Aloha from your favourite ‘little brother’ league, from the land of the Nethers. It’s been quite an interesting season in the Eredivisie, 12 games in. For one, Feyenoord are top and were unbeaten until last weekend, and seem to have a team that is one of their most balanced in recent memory. Following sacking reports 3 weeks into his tenure, Peter Bosz has steered Ajax well back on track and they have not lost a single match since Hakim Ziyech’s arrival. Last year’s last-day champions PSV have struggled a bit more. Luuk de Jong has failed to replicate the scoring form he maintained for the last two years and their chance creation trend has been slightly erratic, but more on that to follow.
PS: Admittedly, small sample size alert.
The last time Feyenoord won the Eredivisie, 14 players in Feyenoord’s current first team squad were not even in primary school yet and Dirk Kuijt had just burst onto the scene with Utrecht. It’s fair to say that a season where they put in a serious title challenge has been a long time coming for the Pride of the South.
The defence has seen van der Heijden, Botteghin and Kongolo cover reasonably well despite the fact that the former two have the combined pace of a lazy cat. Feyenoord have the lowest shot ratio (62.5%), and expected goals suggest they have been lucky not to concede more, while they allow more shots on goal than the other two contenders.
It’s further ahead that things have gone well for Feyenoord this season. The midfield triumvirate of Karim El Ahmadi, Tonny Vilhena and Dirk Kuijt have shown a great deal of efficacy in doing simple things – and while they don’t play ‘Cruijffian’ football, this was one of Cruijff’s most famous sayings, that playing simple football could often be difficult.
El Ahmadi and Vilhena have shielded the defence well while forming a passing axis with the two fullbacks and Toornstra. Feyenoord, as a team, have only had a cumulative 11 unsuccessful touches per game too, the least in the league, so they’ve been pretty well-drilled in their passing movements by van Bronckhorst and van Gastel. It is not much of a coincidence that Feyenoord’s first defeat of the season was dealt when both El Ahmadi and Vilhena were missing from the XI.
Dirk Kuijt, on the other hand, is partially a beneficiary of the Wayne Rooney paradox. There are games where he can be relatively invisible and ineffectual but he is the club captain and he often seems to be the most likely to get a ‘clutch’ goal. I think it is pretty unlikely Kuijt will get the Rooney treatment and be benched soon though. His energy fits well with the profile of players around him and allows Toornstra some more freedom to wander around and provide a creative contribution.
41% of Feyenoord’s attacks come down the right flank, which is testament to the fact that Karsdorp has continued providing a vital wide option on the right while combining well with summer acquisition Steven Berghuis (or Bae-rghuis, according to Ted) as well as Bilal Basacikoglu in recent outings, although Berghuis still fails to impress as he did with AZ.
Feyenoord’s attack is where the difference is really palpable between recent seasons and this season. Despite having inferior expected goal and shot ratios to PSV and Ajax, they are being powered in part by a SoT/Goal of 35%. Nicolai Jorgensen has been a real upgrade over Michiel Kramer and has hit the ground running in the Eredivisie, since arriving from Denmark in the summer. Taking 4.1 non-penalty shots per 90 with a conversion of 19% has seen him top the league’s scoring charts. Important too is that the Dane plays 17.3 accurate short passes p90, compared to the 10.6 of Kramer last season. This adds some more coherence to Feyenoord’s attack; the presence of that extra option to pass to lets his teammates act a bit quicker and the team’s speed of moving the ball increases. This is particularly helpful in the final third and most of Feyenoord’s attacks have been results of swift circulation in that part of the field.
Feyenoord's last three matches have resulted in a loss and two draws and it may end up that their early 'luck' has run its course, as it often ends up doing around halfway through seasons, whenever they have threatened to be title contenders.
A shaky start to the season had people calling for Peter Bosz’s head before he’d even managed to construct a team in his semblance. Ajax’s u-turn on Ziyech is at the moment, pretty undoubtedly the pivotal point that has turned Ajax’s fortunes around.
