PSV’s current season as well. In this tactical analysis, we will take a thorough look at these factors, and reveal the main reasons behind their unconvincing performance on an individual and collective level.
1) Underlying numbers
Let’s start with taking a look at the figures of PSV’s 2018/19 campaign and compare it to their most recent numbers. It is crystal clear that the team underperformed in almost all aspects of the game. In the following charts, we will see that the majority of the 2019/20 numbers indicated with a dark blue colour, were significantly worse compared to those of the previous year indicated with a light blue colour, from both an offensive and defensive perspective. In comparison to last season, PSV averaged 2,08 goals scored and 1,08 allowed per game, and were 27,94% and 40,83% lower than last year respectively, while the 1,88 points/game average is 22,8% worse than last year when they were rewarded the silver medal.
These figures are only the tip of the iceberg. In general, PSV’s style of play was much less fluid and sharp. They operated with 7,21% less progressive passes and 9,64% less passes into the final third per 90 minutes than last season. We can conclude that the team aimed to dominate the midfield and relied on their quick forwards upfront. However, the numbers suggest that it was not an effective tactic with a 16,34% decrease in penalty area entries and 15,26% fewer shots on target per 90 minutes. It seems that the team was prone to run out of ideas around 16 yards from the goal. All these negative tendencies added up to a 21,74% worse XG figure and 0,8 fewer goals scored per 90 minutes, as already mentioned.
Similarly, PSV’s defending performance in the 2019/20 Eredivisie campaign also leaves much to be desired. As displayed in the below chart, they won defensive duels 6%, aerial duels 20,20%, and all duels in total 7,46% less effectively compared to last year. This downfall was paired with a 7,7% lower number of recoveries per game too. They were simply less powerful and compact as a team which eventually took its toll on their mental state as well – the players’ natural self-confidence decreased a lot month by month.
An even more telling figure is the 53,83% decrease in the PPDA (passes per defensive action allowed) of the Eindhoven team. This indicator gives us an insight into their pressing intensity, and more importantly, it tells us how quickly a team is able to recover the ball after losing it. Last year’s 8,17 PPDA – meaning that PSV gained back possession after an average 8,17 passes by the opponents throughout the season, increased to an alarming 12,56, making them the 12th best in this category in the 18-team league. To put it into context, Ajax was first in PPDA with a figure of 7,06 (per 90 minutes) which suggests that the Amsterdam team was around 40% more effective in pressing situations than their old rival.
Let’s see an example from one of the clashes between these giants below. As the PSV players do not put immense pressure on the opponents, the Ajax defender on the ball can choose from the several great passing options with no rush. The PSV attackers position is very far from their opponent and therefore make it easy for Ajax to keep the possession and bring out the ball from the defence.
But what does a lower PPDA mean directly? A worse possession rate, as last season’s 57,67% fell to 53,33%, although this was still enough for the 4th place in the Eredivisie. Evidently, for PSV the main consequence was in shots, and shots on target allowed, as these figures elevated to 38,60% and 61,54% respectively, compared to the previous year. This helps us understand how severe the defensive issues were throughout the whole season.
2) Against the rivals
Another statistic from the 2019/20 season, telling a lot about PSV’s poor performance is that in five games against their main rivals Ajax, Feyenoord, and AZ, the team managed to collect two points from the 15 available. Strange as it may sound, PSV gifted 86,67% of their ‘common’ points to their contenders and this horrendous figure alone says more than a thousand words. In contrast, AZ Alkmaar picked up the maximum 12 points from their four games, with a stunning 10-0 scoreline on aggregate.
Apart from the head-to-head matches, PSV’s overall season statistics are also worth being compared to the rivals’ performance. We have already discovered that the team’s figures decreased in almost all aspects of the game since the previous campaign. Additionally, their title contenders showed a consistent increase in performance and, in some cases, overperformed their expected numbers. This is especially true for AZ Alkmaar who finished above PSV in the majority of the significant statistics: per 90 minutes, they had 6,12 more progressive passes, 4,12 more passes to the final third and 2,23 more touches in the penalty area, paired with 1,68 fewer shots conceded and 6,8 fewer ball losses. However, the most dominant and important difference between the two teams was in their PPDA – in the previous section of this analysis, we have already seen that pressing was probably the weakest point of PSV Eindhoven in the 2019/20 season. Let’s illustrate it.
