Blinkered by beautiful football
After Ajax and AZ Alkmaar's draw at the weekend, a result which almost hands PSV the Dutch title with half a season still to go, both coaches complained about the referee. Something that is not unusual for AZ's Louis van Gaal, but for Ajax coach Henk ten Cate it all sounded a bit cheap.
Having collected five points from the last five games, Ajax have thrown away the league season within a month, and their UEFA Cup campaign is struggling as well. Key players Kenneth Perez and Wesley Sneijder are serving suspensions for swearing at officials, while their chairman John Jaakke gave his backing to the pair by saying that 'Ajax is not a club of choirboys'.
The new man in charge, Ten Cate, did well as assistant to Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona, where his job was to make a group of individual stars like Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Deco gel together and work for each other. This summer though he could not resist the lure of the coaching position in Amsterdam, and now has high expectations to live up to.
For an Ajax coach he is making all the right noises. After losing the crucial home game against PSV he said: 'If this had been an exam, my team would have succeeded. We played very well in the first half. We controlled the PSV midfield and had a lot of chances. The second half was less easy.' The PSV goal, a free-kick from the sideline which was slightly deflected, was very unlucky, according to Ten Cate, who concluded with: 'It was a 0-0 game in which we were the better team, but not enough to win.'
This is a great response for a disappointed coach to put on the club's website and most Ajax fans may buy this as an excuse. Yet, in an interview last week in newspaper 'Het Parool' Ten Cate dared to complain how the champions from Eindhoven earned all the plaudits with their results-driven game, while his own team with its dominance and attractive play was overlooked. The public opinion about the match, however, was that of a rather dull game with few chances, in which the smartest team won.
That Ajax dominated the game until they reached the box, can be translated with: PSV let them play their dominant and attractive, yet harmless football in midfield. With the visitors able to save their breath for a couple of incisive counters. The only goal of the match came from a set-piece, which had been practiced on the training ground over and over again. So it was not at all 'unlucky'. In fact it was a well executed tactical plan by PSV. Ajax just did not realise.
In the post-match interview Ten Cate played the 'undeserved and unlucky' card and went on about the percentage of possession Ajax had.
Let's imagine him running a marathon in which he leads from the start, but then gets beaten in the last hundred metres. What would you think if he said: 'I deserved to win as I was ahead 99% of the race. I was unlucky to get second.' In football it is not very different. It is about scoring goals and getting the result.
Although it is nice when a team tries to play a beautiful game, this is definitely not why you walk on the pitch. The simple truth is that when you have scored less than your opponent, you never deserve to win.
This blind spot is not a prerogative for Ajax, but they may have invented it. In Henk ten Cate they have found another coach who is perfectly suited to this graceless-loser style. Too bad, as the club have even started a marketing campaign this season to beat their arrogant and cold image.
However, their image is not why people don't like them. Their problem is that they genuinely believe that they are better than others. When tickets used to be cheaper it was thought that a substantial part of the crowd at Ajax games came to see them lose.
So Ten Cate fits perfectly into the club with his aloofness, but is he a good coach? Last year Danny Blind had to go as he failed to entertain the crowd, despite winning a cup and having success in the play-offs. During the season his team struggled and it seemed as if Blind could not find his best eleven, which meant a turbulent year for the squad.
In the summer there was a major shake-up with players coming and going. After the World Cup there were only a few weeks to prepare for the season and due to international duties for most of the squad, Ten Cate found he lacked the time to train effectively. Yet, in an interview at the end of September he said: 'We try to play the most difficult football there is.'
I am not a qualified coach myself, but doesn't it make more sense in this situation to keep it simple in the beginning? Keep this difficult football style in the back of your mind and maybe you can work towards this in the future when the players feel comfortable. One of the dubious achievements of Ten Cate so far has been to create a system in which last season's Dutch top scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar can't produce.
Not only does Ten Cate have difficulties in grasping reality, others at the club do as well. Technical director Martin van Geel said on TV how Ajax had come very close to PSV this season. Yet playing in the second round of the UEFA Cup and losing crucial home games to your rivals does not seem very close to me. Or to the rest of the public.
PSV are way ahead in the league again and have qualified for the second round of the Champions League in record time, although their recent European runs mean they lose key players every summer as fixtures become congested.
Even without the influential Guus Hiddink they march on, thanks to an excellent scouting system and a convincing coach in Ronald Koeman, who is quietly taking revenge on his unceremonious discharge at Ajax two years ago.
Instead of whinging about the unattractiveness of PSV, referees and bad luck, Henk ten Cate should be a bit more self-critical and reflect if he really has got what it takes to be the coach at a top club like Ajax.