Saturday evening marked the kick-off of the domestic football season in the Netherlands with the, by now, traditional match for the Johan Cruijff Schaal (JCS). What started out as a low profile pre-season affair has by now grown into the nation’s third ranked trophy. This is in no small part due to the variety of teams contesting this affair in recent years. While the first ten editions of the JCS were almost uniformly contested between PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord, recent years have seen the appearance of Utrecht, Heerenveen, former-champions AZ and of course reigning champions Twente. Despite these positive notes on the JCS, winning it seemed of inferior importance to Ajax this year, with saturday’s match scheduled tightly in between the double meeting with PAOK Saloniki, contesting the financially lucrative Champions League qualification.
We’ve recently discussed Ajax’ 4-2-3-1 line-up a few times, reviewing their friendly against Chelsea’s reserves and of course recently in commenting on their midfield line-up in the disappointing 1-1 home draw against PAOK. Ajax’ line-up for the JCS saw two changes compared to the match against PAOK. Martin Jol was forced to replace central defender Jan Vertonghen, since the Belgian suffers a two match suspension after calling Feyenoord fans cockroaches during the celebration of Ajax’ Cup win last season. And up front Martin Jol preferred Korean youngster Hyun-Jun Suk over out-of-favor attacker Miralem Sulejmani, who is rumoured to join Premier League outfit West Ham United in a few days. Suk generally offers more of a physical presence compared to the Serbian, meaning a slight switch towards more of a target man attack, compared to the role Sulejmani offered against PAOK. In that match Ajax’ front quartet was characterized by frequent positional switches, especially between Sulejmani and attacking midfielder Siem de Jong.
FC Twente has not been mentioned on 11tegen11 so far, and since they’re the reigning champions of the Dutch Eredivisie, this might well be an omission on my side. They’ve smartly avoided the spotlights during their pre-season campaign but showed to be well prepared during this match. Last summer, after they were crowned champions of the Eredivisie for the first time, manager Steve McLaren departed for VfL Wolfsburg in Germany and the coming season will see Twente face the challenge to stay at the top. Steve McLaren consequently played a 4-3-3 with Twente, taking control of the midfield with a narrow backward facing triangle of midfielders. New manager Michel Preud’homme chose a comparable strategy, at least on the kick-off of this particular match.
The immediate change to the midfield
First thing to notice was the injury to Ajax’ destroyer midfielder Eyong Enoh in the 3rd minute, forcing him to come off. Rasmus Lindgren, who plays more of a passing role replaced him, thereby changing Ajax’ desired destroyer-creator-passer trio into a passer-creator-passer combination. This early change proved fundamental in the remainder of the match, which was a battle predominantly fought out on the midfield. The essence of the match was in fact the battle of the midfield trio’s de Zeeuw-de Jong-Lindgren versus Jansen-Brama-Tioté, where Twente’s midfield, with their backward triangle, was like a mirror image of the two holding midfielders and one creative attacker that Ajax tends to prefer.
An early goal changing the game
This game saw an early goal which put Twente in front. Maarten Stekelenburg and Gregory van der Wiel, despite having played together in ‘Oranje’ during the recent World Cup, didn’t communicate well and Luuk de Jong, brother of Ajax player Siem, pinched the ball from the defender for a free run on the Ajax goalie. After this opening goal Twente’s shape was even more recognizable as a 4-5-1 out of possession and a clear 4-3-3 in possession.
Positions during Ajax’ possession
Let’s take a look at the midfield positions and how they’re slightly different depending on which teams controls the ball. First, this is how they were set out when Ajax controlled the ball at the back. Twente employed a man marking system, consequently choosing to tight-mark Ajax’ midfield out of the game.
Note how close each Twente player is to his respective opponent. This resulted in long spells of Ajax’ central defenders dwelling on the ball, slowing down the build-up of play. Here, central defender Alderweireld is forced into a risky pass towards the well marked Suarez because both Lindgren (orange) and de Zeeuw (orange) as well as de Jong (yellow) are well marked.
Furthermore, as one of the few provided stats showed during the match, at one point in the match Twente succeeded in making 40 interceptions, versus only 18 by Ajax. And, since intercepting is the new tackling, as pointed out in this article by Zonal Marking, this was symptomatic for the problems that Ajax had in constructing their attacks.
Lack of dynamics upfront
This was further aggravated by their static front four. Suk replacing Sulejmani meant that Ajax’ stepped away from their dynamic attack of the PAOK match, characterized by frequent positional switches, not only between striker-for-a-day Sulejmani and attacking midfielder de Jong, but also involving both wide attacking players. Instead, with Suk as their central attacking player, Ajax’ attack became static, predictable and easy to defend for Twente’s central duo Wisgerhof and Douglas.
Positions during Twente’s possession
Now, let’s turn our attention to the screen showing the midfield positions during Twente’s possession of the ball. This screen shows their attacking intentions. As usual, defenders are red, controlling midfielders orange, attacking midfielders yellow and attackers blue.
Tioté (orange, in possession) is a bit under pressure, Brama (orange) offers a way out, while Jansen (orange, advanced) made a run forward, pressing de Zeeuw all the way back to his defensive line. Meanwhile, also right back Tiendalli has advanced, even past Lindgren, thereby effectively creating a 5v5 at Ajax’ half of the pitch. Should Brama be able to find a quick way out, danger is to be expected.
Ajax’ loose zonal marking system failed to deal with the smart positional play, particularly by central midfielders Jansen (left) and Tioté (right). By alternating between playing very tight together most of the time and wll-timed making deep runs on occasion, they posed a huge challenge to de Zeeuw and Lindgren. Each of them must have wished an Enoh in a destroyer role by their side at that time.
The end of the match after 37 minutes
Some matches don’t last the full ninety minutes. This was particularly true in this edition of the JCS. Suarez’ red card after a reckless tackle on Cheik Tioté showed glimpses of frustration, not only attributable to this match, the miscommunication between Stekelenburg and Van der Wiel, but there was a bit of Ivic’ late equalizer reducing Ajax’ Champions League aspirations too. After the elimination of Ajax’ most dangerous man the JCS was unfortunately never seriously contested anymore.
Let’s hope that Ajax will be able to turn things around for the return match at PAOK tomorrow. Another new midfield is to be expected with Enoh and possibly also Lindgren (late match injury) out for this game.