Barring the draw with Feyenoord, Ajax’s ExpG per match post-Ziyech has been higher and much more favourable compared to pre-Ziyech, even more so after he was reinstated in the #10 position, as opposed to the right wing. Ziyech is a ball-magnet for Ajax in possession and moves across the frontline to receive the ball and find an outlet. As such, Ajax use slightly more of the middle of the pitch in attack (29%) compared to last year (26%), when the play was excessively dependent on wide service.
Ziyech is also keeping up a healthy number of key passes p90 (3.8) which is much more than the numbers he has put up over the last few years. While I do expect this will go down a bit over the course of the season, it’s almost 1 key pass more per game than last season, which is indicative of how he’s managed to maintain and improve on his attacking ability despite being in a new team, having to put in more off-the-ball work and against defences that play tighter and deeper than he was used to, with Twente.
Bosz’s general philosophy is starting to become more apparent in an effective way too, since Ajax play higher up the field now than under Frank de Boer and 33% of their possession happens in the opponent’s final third. Schone’s role in defensive midfield has reduced some of the dilly-dallying on the ball that was prevalent in the middle-third.
Ajax are pretty neck to neck with PSV in terms of shots but they’re scoring a lot more from their chances, which is partly the increase in quality of chances created in recent weeks and the fact that the likes of Klaassen, Dolberg and Traore are all sharing the goalscoring burden pretty well.
At the back, an unlikely central pairing in Sanchez-Viergever have held fort relatively well but the right flank with Veltman and Traore remains more liable, which is surprising considering an attacking midfielder is playing fullback on the other side. Sinkgraven has taken admirably to the leftback role and his links to Ziyech coming in off the left-side of midfield as well as Klaassen and Schone in the centre help Ajax move ahead effectively on pitch.
The off-pitch fracas surrounding Gudelj and El Ghazi has been less palatable but there is little doubt that their exclusion has come for the better of the team and Bosz has been justified in his selection choices in as much.
European performances have been more encouraging this season too. Ajax seem a little less shackled by dogma and a little more open to switching their mode of attack. The unpredictability of Ziyech and Dolberg has helped in this regard too, since you need individual moments of excellence to get you through some tough matches.
Dear, oh dear. Things have gone a bit gloomy in Eindhoven this season. The most baffling thing is that PSV continue to post some of the best numbers in the league (and Europe). They’ve conceded the least number of shots (79) and average the most shots inside the box pg (12.6), and have the highest TSR (72.9%). And yet, they have drawn 3 of their last 5 league games, have gone out of the Cup and likely out of the Champions League in recent weeks and seem a shadow of their former selves, to borrow a cliché.
Average distance of shots to goal (closest) in top 5 leagues + Eredivisie. (Well done, ADO?)
Their ExpG per game is currently the least of the three title contenders and their SoT/Goal% is only 24.4%, compared to the 35.7% they managed last season and 34.4% the season before that. The main difference happens to be that Luuk de Jong was on fire for both of those seasons and is considerably less so this term. His non-penalty conversion % was 21% last season and 17% in 2014/15. This season, it’s a Stormtrooper-level 6%, and even though he averages 3.4 shots in the penalty box this season, 52% of his shots have been off target – considerably more compared to previous campaigns too.
It’s hard to put this down to any specific cause. One factor could be a serious dip in form for Jetro Willems, which has culminated in him being benched and replaced by Brenet in both the PSV XI and the Dutch national team. A key attacking axis for PSV was the Willems-de Jong connection over the last two years and without the right kind of service, de Jong’s conversion may have taken a hit.
In a way, PSV resemble Ajax in the last two years of the Frank de Boer era – devoid of a proper Plan B when their Plan A is stifled by opponents. For example, in the 0-0 vs Groningen, PSV attempted 60(!) crosses, and Groningen made 63 clearances from inside their box. There was a certain pattern to the that emerged that
a) PSV did little to break out of and try something different and
b) PSV continued even more enthusiastically as the game went on and
c) was replicated in the match vs Heracles, when PSV attempted 37 crosses, and were met with 42 clearances from Heracles’ defensive third.
