Ajax managed to obtain exactly the result they came for in their fifth Champions League Group stage match, duplicating their home result with a 0-0 away draw at Lyon. Considering Real Madrid’s absolute dominance and Dinamo Zagreb’s failure to grab any points so far, the balance in results between Ajax and Lyon see Ajax now firmly hold an advantage of seven goals over their French rivals for a place among the final sixteen of this season’s Champions League.
Rémi Garde had his team operate from the same formation as he did in the match in Amsterdam, with several first team starters by now returned from injury. Most importantly, creative forward Lisandro made his first start since August, playing as an advanced midfielder / support striker to Gomis. Also returning were captain Cris at centre-back and all-round midfielder Gourcuff in central midfield.
Since the match away at PSV on September 18, Frank de Boer took a step away from trying to install Theo Janssen in a deep-lying playmaker role, and in turn fields a genuine holding midfielder. In the match against PSV he started with Anita, but Boilesen’s hamstring injury forced Anita back to the left-back spot, introducing Eyong Enoh in his beloved destroyer holding midfield role. This concept was continued in the clashes with Twente and AZ, and Enoh also started Ajax’ three last Champions League matches, earning three clean sheets.
Severe selection problems for De Boer concerned the striker role, with Sigthorsson, Siem de Jong and Bulykin all out injured. Uruguayan international Nicolas Lodeiro was granted his first start ever since starting his injury-plagued Ajax career back in 2009/10. By nature more of an offensive midfielder, Lodeiro played a deep-lying false nine type of striker role, creating space for overlapping runs by Eriksen and Sulejmani. Boerrigter was unavailable through injury, allowing Ebecilio a start at the left wing.
The first half
In the first match between both teams, Ajax set out rather optimistically and paid the price for that stance with a handful decent Lyon counter attacks. In this particular match, Frank de Boer seemed to have tuned his team more defensively minded. Several differences with Ajax’ usual playing style were to be noted.
First, and most importantly, they played with a much lower level of pressing compared to Ajax’ usual style. Lyon’s centre-backs were allowed time on the ball, with Eriksen consequently shadowing defensive midfielder Källström, rather than advancing to press higher up the pitch. With both formations being mirror images, Ajax looked happy to sit back in a mixed zonal-man-marking system, where most of times regular combinations of the same Ajax- and Lyon players moved across the pitch.
Another change was induced by the role Lodeiro played upfront. He often positioned himself rather deep, more in the advanced midfielder zone than the striker area. This proved an essential point in the match, as his stance consequently allowed Ajax a passing option when looking to play the ball out from defense. The diagram below illustrates this very well. In the first half, Lodeiro received no less than 24 passes, 16 of which came from Ajax’ own half. His subsequent 16 of 21 passes completed confirmed that he did not only receive the ball, but kept possession too. In this way, Lodeiro allowed his team to obtain slightly more possession than Lyon over the first half.
The second half
Lyon expressed much more urgency in the second half and advanced their defensive line. Ajax still sat back, but had much more problems playing the ball out from the back. Lyon’s urgency was also expressed in their crossing. In the first half, they made seven crosses, all of which failed to reach a Lyon player, and in the second half they attempted twenty crosses, reaching a Lyon player with only three of them.
This represented Ajax’ philosophy to rather sit back and absorb, than prevent the crosses coming in in the first place. Both Vertonghen and Alderweireld never looked under threat from Lyon’s rather direct offensive game.
Lyon’s more offensive approach resulted in a more open game, with the French team pushing and Ajax looking to profit from quick breaks, goal scoring attempts that have a proven higher success rate in terms of scoring goals. Just that finishing touch missed though, as Sulejmani, among others, missed an excellent opportunity to convert one of Ajax’ quick second half breaks.
Overall, both teams created a comparable amount of chances, 17 for Lyon versus 15 for Ajax, but the quality of chances created by Ajax seemed higher, with 8 of their attempts coming from inside the box, and most of their 8 second half chances arising from counter attacks.
Near the end of the second half, Lisandro, just returning from injury, faded more and more, and the introduction of Ederson in the 73rd minute installed some new energy up front, as was illustrated by the fact that Lyon created 9 of their 17 attempts after his introduction. Although most of them were long range attempts, Ajax goal keeper Vermeer was forced into some crucial saves during this final phase of the game.
In the end
Overall, both teams put in a comparable performances, but, just like in the first clash in Amsterdam, they did so in very different style. In Amsterdam, Ajax was the aggressor, while this time Lyon was forced to play for a win, playing at home and needing more than a draw to prevent themselves from having to overturn a seven goal difference in the final game.
Ajax was forced to deploy a non-natural in the striker role, but saw this working out very well. Most notably in the first half, Lodeiro proved a reliable passing option to play out from the back and his deep-lying striker role seems quite an asset for Ajax, at the very least when facing quality opposition. Excellent individual performances by goal keeper Vermeer, centre-backs Vertonghen and Alderweireld and also by holding midfielder Enoh ensured that Ajax either kept Lyon out of their own box, or dealt with their attempts. The resulting long range efforts, or hopeful crosses were dealt with rather comfortably.