Defending champions Ajax shared the points with AZ. Both teams led during long spells of the game, Ajax during most of the first half and AZ during most of the second. Nevertheless, both teams couldn’t hold onto their leads and at a 2-2 final score, the points were shared.
Ajax had to do without an impressive list of players. Christian Eriksen, Eyong Enoh, Nicolai Boilesen, Miralem Sulejmani all missed out, while Vertonghen, Bulykin, Lodeiro, Aissati and Özbiliz were among a longer list of players that left the club this summer.
What remained was Ajax’ possession based 4-3-3 system. Compared to the 4-2 loss against PSV in the Johan Cruijff Schaal, Frank de Boer applied changes in all three lines, with Daley Blind playing left-back, accommodating Ricardo van Rhijn in central defense and Gregory van der Wiel returned at right-back. In midfield, Thulani Serero was preferred, keeping Theo Janssen on the bench. The front line consisted of Lasse Schöne in an inside forward role from the left wing, striker Sightorsson and pacy right winger Lukoki.
Both sides operated in very comparable formations, but AZ did so with a starting eleven that featured in this same line-up in most of their pre-season matches. The main summer departures are dead ball specialist Rasmus Elm, left-back Simon Poulsen and industrious left winger Brett Holman.
In today’s line-up, new signing and brother of Rasmus, Viktor Elm was the most defensive midfielder, with another new signing, Donny Gorter, who came from NAC, at left-back. Upfront, Maarten Martens was shifted to the wing, with Erik Falkenburg filling in in central midfield.
The early goal
The opening phase of the game saw Ajax exert their expected dominance of possession, with AZ limited to short bursts of play themselves. The most interesting zone in this regard was definitely the Daley Blind versus Roy Beerens area. The Ajax left-back featured in a very offensive role, looking to overlap on inside winger Schöne, who played a central offensive midfield role at his former club N.E.C. With Blind regularly being pushed up high in the left flank, the right wing zone was the area of choice for AZ to direct their long breaking balls early on.
However, before this contest could really come to fruition, Gregory van der Wiel found the top corner with a delicious long range effort to give Ajax the lead within ten minutes.
Possession as a defensive strategy
Sitting on an early lead, Ajax adopted their possession dominance as a pure defensive strategy. That is not to say they weren’t looking to extend the lead, but to say they used the long spells of possession in order to reduce the amount of chances created by AZ.
Stretching the length of possessions serves as legal time wasting. Keeping hold of the ball, rather than attempting more risky final third passes, obviously reduces the amount of playing time left, and thereby the number of possession the opposing team will get to reduce the lead.
Ajax looked easy in possession, kept the ball around the midfield line without significant AZ pressure, and thereby succeeded in lowering the number of possession spells that AZ was going to get. This also allowed the Ajax players to reduce the amount of energy spent in possession, in order to keep up with the desired high level of pressing when out of possession. On top of long possession spells, Ajax kept a very high defensive line and used a combination of early pressing and an active offside trap to limit AZ to short bursts of possession and hardly any combinations near Vermeer’s goal.
An important area where Ajax was particularly strong last season was in defending narrow leads. Ajax led their opponents by a single goal on 32 occasions and only allowed an equalizer in 8 of those situations. This ratio of 75% successful defended leads was the highest of all title favorites. For comparison, Feyenoord successfully defended 71% of single goal leads, PSV 64%, Twente 63%, AZ 62%, and Heerenveen 59%.
The Altidore minutes
Within five minutes of the second half, AZ had not only equalized the score, but a quick double fire by Jozy Altidore gave AZ the lead shortly after half time. The US international beat his marker Alderweireld on both occasions and showed an excellent conversion in front of goal.
AZ also took a different approach in possession in the second half. Their first half possessions were mainly played into space, looking the exploit the pace of Beerens and the space in behind Blind, but the second half saw AZ pass balls into the feet of Altidore. The US forward definitely has the physical abilities to act as a target man and he successfully extended AZ’s possessions. This was most notable of course in AZ’s double fire salvo to open the second half, but it extended throughout most of the second half, accumulating in a 45% overall possession rate, which compares favorably with most teams playing Ajax in the ArenA.
A late equalizer
The cliché ‘two different halves’ seems very applicable here. While Ajax led for over the major share of the first half, AZ did so for the major share of the second half. And also, unsuccessful in the end. At half time, Ajax introduced new signing Tobias Sana on the left wing for the injured Schöne and the young Swede put on an inspired show.
Sana provided Blind with an excellent back heel key pass and also hit the crossbar with a short range effort himself. His work rate, dribbling skills and pace provided much of the dynamism Ajax needed in order to find a way back into the match.
The most consistent provider of Ajax chances was Jody Lukoki. The young winger has an excellent acceleration and, compared to last year, his crosses into the box seemed to have gained in quality. It was one of his dribbles that delivered the ball to Sigthorsson, who found the back of the net with a half volley on the turn to make it 2-2.
In the end
Based on the first half, Ajax seemed to cruise to another home victory, but their stretch of 14 Eredivisie games won did come to an end. AZ changed their approach in possession and fought their way back into the match. Target man Jozy Altidore beat Toby Alderweireld twice in a few minutes to prove his worth to the team in finishing clinically. Near the end of the match, Ajax equalized through Sightorsson, which seemed deserved, if only based on the 16 to 7 shots ratio.