Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Never one to shirk from speaking his mind, PSV Eindhoven striker Dries Mertens described his side’s late-February win over Feyenoord as “kampioenswedstrijd” – “championship game”. That came back to bite him, but even if we're still three games shy of the winter break there's no better word to describe tomorrow's Amsterdam clash between Ajax and, six points above them, PSV.
If Ajax-Feyenoord is De Klassieker, then this is what the Italians would call the Derby dei Paesi Bassi: the derby for the country. It's a clash between the two most trophy-laden sides and essentially a clash of two competing schools of thought in Dutch football: PSV’s workmanlike ethic, historically preferring a more robust 4-3-1-2 or 4-2-3-1, shunning the typically seductive 4-3-3 approach favoured in Amsterdam.
Half a century of Ajax success has led to their model being widely lauded at home and abroad, and subsequently adopted by other clubs as well as the national team. But not in Eindhoven, although a few managers have experimented.
PSV's own philosophy – pioneered by Kees Rijvers in the 1970s and honed by Guus Hiddink in the late 1980s – has always been maintained in Eindhoven to show there’s another way, also successful. In turn it’s created one of the more philosophical rivalries in football, an ideological battleground which has gradually become as heated and intense as the matches Ajax and Feyenoord partake in.
The shunning of the Ajax model is a central theme to the rivalry. The two clubs battle on a fundamental level and the cultural divide only fed into the growing sense of competition on both sides. PSV, bankrolled by their founding Philips Corporation, became noted for their frugal scouting policy as well as extensive signings, in comparison to Ajax's greater emphasis on development of home-grown talent and promoting from within.
That’s not to say the Amsterdam club haven’t scouted or signed talent, which would be a blatant lie, but there’s a clear difference in ethos. In their most recent line-ups, PSV had no starting player from their youth ranks; Ajax had eight. However, that may change in the new economic reality, as Eindhoven – like many clubs – seek to save money by promoting youth.
Eric Gerets, former player and subsequent manager of PSV, once described how he could taste the hatred every time he faced Ajax. “When I arrived at PSV, we broke Ajax's hegemony. I don't think I'm liked very much over there, but I don't like them very much either.”
PSV's Gerets in 1988 – and Ajax in 1971
The feeling in Amsterdam is that beating Feyenoord is a question of honour, but beating PSV is about demonstrating their sporting superiority over the rest of the league. Jan Vertonghen once labelled the sentiment as “positive arrogance,” a trait those in Eindhoven detest. Gerets is one of only two men to win back-to-back championships as a player and coach for the same Dutch club; the other is Frank de Boer.
De Boer, about to celebrate two years in charge at Ajax, has had to his managerial prowess pushed to the limit. The side that showcased some of the finest Dutch football of the last decade broke up in the summer and again he’s team-building. Last Sunday’s dramatic late victory at Roda JC was their third on the bounce, and De Boer felt it could be a turning point. It was certainly a role reversal: up until then, Ajax were the ones guilty of throwing away points late on.
Even before the Roda game De Boer was already looking ahead to PSV, who have shaken off last season's malaise with a run of eight straight wins – including some impressive scorelines – to open up a nine-point gap over the Amsterdammers. But Ajax's victory at Roda cut that to six points, while PSV's subsequent home defeat to third-placed Vitesse means the champions could advance to within three points with victory tomorrow night.
Not that Dick Advocaat, who returned to PSV this summer, is feeling the pressure. Football can be fickle: crisis can be announced within a week of your team lauded by the press, De Telegraaf no less, as "official title favourites".
Advocaat and De Boer: Keepers of the flame
Crisis might sound hyperbolic but as Half-Time Oranje noted previously, in such a competitive league one defeat feels like a losing streak. Both these sides hate to lose and it’s in their DNA for it to prompt soul-searching. “We have to immediately get it out of our system,” is what De Boer often says; the same applies with Advocaat.
Advocaat's return has been successful so far, domestically at least. No side boasts a better attack than PSV, and their unwritten policy of attack being the best form of defence should make their meeting with Ajax all the more intriguing.
Ajax are the masters of possession-based football but have been susceptible this season to the counter-attack, as displayed in these two teams' meeting in the Johan Cruijff Shield, even if neither manager sets a great deal of importance in PSV's 4-2 win in that August curtain-raiser.
Mark van Bommel, who scored a hat-trick in this fixture back in 2005, feels it will be an open contest due to Ajax needing to win – and that could play into PSV’s hands.
Advocaat remembers De Boer fondly from their time with Oranje and isn’t surprised with the younger man's immediate success as manager. As for De Boer, he remembers the epic games between the two sides during his playing days when Advocaat was in the opposite dugout, against either Louis van Gaal or Morten Olsen.
Such classic confrontations are what De Boer yearns for, as they would make for a better Eredivisie, but the division barely needs help. As winter approaches, the top five sides are separated by six points; only the French League is tighter.
History favours the Amsterdam side: of the 56 league meetings, they have won 29 to PSV's 19. Before the last league fixture – which Ajax won 2-0 in April – De Boer compiled a motivational video featuring many examples of 'success', including clips of Michael Jordan, their last-day title victory in 2011 and wild animals feasting. It resonated into his players. "It's not something I usually do," he later told De Telegraaf. "The only time was before the championship game with FC Twente."
It's unlikely he'll do it again but there’s no escaping the importance of the game. As for Mertens and PSV, the hope this time around in what feels very much like a “kampioenswedstrijd” is that the result will be looked back on as crucial step towards reclaiming the Eredivisie crown which has eluded de Boeren for the last four years.
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