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’
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.
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.