Tag Archives: AC Milan

Milan 0 –2 Ajax: Quite a managerial debut for new manager Frank de Boer

New Ajax manager Frank de Boer succeeded in installing hope in the heart of the Ajax fans in this match against, it must be said,  an uninspired Milan side where no less than seven regular players were rested. Milan either preferred to sit back of were forced back by Ajax (presumably the first) as Ajax combined along the flank and create a significantly higher amount of goal attempts. In the second half Ajax succeeded in converting chances into goals to win a game that might be categorized as a dead rubber in terms of the Champions League competition. But, in terms of installing new found self-confidence and providing hope for their fans, Ajax did a very good job tonight.

 

Change of manager

Quite a match to make your debut as the new Ajax manager. Frank de Boer was propelled at high speed into the manager seat at the club he loves and took over from Martin Jol only two days ago. In his pre-match press conference he spoke of bringing back the joy of playing football among the players and he stated himself to be an adept of the outside winger 4-3-3 system, quite in the way that Ajax used to play in their most recent successful era, the mid-nineties.

 

Change of system

The starting line-ups

His approach to this game meant several alterations to the formation that we’ve discussed over the past Jol reign. A central role, both literally and figuratively speaking, belongs to the attacking central midfield position. Previously the domain of club legend Jari Litmanen, now young starlet Eriksen is given both the responsibility to carry the weight of team and the opportunity to shine in a role that he sees best fitting to his own playing style. Upfront El Hamdaoui is dropped in favour of Siem de Jong, who is drafted into the striker role from midfield. Expect him to play more of a linking role, often with his back to goal, looking to lay off for Eriksen, Sulejmani and Suarez.

 

Milan’s 4-3-1-2 system

After an overambitious phase at the start of the season, where Allegri tried to fit three of Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato and Rnaldinho into his team and ended up with a ‘broken team’ and an overrun midfield, Milan has settled for two upfront now. And this brought a successful domestic run, leading the club to win all but two of their last eleven Serie A matches.

The front two of Ibrahimovic and Robinho have scored 12 goals among them in this successful recent run of eleven games and behind them Clarence Seedorf lives his umpth youth in a linking role in central midfield. Width tends to be the weak point of diamond formations such as the 4-3-1-2, as illustrated in the only Serie A match that Milan lost after September, at home against Juventus

 

The first half

Ajax did indeed start the match with an approach quite different from the Jol era, only a few days gone. The wing players took a very wide position, as illustrated in the average positions diagram below. Striker de Jong figured as a linking man rather than looking to finish moves off and the full-backs, especially Gregory van der Wiel on the right, ventured forward quite regularly.

Another important change installed by Frank de Boer was the switch of Luis Suarez from right to left. This meant a return to the left wing where he regularly played during his high scoring 2009/10 season and a break with the Jol trend to move Suarez to the right after right winger Rommedahl was sold.

Ajax' average position diagram after 30 minutes of the game. Note the wide positions of wingers Suarez (16) and Sulejmani (7).

This did result in a dominant spell for Ajax during the first part of this first half. A series of chances, mainly from distance was created where de Jong regularly supplied Eriksen, Sulejmani and Suarez. Eriksen succeeded in finding space between Milan’s lines. On top of that, Ajax played a high pressing game and succeeded in making some dangerous interceptions on Milan’s half. Of note was also that Ajax succeeded in achieving a pass completion percentage high in the eighties in their entire backline and midfield. This underlined that, in line with Ajax’ mid-nineties ideas, keeping hold of the ball was a goal in itself.

In the final part of the first half Milan took a more offensive stance and this brought more balance to the game. Ajax defended by keeping their holding midfielders de Zeeuw and Enoh close to the narrow back four and managed to limit Milan to only two attempts on goal in the entire first half.

 

The second half

A curious incident marked the start of the first half, a quick through ball found the run of Sulejmani behind Milan’s lines and at first sight of the referee he was fouled by Milan keeper Amelia, but on second thought and assisted by his staff, referee Bo Larsen identified the dive, and rightfully so.

