With a nice tactical twist by Frank de Boer, Ajax turned the score around to beat Manchester City 3-1 after conceding the first goal. Goals by captain Siem de Jong, Niklas Moisander and Christian Eriksen earned Ajax’ first points of the Champions League campaign and put City’s future in this competition in severe doubt.
Ajax’ 4-3-3 that was a 4-5-1
Although not known for his tactical flexibility and tweaks during matches, De Boer has shown in this year’s edition of the Champions League to be well able to adapt his team’s playing style to the formidable quality of the teams that Ajax has faced so far. Against Dortmund and Real Madrid, Ajax operated very deep, with Ryan Babel as the sole true offense player in a target man role in a formation that turned out to be a deep 4-5-1 under offensive pressure.
Today, however, De Boer fielded a novelty, at least for Ajax, in a different way to try and solve the same problem. Today Ryan Babel came in from the left wing, with Christian Eriksen – only 20 years of age, but with 155 (!) senior matches under his belt already – playing a deep-lying striker role, reminiscent of the false nine principle, frequently helping out in midfield during City’s possession. Captain Siem de Jong added physical presence to Ajax’ midfield and provided overlapping runs from midfield where possible, in line with the false ten concept. On the right wing, 23-year old Tobias Sana, a new signing this summer, will have aimed to improve on being the defensive liability in his difficult first two Champions League outings, but only half and half succeeded at that.
Manchester City’s 4-2-3-1 that became a 4-4-2
The versatility of this Manchester City starting eleven is huge. Not just in terms of different players available, but just with a midfield four of Barry, Milner, Yaya Touré and Nasri, City started with an XI able to play 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-2-2-2 or any cross-over between these. Tonight it started out as a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation, but switched to a more orthodox 4-4-2 during the first half. As always, their offense rotated and switched positions frequently, with all three of Dzeko, Aguero and Nasri showing up in striker or wide forward positions at times during the first half.
The first half
Ajax started the game quite positive, in line with Frank de Boer’s quote before the game that “a draw would be useless…” With City playing compact in their narrow 4-2-3-1 formation, Ajax proved able to circulate the ball, but couldn’t quite penetrate City’s half yet. With remarkably advanced full-backs given the otherwise defensive adaptations installed, Ajax proved able to find space in wide areas. Both Blind and Van Rhijn were frequently left in acres of space by City.
In defense, Ajax’ formation frequently changed to a 4-1-4-1, with striker Eriksen withdrawn in midfield and Ryan Babel moving inside to the striker zone. In this regard, the choice to switch Eriksen and De Jong from their usual roles worked quite well. Eriksen was able to pick up balls at feet in his beloved central offensive area and the young Dane fired in two of Ajax’ first shots of the game. Meanwhile, Siem de Jong contributed to Ajax’ physical presence in midfield and proved essential in Ajax’ first goal of the game.
Despite Ajax’ dominance in wide areas, it was City that opened the score. Ironically, with Ajax’ full-back being very involved, the first offensive contribution from a City full-back initiated the move. Micah Richards played a delicious through-ball to exploit a distance between Ajax’ centre-backs that would never have been termed a gap at Eredivisie level. His pass set free James Milner, the ball was circulated wide and Nasri fired in coolly in the far corner.
After taking the lead, City attempted to strengthen their wide areas by switching from the narrow 4-2-3-1 to a genuine 4-4-2. Central midfielders Barry and Touré still sat a bit deeper than the rest of the midfield, but Nasri at the left and Milner on the right side provided more cover for their full-backs. At least, in theory they should, but as tracking overlapping full-backs has never been Nasri’s strength, Ajax kept on finding space on their right wing.
Exactly this space proved vital in the build up to the equalizing goal. Captain Siem de Jong set off a move that was in fact a very long distance one-two pass with right full-back Van Rhijn, to finish the move with a well-controlled one-touch shot from just outside the box.
The second half
Having conceded the equalizer on the brink of half-time, different questions were asked of City in the second half. Knowing that only a win would keep their hopes of qualifying alive, they significantly increase the stance of their back line. This, combined with the fact that Ajax kept the line as high as they normally do, ensured a game played with much more urgency than before.
Ajax did concede possession earlier and City indeed had a few chances, but it was Ajax that grabbed the lead. Niklas Moisander, a summer signing from AZ Alkmaar, headed in at the near post from a well-struck corner by ‘Man of the Match’ Christian Eriksen. Just ten minutes later, as City was getting ready to build the pressure, Ajax had the luck that had escaped them earlier in this Champions League campaign as Eriksen saw a deflected shot fly in for the 3-1 score line. However, this move was initiated by decent early pressure that allowed Schöne to win a dangerous turnover deep in City’s half.
Now trailing by two goals, Mancini gradually threw on his full strike force. Just before Eriksen’s goal, he had already introduced wing-back Kolarov for Lescott, but near the end of the match the full forces of Dzeko, Aguero, Balotelli, Tevez and Nasri were fielded together. This left the midfield in the hands of just Touré centrally with wide support of Kolarov and Clichy.
Spaces were wide open on City’s side of the pitch, but Ajax failed to extend the score further, with Sana missing an excellent one-on-one opportunity. At the other end, both Dzeko and Nasri saw close range attempts either saved or go wide.
In the end
Despite Mancini’s in-game change of formation and his gung ho substitutions, the winning tactical move of this game was made before kick-off. Fielding Eriksen in a withdrawn striker role killed two birds with one stone. Siem de Jong provided the energy, work rate and physical qualities that would have been lacking with Eriksen besides Schöne in central midfield, and Eriksen provided excellent movement between the lines and made dangerous runs at City’s centre-backs.
But the most obvious battle during this match was City’s initial narrow formation versus Ajax’ wide overlapping full-backs. Blind and Van Rhijn regularly provided the outlet that was missing in earlier Champions League games and City allowed Ajax to escape their pressure in this way. Mancini did try to fix his wide areas, but despite the wealth of world class strikers thrown on the pitch, decent wingers would brought more pressure to Ajax.