Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Get your diaries out and make sure the following dates are free: Sunday 8 May and Sunday 15 May. On those two successive Sundays, FC Twente and Ajax will clash for the two major prizes in Dutch football. Call it fate or luck, but it’s happened: an unprecedented moment in Dutch football history.
TRAVEL You could be there: Ajax-Twente ticket/hotel deals available
There’s always something romantic about the league being decided on the final day, more so when it’s the top two squaring up with the winner takes it all. Even though a draw will be enough for Twente to retain their league crown, it’s a gambit Michel Preud'homme will be looking to avoid.
For Ajax, it’s a position they never thought they would be in: at one stage just before the last international break they were six points behind leaders PSV Eindhoven. But as PSV faltered Ajax went about their business, gaining momentum – despite boardroom turmoil, they've had five wins from five since the break – dragging them to the cusp of winning their first league title since 2004.
THE FRANK REVOLUTIONFrank de Boer would have bitten off your hand if you suggested to him, when he took the hot seat in early December, that Ajax would only need a last-day home win to win their 30th championship. And with the final day falling on his birthday, it could end up as the ultimate present.
This season has been far from a vintage one for the Amsterdammers. It began with Martin Jol’s future in question, as Premier League clubs (notably Fulham) were interested in his services. Jol did indeed leave, but not until December, and not to return to England: he resigned on the back of lethargic performances and endless criticisms from ex-players turned pundits dissatisfied with everything from Ajax's tactics to general style of play.
"Are we finished?"
No mean ex-player himself, De Boer has also been critical of his predecessor's style. In a recent interview he acknowledged that Jol’s tactics were successful to an extent – last season they won the Dutch cup and finished second (to Twente) by just one point, scoring 106, conceding just 20 and not dropping a point after January – but that the style of play was alien to him, not the philosophy he knew during his time at the club.
At the time of Jol’s resignation, Ajax were fourth and just five points behind leaders PSV; despite losing three games, they had won nine. It was the manner of the performances that started to make his position untenable.
His final game summed up the anxiety at the Amsterdam Arena. A 1-1 draw at home to NEC Nijmegen was a blow, but worse was the body language of his players, notably the frustrated (and soon to depart) Luis Suárez. With the pressure mounting, Jol decided to jump before being pushed.
In came De Boer, first as interim coach but since on a permanent basis, subsequently leaving his post as assistant coach with the Dutch national team. His first few months have been in clear contrast to the last few under Jol.
For one, there seems to be a more harmonious spirit amongst his group of players. More than anything, this could be down to the changes in the team’s style of play. From the get-go De Boer spoke of his determination to renew what he felt was the lost Ajax spirit and bring back the joy of playing for the club – in his words, to "rid themselves of a certain apathy that was evident on the field."
The first thing to do was to alter the tactics. Jol's Ajax rarely played with a playmaker, No. 10 or trequartista, nor with out-and-out wingers. De Boer put paid to this, dusting down the 4-3-3 to resemble the system he was comfortable with as a player.
“The Ajax system has always entailed building from the back, with movement and nice interplay," explained the boss. "We had to ensure that the players bought into this idea again.”
"Four. Three. Effing. Three."
An inspiration is Pep Guardiola, his former Barcelona team-mate turned Camp Nou coach. De Boer acknowledges though their teams are on different planets financially, they share a distinct philosophy – and the Dutchman has made it clear that he will continue to let it thrive during his tenure.
"This is my club: I’m an example of what it can produce," said De Boer. "My ambition is to get the team competing at the highest level again. In the modern game, you tend to dominate if you have eight or nine players behind the ball, just like Barça. You have to be dynamic, full of movement.”
One example is Christian Eriksen. The Danish teenager hadn’t been a regular feature under Jol, but under De Boer he’s become the fulcrum of the side – scoring in his last two games – playing as what his coach calls a true playmaker, in most cases behind a false No.9 in Siem de Jong.
This combination was utilised in De Boer’s first match: Ajax's 2-0 win at AC Milan, the club's first ever victory at the San Siro. “We played following the Ajax philosophy," explained the coach, "with wingers [Suárez and Miralem Sulejmani] and a real No.10 [Eriksen] – and everyone did well at the job they were assigned beforehand.”
