By putting up an intense physical battle and smartly targeting their opponent’s weaker points, Groningen earned a 1-0 victory. Winning most tackles in midfield, while pressuring Ajax early on, Groningen frustrated their opponents, paying a price in terms of yellow cards earned, but getting away with three well earned points. Ajax made a powerless and tired experience and never really got to their opponent’s box in order to exploit their own strengths.
Groningen and Ajax both named unchanged starting elevens from their previous matches, against De Graafschap and Real Madrid respectively. For Groningen the season has started below expectations, with key players like captain Granqvist (Genoa), Stenman (Club Brugge) and Matavz (PSV) leaving the club and only 10 points from the first 7 matches. Manager Huistra consequently sticksuisHH to the 4-2-3-1 that brought about such an impressive debut season for him, and the fifth spot in the league to go with it during that season.
Groningen features two full-backs that have been fitted in straight from Ajax’ youth team, where both Huistra and Frank de Boer have managed before making their Eredivisie debuts. Left-back Lorenzo Burnet is a regular starter for Groningen, having to fill the boots of Frederik Stenman to team up with Dusan Tadic in what was claimed to be last year’s most dangerous left wing of the Eredivisie. Right-back Johan Kappelhof features today in the absence of Tom Hiariej. Up front David Teixeira will be looking to build upon the impressive start for his new club. The Uruguayan striker, born in the same area as former Groningen and Ajax striker Luis Suarez, impressed with two goals and an assist in Groningen’s 2-3 away win at De Graafschap last week.
Ajax and their issues
There has been no shortage of Ajax coverage on 11tegen11 of lately, and their issues regarding the midfield set-up have been detailed elaborately in the coverage of the 3-0 defeat in Madrid. Today, De Boer named an unchanged starting eleven, with Theo Janssen being given another start to live up to expectations in the single holding midfielder role.
The first half
Groningen dominated the first part of the game, mainly by bullying their opponents off the ball in a crowded midfield area. Spaces were kept rather tight by applying a reasonably high defensive line, that worked quite well, apart from one brilliant Siem de Jong through ball where Sulejmani failed to finish the one-on-one with goal keeper Van Loo.
The hosts pressured Ajax far inside their own half, making life difficult for both Ajax’ centre backs to pass the ball into midfield. With that, Groningen successfully targeted exactly the pain spot of the present Ajax team. Vertonghen and Alderweireld had all sorts of trouble passing the ball into the midfield, where Janssen was closely marked by Andersson. Siem de Jong could be seen dropping deeper, to assist Janssen in receiving the ball and to provide more outlet options for his defensive team mates. Still Ajax had all sorts of trouble circulating the ball towards offensive positions and also saw striker Sigthorsson leaving the pitch injured, for Bulykin to come on.
Groningen seemed to switch their wingers, with Tadic playing Anita from Groningen’s right wing and Bacuna coming from the left, teaming up very well with left-back Burnet, who played a very good game against the club that refrained from offering him a professional contract just this summer. On the brink of half time Groningen had their best chance of the game when Bacuna headed over from a left wing cross.
The second half
Ajax seemed more intent on providing some pressure themselves from the start of the second half. This resulted in a more open game, with both teams winning balls higher up the pitch. Early in the second half Burnet made two important goal line clearances to keep the score level at 0-0, while goal keeper Van Loo kept a close range header from his team mate Kwakman only just out of his goal.
Groningen’s hard labour in midfield kept tem winning enough balls, frustrating their opponents, and ultimately also opening the score. Man of the match Lorenzo Burnet won a defensive header that started a quick left wing break with Andersson in behind Gregory van der Wiel. After Vermeer initially kept Andersson’s attempt out very well, Van der Wiel committed a handball to earn his, and Ajax’, second yellow card of the game.
Playing against ten men, Groningen didn’t change their game plan. They kept putting e remarkable amount of energy into the game, and only just avoided more serious consequences of their hard labour in the form of getting players sent off too. In the end no less than six Groningen players did receive a yellow card, while substitute Enevoldsen probably earned a bit more for his tackle on Janssen.
De Boer removed striker Bulykin to introduce André Ooijer in order to restore his four men defensive line, but Ajax seemed to lack the energy to fight their way back into the match, being a man down and facing a hard-battling Groningen team that ultimately earned their 1-0 home victory.
In the end
Groningen successfully targeted Ajax’ weak spot. They pressured their opponents very high, making it near impossible for Ajax to pass the ball into their midfield. Although Siem de Jong did drop a bit deeper to provide more outlet options, Ajax’ passing from the back was painful to watch at times.
In danger of repeating the previous post, dealing with Ajax’ problems in midfield, it is safe to say that in order to prevent their midfield from being overrun, Janssen will need to be provided with more short range passing options. Detailed data from this present match is still to come, but data from other matches support this lack of short passes by Janssen. Take for example the PSV match, where Janssen played 4 of his 41 passes short, compared to Eriksen’s 15 of 49 and de Jong’s 16 of 27. This is not to say that Janssen should refrain from longer passing, but merely to underline the lack of control Ajax has over the defensive midfield area of the pitch.
Let’s finish this post with some credit for Groningen, who worked very hard and combined their energetic performance with enough wit to play the game at their particular strength. Manager Huistra possesses a physically strong side capable of winning a fair share of challenges, thereby keeping Ajax far from their own goal and avoiding the game to be played in their own half. In the end a 1-0 victory was their reward and with 13 points from 8 matches, Groningen are beginning to approach their excellent past season.