This week might well prove a turning point for Ajax’ season. Losing away at Auxerre saw the club effectively eliminated from the Champions League and losing a second Eredivisie home match this early in the season has put the club three and four points behind PSV and Twente, respectively, in the race for the title. ADO, meanwhile, will definitely take this. They’ve managed to defeat Ajax with their open, direct 4-3-3 game. Even without top scorer Bulykin, ADO showed that they belong among the clubs competing for the play-off places should they be able to keep this strong run of form going.
Which formation does Ajax play?
A simple question, but not a simple answer this time. Manager Martin Jol, once again, made changes to his central midfield trio. Another sign of weakness in this crucial area. On paper fielding a 4-2-3-1 formation, which has been discussed here at several earlier occasions, playing De Zeeuw as one of the holding midfielders changes the face of the 4-2-3-1 quite crucially. He tends to take up advanced positions and illustrated this even more by playing his best games ‘in-the-hole’ in the absence of Siem de Jong. So, fielding him as one of the double pivot that characterizes the 4-2-3-1 potentially harms the formation.
In this match, knowing that ADO plays a 4-3-3 formation, a single holding midfielder should indeed have done. Compare this to the match against Auxerre last week, when Ajax only overcame their problem of ‘overdefending’ come the end of the match. However, there were severe tactical inadequacies in today’s formation. Ajax’ defensive line played rather deep, compared to their usual home style. Of course, the pace of Kubik and Immers supersedes players like Ooijer and early substitute Oleguer, so Jol’s choice in that regard can be understood. But fielding no less than five offensive minded players, counting De Zeeuw as one of them here, turned Ajax 4-2-3-1 into a 4-1-4-1 effectively.
What exactly goes wrong?
Nothing wrong so far, but combining these two issues highlights one of the important determinants of Ajax’ failing today. The strongpoint of the 4-1-4-1, as demonstrated for example at times by Excelsior, is to keep the banks of four close together, limiting space for the opponent to play in. Combined with tugged-in wide midfielders having space to run at, it offers an excellent fortress to hide in, looking to break from through ball into space.
With Ajax’ formation today, the 4-1-4-1 looked overstretched, conceding a lot of space behind the bank of four that ADO exploited very efficiently. As shown in the diagram displaying the line-ups, as soon as De Zeeuw joins the Ajax attack, a vast amount of space behind the attacking band is given away. Eralier solutions like pushing up the defensive line have failed obviously. Think of Ibrahimovic’ goal in the Arena for example. So, in playing a deeper defensive line, but pushing the midfield forward, a crucial part of the field is conceded to their opponent. This often leads to the type of match wherein Ajax’ attacking players have advanced too much to run at their opponents, one of the issues contributing to Sulejmani’s failings to demonstrate his qualities in an Ajax shirt so far.
In most Eredivisie matches Ajax’ superior player quality makes up for these kind of tactical shortcomings, but today too many players had, for one reason or another, a so called off-day. This allowed for these tactical shortcomings to translate into the final score, instead of being masked by a few instances of El Hamdaoui or Suarez brilliance making up for it. Ajax could at best hope that the recent weeks serves as a wake-up call for the managing team to address the issues mentioned above.
That’s the easy part of writing this analysis done with. Pointing out the issues at hand is one thing, proving ways out of trouble is a different kind of sport. One strategy here might be to look at teams facing comparable problems and learn from their solutions. Or just turn to Jonathan Wilson…
His tactical analysis of the way that Barcelona tends to face the problem of playing defensive-minded teams, a scenario that Ajax faces often at home too, is worth summing up here. The aim of their tactical plan is to commit enough bodies forward without compromising defensive cover. This certainly addresses one of the major issues that concerns Ajax at present. Their disappointing effort against ADO today served to illustrate that Ajax have a lot of difficulties finding this balance.
The key element of the tactical plan described by Wilson would be to advance both full-backs at the same time, an idea that would certainly be in line with players like Emanuelson, Anita and Van der Wiel. In turn, a third central defensive players is created by withdrawing the holding midfielder practically to the level of the centre-backs. Think of Enoh who could perform this for Ajax. In effect, this creates a W-shaped defense to build on.
In central midfield this leaves two players forming the axis of the team, aiming to provide the passing creativity, like Xavi does for Barcelona. On top of that, a three man attack with inside forwards provides enough options in that direction. Another W-shape that is.
So how different is this to Ajax’ current line-up?
The main difference would be in central midfield, which, not by coincidence, is the focus of Jol’s rotation of players this season. Withdrawing de Jong into a central midfield role, or fielding De Zeeuw in this role instead, strengthens the central midfield area. In turn, more attacking options would be provided by the advanced full-back positions.
This forms a sharp contrast with the way that Ajax currently aims to provide attacking options. De Jong plays a very advanced role, more like a second striker than like an attacking midfielder. In turn, De Zeeuw fills in the vacancy that this leaves behind and the midfield imbalance is there.
This article ended up as not so much a match review, but merely an essay on Ajax’ tactical shortcomings that were so painfully demonstrated in this match. When not masked up by the individual brilliance of their players, the tactical failings come to the surface. Let’s hope that this week serves to save Ajax’ season by getting these issues addressed.