Real Madrid 3 – 0 Ajax: Tactical trouble at Ajax from a wider perspective

In  the much anticipated replay of last year’s Champions League group stage game ,where Ajax took a true battering and ended up losing 2 – 0 at Madrid, Ajax lost 3 – 0 this time at the Estadio Bernabeu. In terms of ‘face value’ Ajax provided more counter play – in fact their amount of 19 shots registered was higher than any Champions League opponent achieved at the Bernabeu since Bayern in the 2006/07 Champions League quarter final – but the final score line and the dominance expressed by Real’s front four left little to the imagination. Ajax failed the benchmark test that was supposed to show the progress made under manager Frank de Boer in the past year.


The wider perspective

Rather than picking on tactical situations of this particular match, or highlighting individual players’ performances, this might be a nice moment to reflect on the tactical shortcomings of Ajax’ optimistic wide forwards 4-3-3 system, which has failed to produce a European football goal for 433 minutes now. In fact, Ajax has failed to win a single match against opposition of equal quality so far this season. The Dutch Super Cup was lost to ten men Twente (1-2), while both the Eredivisie clashes at PSV (2-2) and at home against Twente (1-1) were drawn.

Two players coming in for quite some criticism for their performances during these matches are right full back Gregory van der Wiel and holding midfielder Theo Janssen. While it sometimes seems hard to suppress the knee-jerk reaction to blame the individual players at stake, at the same time such a reaction seems irrational and unfair. Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel definitely has the potential to play an important role for this Ajax team and Theo Janssen rightfully stood out as the Eredivisie player of the year last season, dominating both crucial Eredivisie matches and European fixtures for his club Twente.

So why is it that these two players seem to carry the burden of what’s going wrong at Ajax at this moment?


The ‘Ajax philosophy’

The starting line-ups

Ajax have shown difficulty beating opponents of equal or superior stature. At the same time, matches against inferior opposition are won relatively easily, as expressed by the recent club record of scoring twice or more in fifteen consecutive Eredivisie matches. And to be fair, the Eredivisie contains quite a lot of those inferior teams compared to the standards set by Ajax, both in terms of youth player development and the standards of player acquisition.

Manager Frank de Boer consistently has Ajax play in a wide wingers 4-3-3 formation, and the offensive nature of that formation is accompanied by a high pressing, possession based playing style. This way of playing football is deemed essential to expressing ‘the Ajax culture’ and is applied rigidly, with little room for modulation, apart from varying the individual players involved.

This way of using the 4-3-3 formation contrasts with most of the teams of equal or superior opposition that Ajax fails to produce results against, and it does so in exactly the full backs and holding midfielder areas of the pitch, where Van der Wiel and Janssen fail to deliver at present. While most other teams make quite clear choices to maintain the balance between offense and defense, De Boer has committed himself to an over-attacking formation that gets picked apart by decent opposition.

Other teams, as evidenced by the recently published UEFA Champions League technical report, maintain their balance either by covering their defensive line with conservative use of their full backs while playing a single holding midfielder, or by covering their offensive full backs by deploying two conservative holding midfielders. De Boer has made it abundantly clear that it is part of his ‘playing philosophy’ to use offensive full backs, while fielding only one holding midfielder, and that rigidness is causing trouble.


The Real Madrid goals

All three of Real Madrid’s goals provided excellent cues to the problem at stake. At the first goal, Ajax’ midfield was completely overrun by a brilliantly executed high speed one touch passing move. Both of Ajax’ full backs were overrun by Real’s front four as high as on the midline of the pitch. The second goal saw central playmaker Kaká in acres of space at the edge of the box after Theo Janssen had moved over to the right full back area to cover for Van der Wiel, leaving Kaká a playground of space in a crucial area. A second holding midfielder would have easily closed down that space. Finally, the third goal was preceded by an impressively well executed 60 yard Xabi Alonso pass that picked out advanced full back Arbeloa, indeed, free in Ajax’ right back area with Van der Wiel pressing too high up the pitch and Janssen still on his way back from covering duties at left back.


Tactical naivety

It is not the individual effort by Theo Janssen or Gregory van der Wiel that lies at the heart of the problem. One single holding midfielder simply can’t cover for full backs expressing offensive desires. Any side capable of quick ball circulation and witty movement along their offensive players will pick such a side apart.

