After defeating Milan 2-0 away in the Champions League and winning 1-0 over Vitesse in the Gelredome, new Ajax manager Frank de Boer made his home debut for Ajax in theit Dutch Cup quarter final against former champions AZ. And the wide 4-3-3 system worked wonders again…
Ajax’ not so new system
The formation and playing style that Frank de Boer imposed on Ajax are by no means new. The wide wingers stretching the opponents defense, the roaming nr. 10 in the hole behind the lone striker and the high amount of pressing to go with that have been around for years and years. Without turning this match review into a football tactics history class, it’s safe to say that the foundations of Ajax’ Total Football concept of the seventies and Louis van Gaal’s famously numbered 4-3-3 system of the nineties play an important role in Ajax’ currently applied 4-3-3 system.
Most notable changes in terms of the starting eleven are made upfront where Luis Suarez sits out his seven match ban and Mounir El Hamdaoui is left out of the starting eleven for the third consecutive match. De Boer prefers Siem de Jong upfront, who offers more of a target role and in that way seems more self-supportive compared to his Moroccan counterpart. On the right wing Sulejmani thrives in the wide role he’s been given since de Boer made his appearance and on the left 19-year old Lorenzo Ebecilio sees his excellent performance against Vitesse rewarded with another start.
AZ manager Gertjan Verbeek got things going at AZ ever since he made the early season switch from his hybrid 4-3-3 / 3-4-3 system to the more realistic and fashionable 4-2-3-1. Their style is fairly direct in the sense that they don’t fear a long pass forward towards the physically strong Graziano Pellè. On the offense they look to involve their full-backs on the flanks and move their forwards as well as their man-in-the-hole close to the striker, looking for flick-ons. Having started the season with both strikers (Pellè and Jonathas) out, the return of Pellè has been a vital element in their game.
Against Ajax AZ misses a vital element on their midfield as captain Stijn Schaars suffers from a knee injury. As a replacement Erik Falkenburg is lined up behind Pellè with Wernbloom, AZ’s regular central attacking midfielder, moved back to a more controlling role.
Contrasts with Jol’s Ajax
As expected, Ajax dominated possession immediately from the kick-off. They succeeded in forcing AZ back, mainly by advancing the full-backs at an early stage. To keep a correct balance in their teams this meant that the defensive midfielders had to play a very disciplined role. Either Enoh or de Zeeuw made sure to cover in front of Ajax’ central defense at all times, so that the formation turned into a three-men defense in possession, allowing both full-backs freedom to venture forward.
As mentioned previously, the wingers stretched play well, keeping close to the byline and only drifting inside after assuring that their corresponding full-back was present to take over the wide position. This pattern of play is one of the many contrasts with the way Ajax played under the reign of Martin Jol, when there was less discipline in the defensive midfield tasks, so the full-backs had less opportunity to bomb forward and ultimately, when the wingers turned inside they narrowed the game and were quite easy to deal with.
Another contrast was formed by Ajax’ consequent preference for short passes. This game may serve as an extreme example of the abolishment of any long balls by de Boer. Even most of Ajax’ first half corners and free-kicks were taken shortly, preferring possession over a ball into the box where they knew that AZ would have the better of them.
AZ’s game plan
So how did AZ try to counter this Ajax team? Well, in fact they were faced with the dilemma that most teams playing the current Barcelona side in their Camp Nou stadium have. It’s not that this Ajax approaches the supreme quality that Barcelona’s players have over most of their opponents, but the playing style of the current Ajax and Barcelona side share quite some similarities.
Playing a high pressing team that constantly overlaps on the wings and tries to hang onto possession on the verge of the opponents half demands the question whether to do it the Mourinho way or to adapt something like the recent Espanyol approach.
Will you, like Mourinho did with Inter during last year’s Champions Leaugue semi-final sit very deep , absorb the pressure and look to break through a direct counter play? Another example of this tactic being successfully applied would be Hercules’ amazing 2-0 win in the Camp Nou earlier this season.
Or will you apply a reasonably high defensive line, throw in some tackling and try to press your dominating opponent right back? Don’t let the final score mislead you here, but the recent Espanyol – Barcelona game shows that you can cause some problems with this approach too.
AZ manager Verbeek clearly chose for the first option and had his team sit deep and the 4-2-3-1 turned into a 4-5-1 for most of the game. Long balls towards striker Pellè was something they’d been familiar with from earlier games, as shown by their recent approach to the Groningen game. The difference in this match was the fact that AZ’s withdrawn position meant that Pellè was too isolated to bring his team mates into play and AZ kept on losing possession quickly.
Miralem Sulejmani crowned Ajax’ dominance with the only goal of the goal of the game by chipping the ball from 25 yards out. AZ had, by that time, close to the half time whistle, just about started to develop some ambitions of their own and had started to connect their midfield more to their lone striker. Exactly that space between midfield and defense was then exploited by Ajax as Pellè mispassed one of his lay-offs in midfield.
The second half developed much along the lines of the first half, although AZ tried to find their way back into the game early in the second half by playing their attacking midfielder, Wernbloom, as by that time Falkenburg had been removed, closer to Pellè, but Ajax still succeeded in controlling the ball and thereby the game. Frustration grew among the AZ players, culminating in Wernbloom’s red card for a vicious tackle on Ebecilio. Illustrative of the lack of firepower upfront for AZ was the fact that it took until the 87th minute for them to force a first save from Stekelenburg.
In the end
Another game end in all smiles for Frank de Boer. After beating Milan away on his debut and winning 1-0 at Vitesse this was third consecutive clean sheet win for the former national team defender. But even more assuring than those results must have been Ajax’ playing style, returning to the wide 4-3-3 system that is so familiar to many of their fans. On top of that, the beautiful goal of Sulejmani and the excellent display of youngster Ebecilio highlight the important role of Ajax’ wing players within this concept.
AZ, meanwhile, simply saw their game plan undone by being unable to connect to the lone striker. Perhaps fielding more pace in their midfield could have meant an improvement here as players like their Icelandic duo Sigthorsson and Gudmondsson may fit the deep counter attacking plan better.