Frank de Boer’s Ajax faced newly promoted side De Graafschap at home in a must-win match to keep up with title contenders PSV and Twente. They ultimately succeeded in their goal of winning three points, but the style of play did not please the home crowd at all as a lot of simple passes were misplaced and De Graafschap proved more stern opposition than most Ajax supporters had expected. Let’s dive into the tactics of this match to find out why Ajax never succeeded to turn on the style…
Striker issues at Ajax
Despite ending up without any new players at the club, the past transfer window did not go unnoticed for Ajax. Luis Suarez was sold to Liverpool for a hefty transfer fee and with his contract soon running out, Urby Emanuelson left for AC Milan. Ajax set their eyes on Heerenveen striker Bas Dost as a possible new acquisition as the tall youngster was seen as the ideal ‘nr. 9’, possessing the quality to deal with crosses coming in from the outside wingers of the desired 4-3-3 system. Furthermore, Utrecht’s dribbling winger Dries Mertens was rumored to come to the club, but both players ended up staying at their respective clubs as Ajax seemed unwilling to meet the financial demands set by Heerenveen and Utrecht.
So Frank de Boer enters the second stage of the season without Emanuelson and Suarez. With the playing formation and style clearly defined as the wide 4-3-3 described before, particularly the striker position draws a lot of attention. With Mounir El Hamdaoui and Siem de Jong, Ajax’ first team squad possesses two very different strikers. Playing with El Hamdaoui means a dynamic dribbling striker who has an eye for the goal himself, while playing with De Jong means more of a target man who aim to set-up the play for connecting wingers and midfielders. Despite these differences, both players are very much capable of performing the principles of the false nine role, dropping into the midfield, making space for others to run into while unsettling the opponent’s centre-backs.
Against De Graafschap Ajax played El Hamdaoui upfront with Siem de Jong replacing Demi de Zeeuw in midfield. Daley Blind, son of assistant manager Danny, seems the most suitable candidate to replace Emanuelson at left-back, as Frank de Boer sees Vurnon Anita as a defensive midfielder rather than as left-back. Under the guidance of Marco van Basten, Anita underwent the reverse development, turning from midfielder into left-back, even making the national team selection in that position.
De Graafschap’s diamond as a defensive machine
Manager Darije Kalezic, of Swiss/Bosnian nationality, is a former player at the club and, after retiring from his playing career in 2005, started his managing career as the reserve team manager for two seasons. In 2008 he was promoted to the position of assistant-manager and he took over from Henk van Stee after he was fired on February 25, 2009. From that moment on, things only got better for the ‘Superboeren’ who gained promotion from the Eerste Divisie the next season and currently occupy a surprise twelfth place in the Eredivisie.
Kalezic deserves a lot of credit for installing two different formations on his team which they adhere to with strict discipline. After a 4-5-1 start to the season, at present De Graafschap seems to prefer the 4-4-2 diamond that also brought quite some success to Roda this season. While Roda draws from the offensive power of the diamond, De Graafschap mainly uses its defensive strengths. A key factor here is their positioning in defense, which is well illustrated in this short video of their match against PSV.
The major strength of a 4-4-2 diamond is the tightly grouped four men midfield, which allows for compact defending through the middle. As a result, the formation might be susceptible to opposing teams mainly looking to occupy the wings. This made for a very interesting match-up between De Graafschap’s 4-4-2 diamond and Ajax’ wide 4-3-3.
As expected, Ajax dominated possession early on. Despite this, they seldomly created any shooting chances from inside the box. A handful of off target long shots was all they produced in the first half hour of the game. On the other hand, De Graafschap did not create any danger either and the match lack all sorts of attractiveness in general.
De Graafschap’s sound tactical plan worked very well and Ajax failed to respond by making the necessary chances during the game. In effect, Ajax’ back line of four was occupied by De Graafschap’s two forwards, Poepon and De Ridder, who showed great defensive awareness by pressing Vertonghen and Alderweireld and showing excellent lateral movement. Ajax did not succeed to play around this pressing as they were always a man short in midfield due to this ‘overdefending’ problem.
A work-around might have been to play a double pivot instead of a single (Enoh). This would have allowed one of the holding midfielders to drop deeper, like the Busquets role in the Barcelona side. A three-versus-two defense would arise, allowing both full-backs to push higher up the pitch, a role that both Van der Wiel and Blind seem very much fit for. Furthermore, it would cause more problems for Hersi who would have to choose between two Ajax holding midfielders instead of simply marking Enoh. The effectiveness of this De Graafschap system was very well illustrated by Enoh’s poor passing game. In their previous match, against Utrecht who played with two holding midfielders, De Graafschap didn’t succeed in frustrating their opponent’s build-up this early on.
Unexploited false nine
He came in for quite some criticism in recent days, Mounir El Hamdaoui. His playing style would not fit the Ajax single striker system, and indeed, with Siem de Jong upfront Ajax made a better impression in recent games than they did against De Graafschap. But to blame this on the different striker would be an oversimplification of things.
One of the strengths of El Hamdaoui is his false nine role, but Ajax failed to take advantage tonight. As pointed out above, De Graafschap, due to Ajax’ overdefending problem, had control in the midfield area. Therefore, the striker dropping into the midfield did not impose the sort of difficulties that it regularly does. When the attacking team dominates the midfield area, a false nine adds to this dominance, forcing one of the central defenders to step out, leaving a hole at the back for one of the wingers or midfielders to take advantage of by making a run from deep.
But in the absence of a midfield dominance, the dropping striker can simply be dealt with by one of the midfielders, leaving the backline intact and the impact of such a false nine role is fairly limited. This was certainly the case in this match, where even though De Jong and Eriksen tried to make runs from deep to fill in for El Hamdaoui, they were quite simply dealt with by De Graafschap’s centre-backs.
In the end
Ajax did manage to win the three points by an El Hamdaoui tap-in close before half time and De Jong’s 79th minute goal, but the problems described above made for what Frank de Boer named ‘een draak van een wedstrijd’, which roughly translates like ‘the ugliest of games’. This was certainly true as the amount of misplaced passes in Ajax’ midfield was painful to watch at times, but given the tactical problems that this De Graafschap system imposed, Ajax fans may hope that De Boer gets his homework done in time for his next match when Ajax faces Roda away from home. Yes, Roda, the other Eredivisie 4-4-2 diamond team…