De Boer’s appointment may have been largely swayed by his previous coaching role in the academy; a number of the players who have recently excelled in the first team already played under De Boer in the youth tiers – notably Eriksen, who enthused after the Milan victory about how the new coach's appointment and impact had given him greater confidence. Given that the summer could see a couple of first-team players departing, the club may decide to promote from within as well as buy.
Another player that has gone from wilderness to renaissance is Miralem Sulejmani. At one stage before last August he seemed set for West Ham, but the Serbian forward was denied a work permit. For Ajax, it was a blessing in disguise.
Since De Boer took over, Sulejmani has scored 12 times, his first coming in De Boer’s first home game against AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch cup. There have also been the odd important goals here and there including the equaliser against NEC and more recently at Heerenveen.
Jol’s team was criticised for lacking wingers, an oversight Marc Overmars was quick to point out. De Boer rectified that playing Sulejmani and Lorenzo Ebecilio, another graduate from the academy. Since the new coach took over, Ajax have won 12 and drawn two of their 16 league games, racking up 33 goals and conceding just 12.
If De Boer guides Ajax to the championship will only become the third to do so as a former player, joining Ronald Koeman and Rinus Michels.
TWENTE, TWENTE, CUPSo far this season Ajax and Twente met twice, first in the Johan Cruijff Schaal – the traditional season curtain-raiser between league and cup winners. Twente won 1-0, a rare mistake from goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg allowing Luuk de Jong (brother of Siem) to capitalise in their 1-0 victory.
Stekelenburg would make up for his error a couple of months later when the sides met in Enschede, his string of spectacular saves keeping Ajax in the game during a classic 2-2 draw, probably the game of the season in the Eredivisie.
Both won their penultimate games setting up this climax to the season. Ajax came from a goal down to beat Heerenveen 2-1 through Sulejmani and Eriksen, while Twente had no trouble dispatching Willem II 4-0 – a heavy defeat that finally confined the Tilburg team to the relegation that has hung over them for much of the season.
The rivalry has done wonders for the KNVB Cup. Neither side will want to give an inch to the opposition, so a cagey cup final is expected with the losers emphasising that it won’t mean much to the league game.
De Boer has hinted he may make a couple of changes for the cup final, but still will go out to claim a double: “Obviously we would rather win the second meeting, but that doesn't mean we won’t be taking the cup seriously.”
His counterpart Michel Preud'homme isn’t despondent that Twente haven't wrapped up the title by now. Instead, he has noted how right he was to predict that the championship would go to the wire.
"I've previously said that the title would be decided on the last day of the season. That prediction appears to be true. If we assume PSV win their last game, we will be third or champions. That is strange. It could mean that we would miss the Champions League."
"Play to win. Every game."
And when it comes to the cup final, there’s no chance of Twente tinkering. "We have played every game this season to win," insists Preud'homme, "and we're going to do the same in the next two games - with confidence.
"We will do everything to win. First we focus fully on the cup final – we are going to spare no players, everyone also wants to play that game. Both prizes are important for FC Twente."
Neither side is used to losing. Twente have only been turned over once in the league since mid-December, Ajax just the twice. So, almost as much as wanting to win the cup, neither will want to give their rivals the psychological boost of beating them.
But deep down it’s the league both want. Twente will want to prove they are no flash in the pan and Ajax well to finally scratch that seven-year itch. Bring it on.
TRAVEL You could be there: Ajax-Twente ticket/hotel deals available
1. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake is better than Ronaldo …and Torres, and Tevez, and Berbatov. And he knocks Defoe
Latest European Football News
Footballers' underage prostitute trial adjourned to 2014
Dutch winger Lens joins Dynamo Kiev from PSV
Platini praises Israel as Spain take spoils once again
Nikolov leaves Frankfurt to make American dream come true
For all the riches, Monaco face taxing times
75% of all TV is Bale
On the road to ruin
FourFourTwo is brought to you by Haymarket Consumer Media & FourFourTwo is part of Haymarket Sport
| International Licensing | © Haymarket Media Group 2010