Only three months after their match in the Dutch Cup quarter final, where Frank de Boer made his debut as Ajax manager, Ajax and AZ met again in the ArenA. An early goal gave Ajax a comfortable start on which they built a patient game, pressing AZ just enough to stay clear of trouble, preferring to save their energy for later this week.
The starting line-ups
Ajax’ played their familiar wide wingers 4-3-3 system where a disciplined defensive midfield task allowed both full-backs to bomb forward regularly in support of the wingers. Holding midfielder Eyong Enoh was rested one more match, ahead of the Europa League match with Spartak Moscow later this week, to fully recover from his arm injury. Vurnon Anita replaces him in Ajax’ central midfield were Demi de Zeeuw returns in the starting line-up too, after struggling with the prolonged consequences of the nasty kick in the face against Uruguay during the semi finals of the World Cup.
His appearance in Ajax’ starting eleven has everything to do with another clash between Frank de Boer and Mounir El Hamdaoui, who by seems to have definitely fallen out of favor with the Ajax manager. After being subbed of for disciplinary reasons, with the Moroccan striker eager to provide his view on the subject in the Dutch media. Siem de Jong, who replaced El Hamdaoui’s in the lone striker role during Ajax’ comfortable Cup semi-final win over RKC, plays up front again.
AZ figures their preferred starting eleven, one might say, although recently Viergever did play ahead of Moisander at times. With the former Ajax academy defender suspended after his red card against Twente, Moisander partners Moreno in central defense again. Attacking midfielder Wernbloom, suspended too, is replaced by last week’s match winner Erik Falkanburg.
A quick lead
Ajax, particularly at home, is known for playing a pressing game and they did so right from the kick-off here. Often winning possession early in their opponents half, Ajax created a handful of chances early on. As early as in the fifth minute AZ captain Stijn Schaars blatantly failed to cover a well-timed run from deep by Demi de Zeeuw and the Ajax midfielder completed a neat finish from a left wing cross.
And these runs from deep, both from De Zeeuw and from Eriksen were Ajax’ main source of danger. Both wide players stretched AZ’s defensive line from one side of the pitch to the other to facilitate this. Siem de Jong did not play a false nine role here, but looked to receive the ball at feet, taking advantage from his excellent teamwork skills. In that regard, he’s a more fitting player to Ajax than El Hamdaoui, who is more keen on being a goal scoring threat himself.
AZ’s game plan
Did AZ not put any sort of counter play against Ajax? Well, they had a plan, but were generally unable to carry it out and when they tried, they were often punished by Ajax.
Verbeek likes his teams to play with three defenders at the back when in possession, as has been detailed here before. Today he didn’t do so by advancing one of the full-backs into the midfield, but rather by having Moreno play a libero style of centre-back role. The Mexican international frequently showed up in Ajax’ midfield, in order to try and create a numerical advantage here.
But as Ajax applied early pressure, AZ had lots of trouble playing around their opponents, even early in the build-up. Meanwhile, on the rare occasions that AZ did control the ball in midfield, both Ajax wingers proved well aware of their defensive tasks and helped their midfielders out, nullifying the potential numerical advantage for AZ.
The second half
As expected, AZ started the second half in quite a different tone. Aggressively entering the midfield tackles now, they succeeded to win some tackles in that department and with that Moreno’s libero role came to some effect. Ajax absorbed this AZ momentum patiently without giving too much away and looked to take advantage of the increased amount of space between AZ’s midfield and defense.
It was exactly that kind of move, involving Sulejmani’s pace and De Jong’s link-up play that created the second Ajax goal. And with that, AZ’s momentum was gone.
Verbeek made a desperate attempt to find a way back into the match by bringing on a second striker, Pellè, to replace holding midfielder Elm. Previously playing as the aerial target man in a fairly direct AZ game, the big man lasted only two minutes today. He got sent off after a vicious tackle on substitute striker Cvitanich, sliding boots first over the ball.
And again, any attempt to gain the momentum was gone for Verbeek’s team. Ajax’ left winger Ebecilio, by now firmly established in the first team, opened his league goal scoring account, just a few days after finding his first Ajax goal in the Cup semi-final against RKC. On top of that, in the closing minutes of the game, Vurnon Anita crowned a sublime performance with the final Ajax goal to make it 4-0. Anita generally controlled the midfield very well, winning a fair share of tackles, and making analysts regret that chalkboards have not made their way to the Eredivisie yet.
In the end
AZ gave away the first Ajax goal cheaply and never fully recovered. They didn’t find their way around Ajax’ pressing game and the move to advance Moreno to the midfield in a libero role backfired on them, opening spaces for Eriksen and De Zeeuw to make their runs from deep.