Ten minutes into the second half Ajax succeeded in expressing their dominance on the score board. Ironically it was a blocked shot by striker De Jong, whose main task had been to supply the other strikers, that fell to De Zeeuw who placed the ball in the corner of the goal.

Ajax even added to that first goal with a beautiful shot by central defender Alderweireld from outside the area. His involvement high up the Milan half illustrated Ajax advanced pressing game.

By that time, Ibrahimovic had just entered the pitch for Ambrosini, indicating that Milan switched to a three upfront system in search for a goal. His presence created more danger and a series of small Milan chances, as if to underline the fact that Ajax had been playing a tuned down Milan team so far.

Every right to smile: new Ajax manager Frank de Boer

In the end

Not many manager will have made their debut with an away victory in the Champions League and Frank de Boer takes full credit for this win as well as for the display that went along with it. His change in playing style along with a few positional and personal changes, like moving Suarez to the left, resulted in hope in the hearts of Ajax fans. At last they got to see a glimpse of the capacities of their team tonight, albeit against a weakened and uninspired Milan side.

Ajax 1 – 1 AC Milan: Recurrent midfield problems for Ajax

Back from a short holiday! Totally refreshed and ready to pick up the pace of a determining phase of the season. The coming months will see which jump starts will turn out to be true overachievers and which slow starts will prove a lost year to the club.

Picking up the action I’ve missed starts with last week’s midweek UEFA Champions League (UCL) action. Match day 2 of the UCL saw Ajax face AC Milan at home, with the hosts aiming for their first points after a disappointing performance away at Real Madrid in their first UCL match in four years. Milan did win their UCL opening match against Auxerre, albeit trough a rather narrow 2-0 victory with two Ibrahimovic goals shortly after the hour-mark.

The starting line-ups: de Zeeuw in his first start since the loss at Real Madrid

Ajax’ midfield

Dropped after his positional indiscipline against Real Madrid, Holland international midfielder Demi de Zeeuw has not been given any Eredivise starts since, but makes his re-appearance in this match. The remaining ten players remain fairly constant, with Rasmus Lindgren filling in for de Zeeuw, next to midfield destroyer Eyong Enoh. Destroyer in this context serves to indicate his role on the pitch in the sense of a destroyer-passer-creator trio, as defined earlier by Zonal Marking.

That would of course make Siem de Jong the creator and Lindgren/de Zeeuw the passer. Although in Ajax’ 4-2-3-1 de Jong generally plays a deep role, aiming to finish moves rather than to create, the general distinction holds true. De Jong’s advanced position stresses the importance of the Lindgren/de Zeeuw role, aiming to control possession and to assist Enoh in controlling any potential breaks from happening. Hence the term ‘second controlling midfielder’ or ‘double pivot’.

Milan’s summer signings

By the end of this summer, Milan managed to acquire a quartet of strikers possessing an amount of flair and individual brilliance that would make any team jealous. Pato of course, was already there for some time, as well as Ronaldinho. But this pair was joined by Zlatan ‘Ibracadabra’ Ibrahimovic and pacy striker Robinho, who returned from a short dip into Brazilian life with his beloved Santos after failing to settle in rainy Manchester while contracted by City.

The 4-3-3 struggle

To cite Cruijff on this one: every advantage comes with its disadvantage. And true it was for Milan manager Allegri. At first he tried to field three of his big names in a rather classic 4-3-3 formation, only to find out that tracking back full-backs was not part of Robinho’s and Ronaldinho’s Brazilian vocabulary. The glaring gap between the attack-minded front three and the midfield could not be covered by the aged midfield, consisting of Gattuso, Pirlo and Seedorf. The consequent gap between midfield and attack invited too much pressure and the loss at Cesena and subsequent home draw against Catania marked a disappointing start to the season.

