In the past three years, many teams have been forced to bow before the superior quality and resilience of Frank de Boer’s Ajax. On Sunday, it was the turn of PSV. The latest Derby van Nederland in Amsterdam was an absorbing affair, with both sides playing some insatiable football and displaying great technical skill. Ultimately, the sheer relentlessness of Ajax outlasted the brave adventure of PSV; de Amsterdammers remaining stoic when faced with a half of varied Eindhoven pressure before capitalizing on a typical lapse in the PSV backline to secure victory. In many respects, this game encapsulated finely the prevailing narrative of modern Dutch football.
As a PSV fan, I knew that the season was on life-support heading into this fixture. The early season positivity created by stirring home performances and a 4-0 September victory over Ajax were distant memories, washed away in a sea of frustrating inconsistency. A spiraling decline saw Phillip Cocu’s side mired in eighth place prior to kick-off; any slim hopes of a roaring comeback after the Winter Break were dependent on victories against closest rivals. It was a must-win for PSV.
The opening exchanges provided great cause for encouragement. Cocu fielded an attacking lineup, with Bryan Ruiz handed a debut alongside Jürgen Locadia and Memphis Depay in a lively forward three. The silky Costa Rican, loaned from Fulham last week, was intelligent in possession and helped create a steady flow of attacking opportunities for PSV. Locadia steered agonizingly wide on two separate occasions; Depay, whose technical development continues to impress, diverted a whipped cross barely wide of Jasper Cillessen’s post; and Ruiz himself flashed a left-footed shot tantalizingly across the face of goal. PSV looked strong, fit and powerful in the attacking third, with strong pressure being applied. On the counter-attack, they manipulated a number of three-on-three situations, with only the finishing touch lacking. At times, it looked like Ajax would cave as PSV attacked with strength and verve. The capacity crowd became somewhat restless as Ajax scrambled to extinguish a persistent PSV threat. I was surprised and incredibly excited.
Cocu’s side also looked strong defensively. The unorthodox midfield combination of Stijn Schaars and Ji-Sung Park lacked pace in defensive transitions, but compressed gaps adequately and helped command the pivotal space between defence and midfield in which Ajax’ technical playmakers so frequently devastate. Ajax instead attempted to work an overload against PSV right-back Santiago Arias, taking advantage of Ruiz’ low defensive work rate. Viktor Fischer was lively, asking many questions with tremendous dribbling skills and incisive vision. When Jeffrey Bruma and Rekik stood strong, and Jeroen Zoet proved reliable between the sticks, this game may have started to resemble a stalemate to the neutral. However, for the purists, it was fascinating to watch another fine tactical battle between Cocu and de Boer.
During the half-time break, de Boer won that battle, and the second half proven to be a morbid postmortem of this failed PSV season. It was a half totally different to its forebear in emotion, tempo and quality. It was quintessential Ajax. I do not know what Frank de Boer said in that Amsterdam ArenA dressing room, but his tinkering resembled the work of a genius. The Ajax coach somehow managed to alter the entire pattern, narrative and outcome of this game almost instantaneously; the second half feeling like a siege from the very kick-off. It was quite remarkable that Ajax could, with the succinct influence of de Boer, rebound from a rigorous half of football into a state of utter dominance. The resounding self-confidence of this Ajax team is incredible.
As a PSV fan, I was naturally frustrated as my team became ragged and stretched but, as a football fan, one can only admire what de Boer has built. Eventually, he will graduate to the very top with Barcelona, and I cannot think of a more deserving coach. The native tribalism of this game often lends itself to hatred, cynicism and delusion. I regularly have heated football debates with Ajax fans fueled by the rivalry but, on Sunday, I had to strip all of that back. After a half of vibrant PSV pressure and a capricious change of momentum orchestrated by de Boer, I was entirely devoid of answers as to how any domestic Dutch outfit can consistently out-perform this current Ajax team. They’re just too strong.