Against inferior opposition this problem might be less exposed, although Ajax are still looking for their first clean sheet of the Eredivisie season, but the tactical naivety of demanding both offensive input from the full backs and playing a single holding midfielder will be punished when playing decent opposition, where the ‘I’ll just score one more than you do’ approach won’t work.

Meanwhile, Frank de Boer has moved himself into a difficult situation by proclaiming the status of ‘untouchable’ to the present playing style, stressing that this is the true Ajax philosophy. For now it is clear that he isn’t winning any important matches with it.

18 thoughts on “Real Madrid 3 – 0 Ajax: Tactical trouble at Ajax from a wider perspective

  1. Circulatievoetbal

    Michels said in his book ‘Team Building’ that if you want to play attacking football, you need to have a excellent defence line first. Sorry, Ajax haven’t yet…
    Real gave Ajax a football lesson about have to be effective in counter-attack. De Boer said this after the match. Ajax need a long way to go back to the top.

  2. LePie

    Wholeheartedly concur – out with the romantic notions of Ajax football. In with some sense.

    I thought Janssen did remarkably well for a DM up against two of the best offensive midfielders in the world with no support from other midfielders. Real had to resort to quite a lot of (inch perfect) long range Alonso passes ’cause Janssen held the midfield quite well.

    As far as individual criticisms go, Siem de Jong should be permanently benched for the last two games – he’s atrocious in front of goal, didn’t defend well and is all around mediocre (or ‘complete’ as some optimistic commentators would have it).

    Vd Wiel was pretty bad too though – let his man get a meter on him far too often.

  3. seanas

    i was thinking about your analysis of the PSV-Ajax game whilst i watched Real dominate Ajax last night; clearly you were as well 🙂

    i understand the a ‘proper’ Ajax manager has to play the Ajax-stijl, and also that this stye is enough to win the Eredivisie virtually every year; but it just doesn’t cut it against a good opposition. even last season, Ajax were defeated by teams able to tactically out-think them, especially Roda; but the deficiencies of such a rigid approach are clearly on display in Europe.

    Ajax won’t win anything in Europe with a 4-3-3 incorporating wide wingers *and* one defensive mid-fielder *and* attacking full-backs. i don’t understand why they don’t mimic Orange and play a 4-2-3-1 in Europe; with Janssen as the deep-lying playmaker a la van der Vaart/ Strootman, and Anita or Enoh next to him. Ajax’s wide mid-fielders are ideally suited to such a formation; unfortunately de Jong isn’t, but then it’s past time to accept that a second attacking mid-fielder is an unaffordable luxury both in Europe and in international games.

    (personally, i think de Jong needs to re-invent himself a la Kuyt, otherwise he’s already reached the pinnacle of his career; no Orange-trainer is going to choose him over a genuine creative mid-fielder for the apex of the 4-2-3-1; and he’s not defensive enough to fit in the defensive 2, so where’s his progress?)

    one point i wouldn’t agree on though: it’s never niavety that gets professional players and managers in trouble; if they have one thing at Ajax, it’s experience, thus niavety is no excuse. the words we should be using to describe de Boer’s inflexible rigidty are far stronger than simple ‘lack of experience’.

    thanks for the write-up of this game!

  4. T. Roode

    I think the playing style of Ajax can work with a different set of players. First of all, Theo Janssen doesn’t have the stamina to cover for the offensive full backs. A player like Vurnon Anita is able to do this and is experienced in playing at full back. Janssen could then by moved further up the pitch to the position of Siem de Jong, who should be benched. With Janssen in a more offensive role, his excellent left foot could pose more of a danger to the opposite team. With these changes Ajax would in my view play more consistent and be more of a match for superior or equal teams.

  5. basicfootball

    One thing I noticed in this match was the lack of challenges/tackles made by Ajax until Enoh came in. Before that nobody tried to muscle Real Madrid’s front four from the ball. When Enoh came in, he started doing what he does best, hacking at people to get the ball (one of his challenges on Kaka almost resulted in a penalty!). Frank de Boer and Alderweireld said after the match that for the first goal Ronaldo should have been on the floor but nobody challenged him. They need to work on that.

    van der Wiel gets a lot of blame, but the problem is not him, it’s Sulejmani. Mickey doesn’t backtrack much. If you compare him to Boerrigter on the other side, Boerrigter does a lot of defensive work and tried to follow/stop Ramos when he came forward. Mickey doesn’t and that leaves van der Wiel having to work the whole right flank by himself, both offensively (as Mickey tends to cut inside) and defensively.

