New Ajax manager Frank de Boer succeeded in installing hope in the heart of the Ajax fans in this match against, it must be said, an uninspired Milan side where no less than seven regular players were rested. Milan either preferred to sit back of were forced back by Ajax (presumably the first) as Ajax combined along the flank and create a significantly higher amount of goal attempts. In the second half Ajax succeeded in converting chances into goals to win a game that might be categorized as a dead rubber in terms of the Champions League competition. But, in terms of installing new found self-confidence and providing hope for their fans, Ajax did a very good job tonight.
Change of manager
Quite a match to make your debut as the new Ajax manager. Frank de Boer was propelled at high speed into the manager seat at the club he loves and took over from Martin Jol only two days ago. In his pre-match press conference he spoke of bringing back the joy of playing football among the players and he stated himself to be an adept of the outside winger 4-3-3 system, quite in the way that Ajax used to play in their most recent successful era, the mid-nineties.
Change of system
His approach to this game meant several alterations to the formation that we’ve discussed over the past Jol reign. A central role, both literally and figuratively speaking, belongs to the attacking central midfield position. Previously the domain of club legend Jari Litmanen, now young starlet Eriksen is given both the responsibility to carry the weight of team and the opportunity to shine in a role that he sees best fitting to his own playing style. Upfront El Hamdaoui is dropped in favour of Siem de Jong, who is drafted into the striker role from midfield. Expect him to play more of a linking role, often with his back to goal, looking to lay off for Eriksen, Sulejmani and Suarez.
Milan’s 4-3-1-2 system
After an overambitious phase at the start of the season, where Allegri tried to fit three of Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato and Rnaldinho into his team and ended up with a ‘broken team’ and an overrun midfield, Milan has settled for two upfront now. And this brought a successful domestic run, leading the club to win all but two of their last eleven Serie A matches.
The front two of Ibrahimovic and Robinho have scored 12 goals among them in this successful recent run of eleven games and behind them Clarence Seedorf lives his umpth youth in a linking role in central midfield. Width tends to be the weak point of diamond formations such as the 4-3-1-2, as illustrated in the only Serie A match that Milan lost after September, at home against Juventus.
The first half
Ajax did indeed start the match with an approach quite different from the Jol era, only a few days gone. The wing players took a very wide position, as illustrated in the average positions diagram below. Striker de Jong figured as a linking man rather than looking to finish moves off and the full-backs, especially Gregory van der Wiel on the right, ventured forward quite regularly.
Another important change installed by Frank de Boer was the switch of Luis Suarez from right to left. This meant a return to the left wing where he regularly played during his high scoring 2009/10 season and a break with the Jol trend to move Suarez to the right after right winger Rommedahl was sold.
This did result in a dominant spell for Ajax during the first part of this first half. A series of chances, mainly from distance was created where de Jong regularly supplied Eriksen, Sulejmani and Suarez. Eriksen succeeded in finding space between Milan’s lines. On top of that, Ajax played a high pressing game and succeeded in making some dangerous interceptions on Milan’s half. Of note was also that Ajax succeeded in achieving a pass completion percentage high in the eighties in their entire backline and midfield. This underlined that, in line with Ajax’ mid-nineties ideas, keeping hold of the ball was a goal in itself.
In the final part of the first half Milan took a more offensive stance and this brought more balance to the game. Ajax defended by keeping their holding midfielders de Zeeuw and Enoh close to the narrow back four and managed to limit Milan to only two attempts on goal in the entire first half.
The second half
A curious incident marked the start of the first half, a quick through ball found the run of Sulejmani behind Milan’s lines and at first sight of the referee he was fouled by Milan keeper Amelia, but on second thought and assisted by his staff, referee Bo Larsen identified the dive, and rightfully so.
Ten minutes into the second half Ajax succeeded in expressing their dominance on the score board. Ironically it was a blocked shot by striker De Jong, whose main task had been to supply the other strikers, that fell to De Zeeuw who placed the ball in the corner of the goal.
Ajax even added to that first goal with a beautiful shot by central defender Alderweireld from outside the area. His involvement high up the Milan half illustrated Ajax advanced pressing game.
By that time, Ibrahimovic had just entered the pitch for Ambrosini, indicating that Milan switched to a three upfront system in search for a goal. His presence created more danger and a series of small Milan chances, as if to underline the fact that Ajax had been playing a tuned down Milan team so far.
In the end
Not many manager will have made their debut with an away victory in the Champions League and Frank de Boer takes full credit for this win as well as for the display that went along with it. His change in playing style along with a few positional and personal changes, like moving Suarez to the left, resulted in hope in the hearts of Ajax fans. At last they got to see a glimpse of the capacities of their team tonight, albeit against a weakened and uninspired Milan side.