League leaders AZ would, beforehand, have been quite satisfied with coming away with a draw in the Amsterdam Arena, but having been in front for the majority of the game to end up giving up a late equalizer to ten men Ajax made this result feel a bit different than it should. Ajax, on the other hand, may take heart from coming back to a late equalizer despite being a man down in that phase of the game, but should in fact consider this match two points lost, points that could have been secured had a proper organization been played right from the start of the match.
Ajax’ ongoing struggles
For the thirteenth time in a row, Ajax failed to keep a clean sheet in the Eredivisie, their worst record since the 1981/82 season, when they conceded in 16 consecutive matches. Their defensive, and more in particular, defensive midfield issues have been the topic of intense debate recently, with Theo Janssen the focus of a critical appraisal, both towards his offensive and his defensive work.
Against AZ, Ajax had to do without injured striker Sigthorsson, who was replaced up front by Siem de Jong, rather than target man Dimitry Bulykin. Further troubles were to be found at the back, where Gregory van der Wiel missed out due to a one game suspension after his red card against Groningen and left-back Boilesen is on the long-term injury list. Frank de Boer moved Toby Alderweireld to right-back, to give veteran defender André Ooijer his first start since April, when, coincidentally, also was Ajax’ last clean sheet.
Ajax’ much debated midfield consisted of Eyong Enoh in the single holding role, with Christian Eriksen and Theo Janssen aimed to display more offensive intentions from the left and right central area respectively.
AZ’s impressive campaign
Not having received the 11tegen11 attention their excellent season start had deserved, Gertjan Verbeek’s team have impressed so far during their season start. The 2009 Eredivisie champions sit proudly atop of the table, defending a six point lead over reigning champions Ajax already.
Verbeek’s optimistic style of a high pressing game seems to have landed among his hard working squad and with a league low of six goals conceded for eight matches (going into this one), AZ seems to have found an excellent balance between their offense and defense, with ‘over-offensiveness’ having been an issue before.
AZ nearly features a full strength starting eleven, with only creative wide playmaker Maarten Martens missing out through injury. They operate from a 4-2-3-1 organization, with Holman starting from the left wing, but drifting inside a lot, thereby opening up space for left wing back Poulsen.
The first half
AZ took hold of the game from the first minute on. Pressing Ajax extremely high up the pitch, they immediately demonstrated their opponent’s prime weakness during the first thirty minutes of this match. Faced with this intense pressure, Ajax had severe problems building from the back. The pass completion rate in this area during the opening phase of the game was dreadfully low, particularly due to the fact that Ajax hardly provided itself with simple close range passing options.
Much credit usually goes to the sexy cross pitch long passes sent by centre-backs Vertonghen and Alderweireld, but in terms of effectiveness, short passing outlets into the midfield area are worth much more. With Enoh playing the single holding midfield role, both Eriksen and Janssen ventured too high up the pitch, resulting in the both of them spending a lot of time in front of the ball, rather than taking an active role in the early distribution of the ball.
A second, an recurrent, problem in the first thirty minutes was the lack of Ajax’ defensive midfield organization. Both central midfielders were easily overrun, as the distribution problem described above caused a significant amount of dangerous early losses of possession. AZ smartly used Brett Holman in this part of the pitch, and his inside left wing role saw him help offensive central midfielder Maher in overloading Enoh.
Both of AZ’s goals were excellent examples of Ajax’ atrocious midfield organization. Traditionally, to concede from a deflected shot like Ajax did at AZ’s first goal is shoved aside as ‘bad luck’ and ‘unpreventable’, but the build-up of that attack revealed Janssen to provide coverage for the left-back and Eriksen to provide coverage for the right back. This resulted in acres of space at the edge of the box, something that was excellently taken advantage of by AZ when scoring their first goal.
At the second goal both central midfielders took position near the edge of the opponent’s box, while left-back Anita took a throw in halfway on the opposing half. Twelve (!) seconds later Beerens had found the net, after the throw in was squandered and one pass eliminated Ajax’ entire midfield from defending a quick counter.
The second half
A half-time substitution saw De Boer remove André Ooijer from young Ruben Ligeon to make his first team debut. This allowed Ajax a much higher defensive line, which would have been awkward with Ooijer’s lack of pace, and the chase for the come-back was on. Early in the second half Ajax got a rather cheap penalty when Marcellis slid in on Boerrigter, starting the foul outside of the box. Sulejmani fired in a text-book upper corner shot from the spot to set things sharp early in the second half. And sharp it was…
Ajax had their midfield organization back with Janssen playing behind the ball for most of the time, providing more and simpler passing outlets from the back, while distributing the ball much better himself. Playing to his strengths, you might say.
But within a few minutes Ajax first lost their goal keeper, when Vermeer injured himself in an aerial challenge with Wernbloom, forcing Cillessen to make his Ajax debut. And in the 70th minute, Frank de Boer was punished for leaving Enoh out too long after the midfielder had been booked in the first half. A series of persistent fooling came to an end when referee Kuipers showed him a second yellow card, while in fact De Boer should have acted earlier, given the three fouls in a short space of time just prior to the incident.
The unexpected equalizer
Despite having the numerical advantage, AZ lacked the flexibility to adapt to Ajax’ new found organization in the second half and ended up paying the price for it in the end. Initially, substitute striker Charlison Benschop missed the best chance of the game to put his team 1-3 up, when played one-on-one with Cillessen, but in the 82nd minute it was Janssen, of all Ajax players, who found the net with an excellent long range effort from an area where AZ could and should have put much more pressure on him.
In the end
Given the sequence of events in the match, Ajax will probably feel this as a point won and AZ might feel like having lost two points here. But drawing away at Ajax is an excellent result for Verbeek’s team, who remain top of the table and consolidate their six points lead over Ajax. Apart from their difficult spell near the end of the game, where they should have done better against ten men Ajax, AZ did impress. Their courageous start was rewarded with Holman scoring the opening goal to crown the tactical superiority provided in part by his inside left wing role. Unsung heroes might be Rasmus Elm and Pontus Wernbloom who controlled most of the game excellently from anonymous holding midfield roles, while also 18-year old Adam Maher deserves a mention for his creativity and technical skills.
Ajax did overcome their midfield problems after about thirty minute, but was 2-0 down by that time. Theo Janssen operated from a deeper role and this solved both the distribution problem and the lack of cover in front of the back four, leading to Ajax being able to control the second part of the game, eventually scoring the late equalizer to go with it. De Boer should have recognized the fouling pattern by Enoh and remove a player in such situation, particularly given the recurrent fouling nature of Enoh’s game.