Jack Flanagan writes about a title race that has gone relatively under the European radar, the race for the Eredivisie.
With so much going on across Europe, it is very easy to forget about the Eredivisie. Napoli’s relentless chase of Juventus for the Serie A crown, Leicester’s astounding ascent to the top of the Premier League, PSG’s successful retainment of Ligue 1 and Barcelona’s utterly breath-taking performances over in Spain have caught the eyes of many. Over in Holland though, something equally as intriguing has been brewing. Two giants of the Dutch game, PSV and Ajax, sit atop the Eredivisie, separated by 1 point, and with 7 games each to go. Both have won exactly the same number of games this season. Things are tight, let’s say. But who will prevail?
The Current Situation
As of today, PSV sit above Ajax in the table, on 66 points, compared to Ajax’s 65 points. PSV are the holders of the Eredivisie, storming to the title last year with relative ease. However, the loss of their captain, Georginio Wijnaldum, added to the loss of their top scorer, Memphis Depay, both in last summer’s transfer window, has undoubtedly made their campaign significantly tougher this time around.
On the contrary, Ajax have kept the core of their squad from last season, and improved the only way they know how – to focus on their exceptional academy, and trust in youth. With emerging talents such as El Ghazi, Bazoer, Cillessen and Riedewald, you can see why. There have been a few signings – Nemanja Gudelj, Arkadiusz Milik and Amin Younes, but these signings only add up to around £8m cumulatively. In the global picture, this is a drop in the ocean. The rest of Ajax’s squad comes largely from their academy, summed up well by the fact that the average age of Ajax’s squad this season is around 22 years of age. Their captain, Davy Klaassen, is one of their own, and is just 23. Impressive.
Although better known for dipping into the international market than Ajax, thanks to being bankrolled by the Phillips Corporation, PSV’s academy is slowly catching up. Some of their standout performers this season started their career at the club – Jeroen Zoet, Jetro Willems, Jorrit Hendrix and Jürgen Locadia are all PSV born and bred. Regardless, both sides have a Dutch core. Between both sides, there are only 15 players in the entire first team squad that are not Dutch, about 25% of the total. Football is an increasingly global game, but it is always good to see player nationality and team nationality align so cohesively.
An Ideological Battle
The rivalry between the two sides stretches back to 1931, when they first played against each other, and is as much competitive as ideological. Ajax are seen as the pioneer of “total football”, and traditionally play with a fluid structure, focusing on versatility, possession and creativity. Beautiful football, perhaps. The all-conquering Ajax side of the 1970’s, which featured none other than Johan Cruyff, was particularly synonymous with this style of play. PSV, however, tend to approach the game differently. Not only are they better known for foreign imports, but they are also recognised as having a workmanlike, organised ethic. For the Dutch, style of play is a big issue. Therefore, the PSV-Ajax rivalry is as much based on ideology as on pride. Consequently, it is a rivalry with a much wider context than most. That is exactly what makes the proximity of the two sides at the top of the table this year so interesting.
In two months, it’ll all be over…
Entering the final stretch of the season, there is one fixture that stands out. With just 7 games to go, PSV host Ajax on Sunday in Eindhoven, in what will not mathematically decide the title, but will most definitely provide a huge head of steam to the victor. If PSV win, they will emerge from the game 4 points clear of Ajax. If Ajax win, they will overtake PSV as Eredivisie leaders, and emerge from the game 2 points ahead.
Both teams have to pick themselves up before the tie. PSV drew with Heerenveen last weekend in a disappointing performance, dropping precious points. Off the back of this, Atlético Madrid knocked them out of the Champions League on Tuesday night. Although they performed admirably over the two legs, you would expect their morale to be on the low side. This is the first time PSV have failed to win in 2 competitive games since last November. But they have a chance to invert momentum this weekend. At home and with a 1 point advantage over Ajax, if there was ever a time to step up, it is now.
Off the back of PSV’s draw last Saturday, Ajax failed to capitalise, drawing 2-2 at home to NEC in a game they really should’ve won. The draw itself prevented them from going top. Despite this, Ajax head into the game on Sunday undefeated since the turn of the year, and with fresher legs, having not played in Europe this week.
The Key Men
Both teams have goals all over the pitch. PSV’s deadly duo of Locadia and De Jong have 26 goals between them this season. Philip Cocu usually starts both in a 4-3-3 look that sees them flanked by Luciano Narsingh, who provides vital pace and crosses into the box for the other two.
Ajax tend to play with a similar formation, although they only have one out-and-out striker in the attacking trio. That man is Arkadiusz Milik, who has so far scored 15 goals this season, including a delightful chip against NEC last weekend. El Ghazi and Younes usually accompany him out wide. Younes has been in sizzling form of late, and could be an important factor in the weeks to come.
Both sides have some incredibly talented midfielders. PSV have the fortune of possessing Andrés Guardado, a veteran known for distributing the ball with laser-like accuracy, and Davy Pröpper, signed from Vitesse last summer, who is an extremely proficient dribbler. Ajax’s trio of Gudelj, Klaassen and Bazoer are all creative, young and talented. Bazoer in particular is highly rated and lacks any visible weaknesses – strong on and off the ball, with a fierce long shot and an impressive pass completion rate.
At the back, Ajax have edged it slightly this season in terms of goals conceded, but in the run-in they will be without Kenny Tete and Jairo Riedewald, both sidelined with injury despite having featured for most of the season. Although possessing competent replacements, PSV will be feeling better about themselves defensively of late after shutting out Atlético for 210 minutes in the Champions League. Jeffrey Bruma was my pick for man of the match in mid-week, and Jetro Willems has recently returned from injury. Héctor Moreno was a huge coup for the club when they signed him last summer, and Santiago Arias is a talented full back. Could this be the difference at the end of the season?
Let’s not forget about relative strengths of schedule. After the heavyweight clash this Sunday, there are still 6 games each to fight for. Both PSV and Ajax have 3 home games and 3 away ties to play. PSV have to play 3 sides in the top half, a potential stumbling block being AZ away, who are sitting 4th in the table and have won 4 of their last 5.
Ajax, in contrast, only have to play 2 sides currently inside the top half – PEC Zwolle and Heerenveen, one of which is at home. Two of their away ties are against Cambuur and De Graafschap, who make up the bottom two of the table. PSV’s away ties, however, do not feature any teams in the relegation zone, and include AZ and PEC Zwolle – 2 of the 3 teams they face inside the top half.
On balance, therefore, I think it’s fair to say Ajax’s schedule is marginally easier. This could prove to be pivotal in the title race, especially if Ajax win on Sunday, or draw. If they draw, the gap will still only be a point and PSV have some sticky away ties. Advantage Ajax?
To wrap up…
With 7 games left for each to contest, it’s all to play for. The Eredivisie title race could well come down to the final day, as it has been tight between the two sides all season. One thing we do know for sure though is that this Sunday’s clash between the two can’t be missed. As derbies often go, it’s bigger than a game. It’s for competing ideology, past footballing successes and failures, and, most importantly, it could well be for this year’s Dutch champion. Grab your popcorn folks; we’re in for one heck of a finale.
Written by Jack Flanagan.
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