The loss of Jorrit Hendrix to injury was a loss, but the loss-of-form that Pröpper has suffered in recent weeks has probably been more detrimental considering how influential he is. Summer recruit Bart Ramselaar, with his inspired movement between channels and ability to break defensive lines has been a bright spot.
Most of PSV's numbers are pretty impressive so it's probably wise to just wait and see how their situation improves (and I'd say it is likely to improve). Toon Gerbrands has suggested that once van Ginkel is available on loan in January, PSV will look to bring him in again and that might help, considering he scored 8 goals in his half-season stint last year and helped PSV pick up crucial points on their way to the title.
A change in system might be an out-of-the-box option for PSV to pursue and the 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield is a potential option, especially once Hendrix is back. It would allow Ramselaar more freedom to go forward while also un-restraining Pereiro to the obligations of a traditional winger (which he does not seem to be, really).
But either way, brighter days might not be too far off in Eindhoven.
Other fun observations
Stijn Schaars, 32, has been the best one-man-midfield I’ve seen this season.
This is not to discredit Heerenveen’s other midfielders but the former PSV player has been doing pretty much everything at the base of midfield for the Frisian side. Schaars has completed more passes (690) and had more touches (1015) and made more interceptions on the opposition half (13) than any other Eredivisie player this season. He also completed 105 passes v Groningen back in October, the highest by any player in the league since January 2015. The numbers are partly facilitated by the fact that he plays in the #6 position and sees a lot of the ball but Schaar's influence in this area has also had a very direct impact on his team; Heerenveen average 5% more possession this season than last season and his ability to circulate the ball effectively mean Arber Zeneli and Sam Larsson are found closer to the goal and more likely to make an attacking impact.
In other news, NEC Nijmegen have been quite an experiment to watch this season. Peter Hyballa, who once co-authored a book on Dutch training methods, was given the reins and his lofty idea(l)s have impressed many. His NEC side rarely pass sideways and centreback Dario Drmic and midfielder Julian von Haacke have been key additions in NEC's attempts to play through vertical buildup and passing between the lines.
Hyballa's admiration of the 'Pep' style of football is evident, though of course, NEC Nijmegen are neither Barcelona nor Bayern nor Man City and his attempts to translate that kind of football to Gelderland has not always come off successfully and has posted some strange patterns in the numbers. They've taken the least number of shots (99) but have a pretty decent accuracy of 47%. They've played 71 key passes as a team, but only 8.4% of them have been crosses (a grand total of six crosses), in a league where on average, 26% of teams' key passes in attack tend to come in the form of crosses. Contrastingly, 11.3% of their key passes come in the form of throughballs, by far the highest percentage in the league, which I think, gives some backing to the kind of play Hyballa is trying to create. But unfortunately, NEC lack the resources and players of the calibre required to make this a proper success and thus they remain floating just above relegation places.
So, it's all setting up pretty nicely for a tight race and if the shooting data is to be believed, Ajax and PSV are likely to be fighting it out again in the second half of the season, while Feyenoord's form will probably cool off and they might end up being a dark horse. PSV's woes should be resolved pretty soon because their numbers are solid at both ends -- Marco van Ginkel's loan move should only facilitate this too although it might mean less playtime for Zinchenko, who I'd like to see more of. For Ajax, two regular starters in Ziyech and Bertrand Traoré will be departing for AFCON in January and could potentially miss up to 4-5 games. It will be interesting to see how Bosz works around this, whether he gives El Ghazi and Bazoer another chance to restake their claim to a starting position or if he eases Nouri or van de Beek into the team.
Heerenveen have converted extremely well this season, with Samba Sam Larsson and Zeneli both firing regularly and in good form. AZ have pretty decent numbers too, but their scoring has taken a hit since neither Weghorst nor Friday have been able to fill Janssen's shoes effectively, although Janssen did blossom only after November. I'd watch this space because this might be an interesting fight for 4th.
If Man City loanee duo Ünal and Celina keep up their form in attack, Twente might pose an outside threat to the Top 5-6 too. Which is impressive given Twente rose back from the dead over the summer and were relegation favourites going into the season.
Thanks for reading!
Article by Priya Ramesh