With the Eredivisie nearing its end ADO won three very important points in their battle for direct Eruopa League qualification. Ajax, meanwhile, lost three important points in the chase of Twente and league leaders PSV. Major defensive issues cost Ajax dearly as ADO managed to grab the lead three times in this match, with Ajax unable to make up for their defensive frailties.
Ajax went into this post-European football match with a starting eleven that was changed on several places. Blind was left out after his early substitution against Spartak Moscow. This moved Anita to the left-back spot to play ADO’s talented right winger Wesley Verhoek. It also meant that Eyong Enoh returned to the squad in the holding midfielder role. Dario Cvitanich made a rare start up front, moving De Jong into the right sided central midfield position over Demy de Zeeuw. Finally, at the right wing spot, as expected, Araz Özbiliz started instead of the suspended Ebecilio. With Maarten Stekelenburg out until the end of the season, Jeroen Verhoeven was Ajax’ goalkeeper.
ADO was able to field a full-strength attack and midfield three. In defense, manager Van den Brom seems to prefer Kum over Piqué, and moving him from the left central defense spot to left-back freed up a starting place for Pascal Bosschaart in ADO’s central defense.
Of all identical formations playing each other, two 4-3-3’s is perhaps the best prospect for an attractive match. Both teams deploy a single holding midfielder, while attempting to overload the opponent’s defensive midfield with two generally attack-minded central midfielders. In that sense, Ajax and ADO deploy very comparable systems, both also favoring wide wingers on both sides of the pitch.
The element of trying to overload each other’s holding midfielder proved crucial to understanding the developments during the first half of this match. From the kick-off, Ajax dominated the first fifteen minutes, but was then countered by ADO very well, with the home team balancing the game and creating the best chances themselves from that moment on.
The opening fifteen minutes
During the first fifteen minutes of the game Ajax had the initiative on the midfield, and with that, dominated possession. ADO’s midfield triangle had a lot of difficulties, particularly in tracking Enoh and Eriksen. They seemed to have had an initial plan of competing with Ajax face-to-face, and to try and press right back at their opponents. But in doing so, holding midfielder Radosavljevic was regularly overloaded by the presence of both De Jong and Eriksen in his zonal marking area. On the other hand, this should have brought a comparable advantage to ADO in their attacking midfield zone, but as Ajax dominated possession, they took most advantage here and particularly Eriksen displayed what qualities he has in the central midfield area when allowed the space to move between the lines.
Van den Brom adjusted his formation after this opening phase, moving his defense and midfield much closer together. His attempt to restrict this space, where Ajax had dominated the opening fifteen minutes, worked very well. Radosavljevic became the spare man to cover up in front of the defensive line and Immers and Toornstra played a bit deeper, picking up Eriksen and De Jong. This left Enoh completely free, only for the Cameroon midfielder to demonstrate his shortcoming: midfield distribution.
ADO sitting back, but dominating
Generally, the team with most possession is described as the most dominant team, but in this game it should have been different. ADO looked happy to sit back with their, now compact, defensive unit and spray long passes to aerial target man Bulykin. Verhoek and Kubik used their pace well to connect with the strong front man and after an initial warning by Immers, when his header was only just cleared off the line by Anita, ADO put themselves a deserved goal up.
Admittedly, it took a combination of individual defensive errors by both Van der Wiel and Alderweireld, but ADO deserved the goal on the basis of their highly effective counter play, using the strength of their team to full effect.
The remainder of the first half saw the same pattern. Ajax dominated possession about 60-40, but with mainly Enoh in possession in defensive midfield and Eriksen and De Jong denied space at the flanks, the ball was mainly circulated sideways and goal scoring chances were scarce for Ajax. On top of that, wingers Sulejmani and Özbiliz, who started well, but faded early in the game, did not succeed to dribble past their direct opponents. ADO showed excellent discipline here, doubling up on Ajax’ wingers, either by dropping their own wingers back, or by moving one of the central defenders wide.
Second half changes
From the end of the first half on, and all throughout the second half too, Ajax deployed a libero playing from defense. In order to avoid Enoh being the main midfield passer, Vertonghen and Alderweireld took turns moving into midfield, with Enoh dropping deep. This positively influenced Ajax’ direct passing, and although it were mainly long range attempts, a number of shots resulted from it.
Upon the hour mark, de Boer decided to remove Cvitanich from his largely anonymous role. It must have been painful for the Argentine striker, with the absence of El Hamdaoui, to have been replaced by Geoffrey Castillion, who made his debut of Ajax’ first team in a game where potential Champions League football, or even Ajax’ chances of winning the Eredivisie were actually at stake. De Boer’s issues regarding the lack of a defensive passing midfielder were well illustrated when he removed Enoh for veteran central defender Ooijer, with either Vertonghen or Alderweireld now definitely moving into a defensive midfield position.
Two equalizers, but no points
Despite equalizing twice in the second half, Ajax still lost the game after a late winning goal by ADO captain Derijck. First Jan Vertonghen fired in an equalizer to make it 1-1 with a 108 km/h bullet shot from a text book set piece variant. Then goalkeeper Verhoeven looked bleak on an in swinging ADO free kick that was well fired in by Lex Immers.
With the match nearing its end, Ajax looked to come away with a points, despite all shortcoming described above, but Eriksen’s equalizer was erased in the end when Timothy Derijck, one of the most underrated central defenders of the Eredivisie, scored his second goal of the season to give ADO the full three points and a marvelous double win of rivals Ajax.
In the end
ADO won this game on the basis of their excellent switch to a grouped defense on the fifteen minute mark. Van den Brom realized in time that competing with Ajax in a comparable stretched and wide 4-3-3 would not match with the difference in technical individual player qualities and adjusted excellently.
Ajax lost this game lacking the excellent goalkeeping and set piece organizing qualities of Maarten Stekelenburg. Furthermore, the lack of passing quality in defensive midfield was very much clear and, in hindsight, moving Anita to left-back and re-installing Enoh allowed ADO to play as they did so well after adjusting their game plan. Finally, it was clear that Ajax lacks a striker that is either capable of holding up the ball and distributing from there, or capable of finishing moves himself.