This was a good week for Dutch football. I don’t want to bore you too much with the co-efficiency ratio discussion ( a battle played out in a spreadsheet, not on green grass). In short, the # 6 of the list – best nations in this calendar year – will get 2 CL places in the 2023/24 season and 6 clubs in Europe overall. At this stage, we are #7, with France and Portugal on spots 5 and 6 and very close. Portugal currently has 4 teams in the race, we still have 5 (Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord, AZ, Vitesse).
The many qualification games PSV, Feyenoord, AZ and Vitesse had to play means we collected the most points (!) of all nations in Europe. By December, we should be #5 or #6. Great stuff! Vitesse’s 1-0 win over Spurs B team has helped as well.
So, combine that with Van Gaal’s recent successes and Ajax’ impressive performance vs Dortmund and one can’t escape the feeling we are truly on the up and up.
Van Gaal must be purring with pleasure, as the Norwegian medical team announced Haaland has a hip injury and will be out for week. Ajax will play Dortmund sans Haaland and Oranje will face a Haaland-less Norway in November. What can go wrong?
Van Gaal selected 30 players in his pre-selection now, because a number of players are a bit of a question mark (Ake, Berghuis, Luuk, Klaassen, Rensch, Wijnaldum) and LVG will drop players who are truly out of rhythm.
The biggest gloater this week will most likely be Ten Hag ( honourable mention for Daley Blind of course), after his team took Dortmund apart. Just before midnight a proud Erik ten Hag enters the press room in the JC Arena. His German colleague has just summarized their game versus Ajax in one word: “Scheisse!” (Shit!). Ten Hag: “We have all enjoyed this together. Coaches, players, supporters, everyone. The cross polination was great. But you need an opponent that wants to play, to make a great match and Borussia Dortmund came her to get something. We won, we were dominant and that is great to see. We had so many top performers, I think it was a Collective Men of the Match situation for me.”
You are a critical coach. Can you see points to improve even now?
EtH: “Oh yes, but now it is not time to be too critical. Tonight, after the match, we need to enjoy the win. But tomorrow, different story. We did see some lessons, some positive, some negative. When you want to grow as a team, you will always have to look in that critical mirror.”
So what were some of the negative lessons?
“The Germans are great in the turnaround, in the gegenpress. We had too many moments where we lost the ball too easily. We had a situation in the first half, where Alvarez, Antony and Pasveer lost possession in a row, that is something we cannot accept It’s lethal, normally. In this case, it wasn’t, but we need to iron these things out. Another problem is our effectiveness. We had so many chances and “only” scored 4. That is something we need to work on. Berghuis had two amazing flicks for Haller and Gravenberch. If they score, these two goals will go right across the globe. We could have had 8 tonight. And Borussia maybe 2. It could have ended 8-2. A classic score line for Ajax :-).”
Can you actually enjoy the match, as a coach. Even briefly?
“No not against Germans. They never give up, you know this. It’s part of their DNA. It’s over when the ref whistles three times. And I told the lads at half time. We’re 2-0 up but should they get the 2-1, you can get in trouble. The 3-0 of Antony was super important. Missing chances, or even going with Dortmund in their pace, you can easily lose your head and than a match can pivot. We do need to work harder to kill games off.”
After Antony scored, he had his by now classic celebration with his mate and rival Neres. You immediately coached him. What did you say?
“I love the euphoria and Antony typically wants to celebrate the goal with every squad player. This is needed for a group to bond and become stronger. But, I also told Antony to leave the trickery and the circus act behind. It needs to be effective. Tricks, stepovers, back heels, I love it when it has a function. Like I said, Berghuis could have had 2 assists with a flick behind his leg, but Antony does these things needlessly too and I like him to limit that. No tricks purely for the tricks.”
How do you explain the difference between Ajax and Dortmund?
“That was purely optical. We did a great job and Dortmund did help us a bit, but that was also because of us. We executed everything we wanted to perfection.”
You had to select your #10, Klaassen or Berghuis. Was it a hard decision to make?
“No not really because I go for what the team needs. Steven played really well for us as #10, also in the CL. He has been decisive for us so it’s not logical to sub him. Davy would have been disappointed but he is a top athlete who understands how it works and we know Davy can also play there and be great for the team. But differently. And Steven again was amazing for us tonight.”
Ajax has 9 points and 11 goals (1 conceded) in the CL group now. Are you surprised?
“I never look that far ahead, in all honesty. We go from match to match. We need to simply look in the mirror and try to be as good as possible. We’ll see where we end up.”
Was this the best match under your management?
“Well… I remember a game some time back against Real Madrid away. That wasn’t too shabby. But this was incredible and it gives a lot of confidence. And we need to take the good and work on the not-so-good. We could have a great season, you know?”
It’s amazing, because 3 seasons after that Madrid game, only a couple of players from the current team were there…
“I think we are on the right track. We built a new team and I am very happy with where we are. But we can improve still. And we need to be and remain critical. Against Utrecht, we didn’t have the energy and focus and therefore we lost. But when you show that mentality, as we did versus Heerenveen, we can win. We need to keep on bringing this.”
Daley Blind and Tadic are the leaders who remained from the Madrid game. And they’re both important yet again.
“That is never in question. Any coach wants players he can fall back on. Feyenoord has Toornstra, PSV will see Van Ginkel as the culture guardian, as we call it. These players understand the club, the culture, they understand tactics, they recognise moments in the game where we might get caught, or where we can pounce… But you mention Daley and Dusan, I would like to add Klaassen to that list, although Alvarez and even young Timber are developing more and more into leaders.”
The first 10 minutes, you were very actively coaching. Why?
“Because Dortmund played differently to what we expected. And we made the wrong choices at times. It took a while for the team to adjust. We were a bit nervous, or seemed nervous. Once we got more steady on the ball we started to create chances immediately and as a result we were able to dominate both in possession as without the ball.”
So you had to change the shape during the first 10 minutes?
“Yes, and I would love it if the players would be able to spot it without me interfering from the side. We need to be able to do this quicker.”
This will give heaps of confidence for the PSV match?
“Of course, but we don’t lack confidence. We need to watch out for over-confidence. Sunday is a totally different game. We know and we need to prep for that. We need to be top on Sunday in order to win.”
Goalie Pasveer was also key for you, does this settle the goalie problem in Amsterdam?
“Remko only demonstrates what we know already. He has so much potential still. He did have some glitches in the first weeks, but that is normal. He has been one of the best in the competition now for years and he too will have to keep on making steps up. I am happy that he is growing. At Vitesse, you may get 10 saves to make per game, at Ajax only 2 or so. But you really need to be there for that. I am proud that he was indeed one of the MoTM candidates.”