In the above chart (where the size of the circle indicates the total points of the team) PSV’s poor performance is crystal clear: the high average of PPDA may lead to many shots conceded, which is not desirable for a team like PSV fighting for the title. From this perspective, PSV were on the level of Heerenveen, a team that finished 13 points below them.
The below chart also aims to illustrate the low pressing quality of the Eindhoven team: while Ajax, AZ, and Feyenoord all stand out in PPDA numbers (indicated by the size of the circle) and total points (indicated by the colour of the circle), PSV, once again, are in the range of teams with much fewer points next to their names. Vitesse, Heracles and Willem II all deserve recognition in this regard.
3) Individual performance
At the beginning of the season, many expected PSV’s two young Dutchmen, Steven Bergwijn and Donyell Malen to be the key players in the team and the league in general. Without surprise, the duo found their form early and managed to rack up some elite numbers in the first half of the campaign: a combined 16 goals and 13 assists in 17 games mean that they contributed in 76,31% of PSV’s total goals scored. The next graph captures their importance perfectly: they finished as top scorers at the end of the season, albeit missing out the last couple of games of it.
When a team is so reliant on two particular players, their absence can harm the team’s performance more than anything and this is exactly what happened to PSV in the second half of the season. In January, Steven Bergwijn was signed by Tottenham Hotspur to try his luck on the highest level, while Donyell Malen suffered a knee injury in December which had him sidelined for the remainder of the season. The club was hit heavily by losing their key players – not only because of the previously outlined goal threat that was immediately lost, but in dozens of other aspects of the game as well.
In the above graph, the difference between PSV’s performance with and without Bergwijn and Malen is illustrated. Like two different teams. The fundamental impact is in the scoresheet: losing the young forwards meant 44% fewer goals per game for the team. A huge blow in itself, especially when accompanied by several other statistics decreasing: -16,36% in xG, –14,83% in total shots, -34,61% in shots on target and -37,47% in penalty area runs. As the two Dutchmen were not only responsible for offensive actions, the lack of them was also visible for PSV’s in possession influencing their style of play. The average number of passes fell by 15,24%, and smart passes fell by a significant 46,67%. Additionally, the passes into the final third and the progressive passes fell by 12,69% and 10,07% respectively. These figures show how important Bergwijn and Malen were in positional plays and building up the attacks. Another interesting statistic is that the PPDA increased by 29,90% in their absence, outlining that they were key elements in the team’s pressing actions, most of the time operating as the first line of defence, attacking the opponents as high up the pitch as possible.
It cannot be repeated enough that the 2019/20 season will go down in the history books as an unprecedented and imperfect campaign. We will never know what would have happened in the remaining eight rounds, but it does not change the fact that PSV’s performance was enough only for a disappointing fourth place in the league. In this analysis, we saw that this outcome cannot be blamed only on the significantly worse statistics compared to last year. PSV were also challenged by a great AZ Alkmaar and a consistent Feyenoord, and they also had to say goodbye to arguably their two most important players, Steven Bergwijn and Donyell Malen.
Despite the bad taste in the mouth, the club is not expected to fade into mediocrity soon. The new head coach has recently been announced in Roger Schmidt, formerly succeeding in the Austrian league and the German Bundesliga with Red Bull Salzburg and Bayer Leverkusen. His responsibility will be leading the Eindhoven team to glory again. Schmidt is famous for his aggressive and entertaining style of play with a high focus on intensive pressing which, as it turned out in this analysis, was one of the weak points of PSV this season. No doubt that the new boss will make sure that his players understand and implement his unique philosophy right from the beginning, which is certainly a good sign for the PSV supporters.
Similarly to its rivals, the Eindhoven club pays immense attention to youth development and does not shy away from giving a chance to their prospects as early as possible. No need to look further than Mohamed Ihattaren. The 18-year-old midfielder burst into the team like lightning and quickly became a regular starter this season. The youngster is considered the next big thing of Dutch football and if constantly being compared to the legendary Wesley Sneijder means anything, great things await the young sensation. Roger Schmidt will enjoy building on such a talented team, and should all players remain available for selection, PSV will make it to the top once again.