However, an understandable switch to a 4-3-1-2 formation, accommodating Seedorf back in the team, restored the balance. This 4-3-1-2 was also Milan’s preferred formation against Ajax, with Seedorf linking a Pirlo-led midfield three to front strikers Robinho and Ibrahimovic. An interesting confrontation might be the Robinho-Van der Wiel pairing, as those two last played each other in the thrilling 2-1 victory of Holland over Brazil, despite Robinho’s early opening goal where he certainly had the better of Van der Wiel.

The first half

Ajax has a tendency to play these type of games with a thrill-seeking high defensive line. While it allows them to press the opponent early on, resulting in a number of balls won rather high up the pitch, it also makes them susceptible of balls over the top. And it was exactly such a ball, from Seedorf, that played Robinho trough on goal for the first chance of the game, only for the Brazilian to see his shot stopped by Stekelenburg.

Note Ajax' very high defensive line. Apart from Anita (white arrow, tracking back from chasing Ibrahimovic) the 4-2-3-1 shape is easy to spot: defenders in red, controlling midfielder in orange, wingers and attacking midfielder in yellow and the lone striker in blue

A bit lucky in this phase, Ajax got to work and their pressing resulted in a number of, fairly long range, attempts on goal. On one of these occasions, the technical brilliance of Luis Suarez and Mounir El Hamdaoui came together nicely and after an Uruguayan ‘panna’ on Nesta, El Hamdaoui scored from close range to put Ajax 1-0 up.

Milan taking the initiative

But their advantage was short-lived. Initially Robinho should have equalized for Milan, after de Zeeuw (!) lost the ball high up the pitch. But Milan rolled up their sleeves and threw in a number of physical challenges. As a result of this, Anita left the pitch injured and it was exactly in this phase that Milan equalized. Seedorf smartly drifted out right to Ajax’ now vacated left flank and another ball over the top played no less than three Milan attackers free. Ibrahimovic converted the chance and Ajax’ opening half hour dominance proved purely cosmetic.

The amount of space on Ajax' left flank seems unlimited. Surely, Anita is sidelined due to his injury, but Emanuelson (white mark) should fill in here. Of further note, again, is the high line that allows the ball over the top to come in the first place

The second half

The opening phase of the second half showed two teams mainly occupied with frustrating each other’s play, at the cost of a significant number of yellow cards. Milan manager Allegri chose to sub Matthieu Flamini off for Kevin Prince Boateng, signaling his attacking intentions. Milan effectively transformed to a 4-2-2-2, allowing Seedorf an even more advanced role than before.

Ajax seemed unable to contribute to the match any more. Perhaps the physical strain of the battle against Twente, only three days earlier took its toll. Luckily for Ajax, Milan’s shooting in their six chances during the final twenty minutes proved either wasteful or found an excellent display of Maarten Stekelenburg on its way.

Milan's 4-2-2-2 of the final half hour of the match. Note that the subsituted players have been removed for clarity. Ibrahimovic (11) and Robinho (70) upfront, Seedorf (10) and Boateng (27) behind them with Pirlo (21) and Gattuso (8) as controlling midfielders. Again, courtesy to ESPN for providing these very insightful data, although they still haven't fixed the problem that left and right are inversed

In the end

Ajax could never complain to come away with a 1-1 result in this match. Again, the positioning of Demi de Zeeuw was related to a lot of their problems. Playing too high up the pitch he is less successful in performing his prime task of keeping possession. His below average passing percentage of 33/49 (67%) illustrates that. Furthermore, if he’d be positioned in a deeper role, beside Enoh, like in a true double pivot, he’d be able to provide cover for one of the true strengths of the 4-2-3-1, namely the attacking full-backs overlapping the narrow wingers. With the qualities of Anita/Emanuelson at left-back and particularly Van der Wiel at right-back, Ajax’ play would improve a lot from de Zeeuw playing deeper. In addition, de Jong might be able to find more space for his creator role.