    And then the Theo Janssen conondrum. What to do with him? Benching Siem de Jong isn’t the answer, I think the problem is Janssen and Eriksen. Both are left footers, both are creative passers and both want the ball a lot. I believe that Janssen will function better if he is in Eriksen’s place with de Jong next to him and Anita/Enoh behind him. But there is no way Eriksen will be dropped for Janssen. The only way to see if this works is when Eriksen will be unavailable due to injury/suspension.

    Give Janssen more time. He was the best Eredivisie player last year for a valid reason. He will be able to do well. Having to hold a midfield on his own against Kaka, Ozil and Ronaldo is not the easiest thing to do.

  6. bart

    I watched the game and it was the first time I got to see Ajax live this season here in Spain … a few quick observations …

    1. My girlfriend and I were both yelling at Eriksen to do something, we couldn’t believe he was on the pitch past 45mins … when he didn’t have the ball he was useless and when he did he did nothing with it … a let down after what I’d heard of him, I even told my girlfriend that he was supposed to be some stellar new kid, this game didn’t show it one bit.

    2. We were surprised that neither of the wingers took on their defenders … sure in the first 15 mins or so of the first half but after that hardly … Boerrigter especially, Ramos is at times a touch suspect in defense, I guess Ramos got to him (as he often does to attackers) with some fair but rough challenges, he also had the inexperienced french guy on his side of the defense, I saw opportunities beforehand but again a hyped player did not impress … I was also disheartened that Boerrigter doesn’t seem to be able to stay on his feet, I would have though de Boer would have gotten rid of the lame diving.

    3. On the other side Sulemani didn’t impress either although Arbeloa is excellent in defense, would like to see stats for crosses and such for the Ajax players, seemed like it was all going through the middle at one point.

    4. Janssen did the classic Van Bommel backtrack on one of the goals, ie. not follow his man. VB used to do this at PSV(the team I support sorta) all the time until he learned to get a bit rougher. Janssen is past that age of learning so play him higher up the field. I hate seeing players like Enoh/Anita etc get playing time but I see no other option.

    More to say but have to go make lunch …
    All the best to Ajax the coming period, hope they do well as it is good for Dutch soccer and I like the fact they try something offensive and not like a person above suggested a 4-2-3-1 … that’s a horrible style used to death here in Spain … two defensive midfielders is in my opinion blasphemy (although yes, the teams I support use 2, sigh)

  7. Shazam

    I dont think the problem is the single holding-midfielder / marauding fullbacks. Chelsea and Barca’s default formation is 4-3-3 and Mikel/Busquets are fantastic as a holder.

  8. Mike

    Janssen has to go and the midfield must be built to support Eriksen. Simple as that.

    @Basicfootball: Eriksen is actually right-footed, but almost ambidexterous. He’s also a lot more skillful which is why he’ll never be dropped, not for Janssen anyway.

  9. Orange14

    Several problems were manifest in the match. Ajax simply do not have the depth to compete in Europe if players are hurt. Having to play Anita at right back hurts the team because Janssen and de Jong both end up playing in the midfield. Others have already commented on de Jong (I believe his only position is striker; he is too slow to play in the midfield). Janssen was a poor transfer. He fit in well at Twente where Brama did all the cleanning up but he has nobody to do this at Ajax. Like de Jong he is too slow and doesn’t play defense at all.

    Sulejmani actually does track back pretty well but I think he’s still not fully fit from the hamstring injury which is why he wasn’t attacking the wing as he usually does (another depth issue here; maybe Ebecilio should have started and also remember Ozbiliz is also out hurt).

    Any English right back worth his salt would have gone straight for the tackle on Ronaldo (1st goal) and likely won the ball. Unfortunately this is just not the Ajax way; you can count the number of tackles in an Ajax match on one or two fingers; toe poking is the preferred method of defending which is maybe OK in the league but will fail against a top ten club.

