October 24th is just another normal day in Rotterdam, but for some locals a poignant anniversary, one that will not be celebrated. It was on this day two years ago Feyenoord suffered their heaviest league defeat, a 10-0 mauling at the hands of PSV, in Eindhoven. A city was left in shellshock.
It was a reminder how cruel football can be. Things improved from that dark afternoon, but not before further hardship. Ronald Koeman ended last season, his first at De Kuip, with an unlikely runner-up finish. This week fittingly gives his side a perfect opportunity to further highlight their steady progression. Arriving will be Ajax for one of European football’s most eagerly anticipated fixtures. De Klassieker.
A tale of two cities, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, that couldn’t be any more different. Amsterdam renowned for its culture, open-mindedness and laid-back attitude is a contrast to Rotterdam’s working class, industrial and resilient demeanour. Normally going into a derby, or grudge match, both sides are equal. Not the case this weekend.
Feyenoord should be confident, more so than usual. Everything is aligned for a positive result, Feyenoord have not lost at De Kuip since November 2011 (11 wins from 14 games) – but the question marks are over their rivals. Ajax, start as underdogs, odds against them. Nothing for Koeman to fear, only complacency. Ajax anxiety will be Feyenoord’s greatest weapon.
Despite remaining unbeaten, it’s been a turbulent few weeks in Amsterdam and Frank de Boer is concerned. His transformation of the club in less than two years has rightfully been praised, turning them into one of the more tactically and technically proficient sides in Europe. However Ajax have regressed at an alarming rate recently and it’s scary how unrecognisable they’ve become.
Johan Cruijff, writing in his De Telegraaf column, feels it’s physical. “Once intensity of the game is accelerated they lose the ball quickly.” This was seldom seen last season. If they’re not playing their natural combination football at high speed everything becomes redundant making life easier for their opponents. The performances have been no better than what was served up in the final days of Martin Jol’s tenure.
Heracles comeback to draw when leading 3-1 with ten minutes left was a perfect example. It was their fifth draw in nine games – that they led in four made it even more damning. The philosophy on the pitch is just about intact, De Boer instead is concerned about their mental state.
Ajax in turmoil
The mindset of his players has deteriorated, a worrying sign especially after the work put in over the last year – keeping the ball is one thing, reacting to the opposition is another – the look on the player’s faces as Luis Pedro equalised in injury time illustrated a side shorn of belief. Individuals badly lacking in form and mentally shot. As Peter Bosz’s side kept attacking Ajax retreated into their shells.
This is literally a changed side to the one in May. You can blame the pitch and dubious refereeing decisions but instead a long and hard stare in the mirror is needed. A catalogue of individual errors, one after another, saw De Boer reach boiling point and it won’t be long before he goes bald either to stress or, more likely, tears his hair out.
His post-match interview in Almelo sounded like a broken record. All the usual castigations such as “wrong choices made” repeated. “Struggling with immaturity” was de Volkskrant’s conclusion. “Here we go again, once again sentenced to catch up, now a familiar autumn blues possess the champions.” Algemeen Dagblad senses a pattern. “Ajax is in a vicious circle, for years the club sells its best players in the summer and the result: difficult start and the role of pursuer.”
De Boer during his playing days would punch a wall before a game. He challenged himself to take the pain. If he could, he felt he’d have a successful match, as Noordhollands Dagblad pointed out: “maybe that is what his players were missing the willingness to endure.”
It’s the stark reality of how youthful and inexperienced De Boer’s side is bereft of strong leaders. “Our team is learning so let’s hope they are quick students”. To compensate this shortcoming last season he adjusted his system, tactically geared to a more possession-based circulation game. If the opposition doesn’t have the ball they can’t harm you. Vurnon Anita sat in front of the defence, similar to Sergio Busquets, with an incisive and controlling playmaker in front.
The current midfield composition is sluggish and disjointed. Christian Poulsen has endured a mixed start as the ‘controller’. René van der Gijp didn’t mince his words when describing him as a “terrible footballer” on Voetbal International TV – one that doesn’t fit Ajax’s philosophy according to José Mourinho. Johan Derksen, on the same programme, added “an incomprehensible purchase” wondering why they didn’t instead promote from within.
The feeling is De Boer is waiting on Ilan Boccara – arrived from PSG this summer. The expectation is once assimilated he’ll be Anita’s long-term successor. A brief debut against Heerenveen gave enough reassurance. Poulsen in fairness was signed (on a free) more for his experience, coaching on the training field; with the retirement of André Ooijer and departure of Theo Janssen it’s a department they lack in.
In the meantime a possible remedy is switching to a 3-3-1-3. Unlikely, but it will free up captain Siem de Jong who often struggles in a midfield three. His more noteworthy performances, in a 4-3-3, have come as a ‘false nine’ – deputising for the injured Kolbeinn Sigþórsson – likely to go back there once Thulani Serero returns from injury. The wariness of his defence is another reason De Boer won’t implement his mentors’ – Cruijff and Louis van Gaal – renowned formation.
Christian Eriksen struggling
It also doesn’t help Christian Eriksen, his midfield partner, form has dipped. The unique circumstances at Ajax makes him a senior, even if it’s forgotten he’s still 20, but this further highlights the extreme reality in Amsterdam compared to elsewhere in Europe. The trouble is the players around him are not of a similar calibre. If Eriksen is below par the entire team suffers.
Eriksen opened the scoring in the last Klassieker before Feyenoord mounted a comeback spearheaded by John Guidetti who will be an analyst on Eredivisie Live’s coverage this Sunday. Heading into their last meeting Koeman labelled Ajax susceptible to a feeling he shares again. “In form they’re a great team and play good football but remain vulnerable. If we play cool and businesslike we can win.”
Feyenoord on form
A defeat that became a turning point, De Boer’s tactical acumen rescued them in the long-run, and if they were to lose this time around history will have to repeat itself. It will be another strenuous test, hanging onto the coattail of the leaders at least until winter, will be the first objective. His vision won’t waver but might need to be altered.
Feyenoord can feed off Ajax’s recent blip like a malnourished vampire. Their recent historic victory over VVV – a first win in Venlo since 1991 – coming from two goals down, provide confidence, though Koeman wasn’t overly pleased labelling much of their performance “unworthy of Feyenoord”. His anger spilled over post-match. “I’m terribly annoyed,” he frothed. “I was ashamed. I have never experienced such a performance with this group.”
Nevertheless their mental fortitude was showcased; it was inexplicable they found themselves 2-0 behind, but they rectified matters. One wonders if Ajax were jettisoned into a similar scenario would they have done the same. This trivial yet significant experience could ultimately prove to be the difference when both sides meet.
Whilst they’ll enjoy a week’s rest the Amsterdammers will no doubt be subjected to another energy sapping European Cup tie against Manchester City. In their previous games following an excursion in Europe they’ve failed to win. Even though it’s on Sunday lunchtime, it’s a slot De Boer has come to loathe – all bar one of his six league defeats as a manager occurred at this time.
There are still unsavoury tensions surrounding this Dutch showpiece and away supporters are still banned, since 2009 due to hooliganism. The hope is it could be lifted next season. Both clubs have reportedly been in discussions but the decision will ultimately be down to the respective municipalities. In front of a partisan crowd it should be another fascinating encounter – Feyenoord with everything to lose, Ajax everything to gain.
(photo credit: “Out Shooting” photos : ) on Flickr)