It was torture and it was educational. Simultaneously. Ajax pressed in packs at such ferocity that PSV struggled to construct a meaningful sequence of passes. As with all world class teams, de Boer’s Ajax strike fear into opponents when in possession anywhere on the field. Even when Veltman or Moisander are on the ball, stroking it about the backline, Ajax look to be on the very verge of creating something terminal. It’s just terrifying.
Such was the case with the winning goal. In this entire Eredivisie season, you’ll struggle to find a more symbolic goal. It encapsulated the root of PSV’s problems and explained why Ajax will likely march to a fourth successive crown. Moisander plays a darting cross-field ball to the highly-impressive Lasse Schöne, whose instinctive side-foot into the penalty area exposes a fatal lapse in concentration between Bruma and Rekik. Sigþórsson nips in-between them to head home what proved to be an Ajax winner. Initially, this goal informs of Ajax’ granite-like resolve and spirited belief. They will keep probing and penetrating and working until an opportunity presents itself. As for PSV, this goal highlights the undeniable need for leadership.
The occasional brilliance of Bruma & Rekik has been regularly unhinged by such momentary lapses in concentration. Earlier in the game, both central defenders bestrode the backline with passion and intelligence, blocking shots and cutting-out Ajax passes with ease and elegance. However, the lack of a fearsome captain to preach the importance of concentration throughout an entire ninety minute game proved costly again. In dealing with such naivety, PSV are desperate for a midfield stopper in the mould of Mark van Bommel; a true captain who the younger players feel accountable to, and are perhaps even a little scared of. PSV need a quality combative anchor in midfield with the heart, intelligence and passion to provide security and inculcate a message of awareness throughout a whole game.
Since van Bommel’s retirment, those human qualities haven’t been replaced. The summer sale of superstars like Kevin Strootman, Dries Mertens and Jeremain Lens again demonstrated the importance of Champions League football to a club like PSV; the greater revenue streams opened-up by such a competition are required to acquire and keep this calibre of in-prime player. Strootman and Mertens have flourished into global superstars, with sensational performances in Serie A for Roma and Napoli, respectively. Mertens has been ubiquitous in the selection of Rafael Benítez, whilst Strootman has settled into a multi-talented midfield alongside Daniele De Rossi and Miralem Pjanić. Cocu can only yearn for such proven quality within his current squad. If PSV had a van Bommel or Strootman-type figure this season, they would still be challenging on three fronts.
Ultimately, the Ajax game resembled so many PSV encounters this season. In the first half, Cocu’s side had thrown everything at Ajax, who seem impregnable even when pressured intensely. A lively start full of youthful exuberance yielded no breakthrough, before a naïve lapse in attention let the opposition grab a goal from a most unlikely situation. Once behind, the youthful heads dropped, the tactical shape became frayed, and the opposition trampled all over PSV. Ajax rushed through a disintegrated PSV midfield, creating opportunities and taking aim at Zoet. Their only failure was in adding more goals. It was one-way traffic, with many PSV players again bypassed by the emotion of a big game. It was excruciating to watch, but this kind of scenario has become a regular hardship for PSV. The script isn’t new.
But we must continue to support our team. We must believe in the process of change embarked upon by Cocu. Of course, it hurts to lose to a fierce enemy, but all true football fans must endure to enjoy. We have watched PSV win Eredivisie Titles, play in Champions League semi-finals and thump close enemies by huge scorelines. Now, perhaps it’s the turn of other clubs and other fans to have their moment in the sun. I firmly believe that those who flee in times of darkness have no right to enjoy the eventual glory. That glory will return. Even de Boer said as much, stating his belief that “I think it will eventually turn out right for Cocu and PSV.” It’s incredibly difficult to admit that a bitter rival is plainly better than you. However, at this moment, arguing that fact would be futile. PSV must act honourably, accept the reality, and strive to emulate the kind of steely resolve on show in Amsterdam.
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