    A 4-3-3 can work with a single holding midfielder (and the only difference between this and a 4-2-3-1 is the second holding mid; remember de Boer spent some time as van Marwijk’s assistant on the NT and knows all about the formation) provided you get proper player rotation back on defense to help out. To me the bigger problem is the lack of mobility in the midfield which leads to problems in building up the play from the Ajax defensive end. This is precisely why you see Vertonghen and Alderweireld carrying the ball forward so much. Janssen cannot do it and this was the first match I can remember where de Jong dropped so deep to pick up the ball. Perhaps Eriksen can be that kind of outlet the same way Sneijder is for Inter and the Dutch NT but it would require a rethinking of tactics by de Boer. Eredivisie teams know how Ajax want to bring the ball up and pressure the midfielders; lesser teams in the league cannot sustain the pressure but PSV and Twente were successful in interrupting the transition (though neither won). Until the midfield problems are addressed, Ajax will continue having troubles at the highest levels of play both in Europe and the league.

    Good coverage as usual and great comments from others as well!!

  10. Orange14

    Sorry, I forgot to add that the other key is the inexperience of Ajax players in general versus Madrid. Except for Varane, all of the other Madrid players are either current or past starters on their respective NTs while only Vertonghen and van der Wiel have had substantial experience on theirs. Huge difference here.

  11. Circulatievoetbal

    I agree with you that Ajax has big problem when attacking from the back. For me, Jassen should be the playmaker in this “one point to back” midfield. Jassen can’t make him free in the midfield, so he can’t receive the ball. His weakness is his movement (without ball) skills. Ajax had a specialist before: Wim Jonk… Jassen has said that he has talked with Jonk about this. And Jassen said that he passes 30-40 times per match. That’s far more enough for a good hoding midfield.(80 is pass line.)
    Qua positional game, I think that Ajax still have a long way to go… Too many unnecessary ball-loses in the building up.

  12. MarkM

    Why does De Boer think 4-3-3 is the Ajax house style? (1) In the succesful seventies Ajax played with two wide wingers who had the freedom to play from the outside to the box, and a center forward (Cruijff) who played anywhere on the pitch, mostly deep in a playmaker’s role. The space he thus created was filled by midfield players, e.g. Neeskens or by the above mentioned wingers. It looked like a fluid 4-4-2 to me. (2) In the succesful Van Gaal era Ajax played a very attractive 3-4-3.

    1. 11tegen11 Post author

      I fully agree with you on this.
      Somewhere after the Van Gaal mid nineties era, the idea got hold that Ajax ‘is supposed to play’ a 4-3-3 system, while both of the club’s impressive success periods have been achieved with different systems: the famous Total Football system and a 3-4-3 system respectively.
      One of the key problems at present is the tendency to stick to a system without considering the circumstances. And this type of rigidness is making life difficult for Ajax at present.

      1. MarkM

        Succesful trainers create a system building upon the strengths of their players. Ajax has a very rigid approach: take a 4-3-3 system and try to squeeze your players into it. Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola also prefers a 4-3-3-ish system but he adjusts this to his player’s strenghts and those of the opponent.

        Ajax should not take a certain system as a starting point but certain principles as e.g. using the wings, playing offensively (as long as this is possible), switching positions, etc.

  13. Harvey

    I’m not sure the problem lays purely with full-backs and defensive-midfielder… for example, amongst many others, Villa Boas at Chelsea is playing with wide men and attacking full-backs, but he has Lampard and Meireles in central midfield who play as box-to-box midfielders, not playmakers behind the striker. (Of course under Mourinho Chelsea’s full-backs weren’t that adventurous.) It seems that de Boer is trying to shoe-horn playmakers into midfield positions (to turn a #10 into a #8). To me if you play a 4-3-3 then you need midfielders in midfield.

    As noted above, under van Gaal Ajax played 3-4-3 so could accommodate a playmaker.

  14. Julian

    I agree with your observation, I just would a couple of things:
    You can play with one holding midfielder, but Theo Janssen isn’t a holding midfielder in strictu sensu. He doesn’t follow the opposing player when he is without the ball and provides poor help on the flanks to both full-backs.
    About De Boer’s rigidness, he tried the 3 defensive line in KNVB Cup against Noordwijk, as you can see from this image

    Congrats to 11tegen11, i write on an italian blog about dutch football and your work is such an inspiration for me!


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