Tag Archives: Ajax

AZ 1 – 1 Ajax: A glass half-full at best, for both sides

The glass half-full from the title refers to AZ taking only a point, where they failed to take more distance during dominating spells in the first half. And it refers to Ajax, who managed to fix some issues from the recent Cup defeat against AZ, but left much to be improved in order to refresh hopes of defending their title.

 
AZ’s 4-3-3

The starting line-ups

AZ went into this match unchanged from the 3-2 Cup win at the Amsterdam ArenA. Maarten Martens, who missed much of the first half of the season through injury, started as the central playmaker behind Charlison Benschop, who saw his excellent performance earlier this week rewarded with another start. Pontus Wernbloom, sold over the winter window to CSKA Moscow, was replaced in central midfield by rising star Adam Maher, who partnered set-piece specialist Rasmus Elm.

Ajax’ 4-3-3

Frank de Boer undoubtedly had a lot of home work over the past few days, as his team slumped to a miserable performance and a rare home defeat against AZ just three days earlier. A lack of ball retention in building from the back and impotent wing attackers summed up just the most eye-catching problems in the Amsterdam side during that particular match.
For this outing he replaced Ismael Aissati, who had all sorts of trouble keeping the ball in his team’s possession during the previous encounter, with Lorenzo Ebecilio, bypassing Nicolas Lodeiro here. A second change saw Vurnon Anita shifted out to right back to replace youngster Ruben Ligeon, with Daley Blind facing up with tricky AZ winger Roy Beerens at Ajax’ left back position.

 

The first half

After AZ had dominated the first few minutes of the match, Ajax slowly got more of a grip on the game. AZ by that time had seen Beerens head over from a clear cut chance after an early error of judgement by Blind. As so often is the case with two formations that effectively cancel each other out, it were midfield choices that proved influential early on.

Rasmus Elm stuck close to Christian Eriksen and Adam Maher did likewise with Theo Janssen. This left Eyong Enoh with a lot of freedom during Ajax’ spells of possession. In return, when AZ had the ball, Janssen and Enoh did a decent job of marking Maher and Martens, so that Elm was AZ’s main focal point in midfield passing. The end result of this simple piece of math was AZ being more able to convert their possession into goal scoring chances, drawing on Elm’s distribution qualities. Furthermore, as expected, Roy Beerens kept having the better of Daley Blind, while, at least for the first half, the latter’s offensive input did not make up for the defensive frailties induced by his presence.

An interesting tactical difference with the match just three days earlier concerned a key concept of modern football tactics: pressing. While Ajax lack all sorts of pressing in the previous match, and paid for their high line as a consequence, they had a better grip on their opponents this time around. When possession was lost in AZ’s half, the AZ players were well pressured, often resulting in counter attacks being eliminated early on.
However, Ajax still display a strange attitude towards possession of the ball. All too often, possession of the ball is deemed a goal in itself, and a dangerous sort of round-about is initiated in their own half. By now, opponents know that Ajax values possession that highly that they are willing to voluntarily re-circulate the ball among their centre-backs and goal keeper, even under severe pressure. This led to repeated losses of possession on their own half, under AZ pressure, which should be credited too.

In short, more Ajax pressure allowed AZ less opportunities to take advantage of the space behind the defensive line and exploit Benschop’s pace, but Ajax’ own half give-aways under AZ’s pressure were all too frequent. And it was one of these simple own half give-aways that led to AZ’s first goal. Enoh failed to complete a pass inside Ajax’ own third of the pitch, leading to a dangerous turnover from which the free-kick occurred that Rasmus Elm fired home, scoring his fifth direct free-kick of the season.

 

The second half

While one might have expected AZ to take advantage of the situation, they seemed to lower their level of pressure in the second half. AZ defended closer to their own goal, making it harder for them to capitalize on turnovers, which Ajax still granted now and then.

At the hour mark, De Boer made some changes. Eyong Enoh, yellow carded already, was removed for Bulykin to enter as the new striker, with Siem de Jong taking a central midfield role. This saw Theo Janssen return to the deep-lying playmaker role that was thought out as Ajax’ plan A before the season had started.

It’s a pity that in-match data are still not available for the Eredivisie matches, as it would probably have been much easier to demonstrate Ajax’ second half performance with some chalkboards at hand. Christian Eriksen might be isolated as the driving figure of Ajax’ improved second half performance. Partnered by Siem de Jong and Theo Janssen, rather than Janssen and Enoh in the second half, he turned in a marvelous passing performance, resulting in longer spells of Ajax possession and a significant higher fraction of defensive possession being successfully transferred into final third attacks.

With Nicolas Lodeiro having replaced the ineffective Lorenzo Ebecilio, Ajax started to find their rhythm. In a left wing move, where Daley Blind should be credited for providing the offensive input that warranted his selection today, Lodeiro pressed Poulsen into conceding an own goal equalizer. At the same time, AZ had had some opportunities of themselves, as Ajax defended further away from their goal and the offensive minded midfield failed to consequently press AZ’s technically skilled midfield enough.

In the end

Overall, a draw would feel like a reasonable result to this game, where AZ clearly won and dominated the first half, and Ajax saw their risk-taking later on rewarded.

Lyon 0 – 0 Ajax: Goalless draw sees Ajax come close to the CL knock-out rounds

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.

 

The starting line-ups

Lyon’s 4-2-3-1

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.

 

Ajax’ 4-3-3

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.

Utrecht 6 – 4 Ajax: Goal fest illustrates both teams short-comings

In a true goal fest, that ultimately saw Utrecht run out 6-4 winners, both teams illustrated their short-comings, rather than their qualities. The prejudice of the Eredivisie being a high scoring league due to a generally low level of defending was fed once more, as virtually all of today’s nine goals involved defensive weaknesses rather than offensive brilliance.

 

Utrecht’s formation

Disappointing would be the best one-word summary of Utrecht’s season up to this game. Having competed in the Europa League group stage of the past season  , Utrecht are a very different side at this moment in time. Of last year’s squad that beat Ajax 3-0 at home for De Boer’s first defeat as Ajax manager, only three players remain today.  Influential players like Dries Mertens and Kevin Strootman were sold to PSV, while striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel left for Sporting Lissabon. To make things worse, goal keeper Michel Vorm left during pre-season to join new Premier League side Swansea and captain and Danish international Michael Silberbauer left Utrecht for Swiss side Young Boys.

With such severe depletion, only moderate expectations should be kept this present season, and unfortunately this has been what’s in store for Utrecht so far. On top of the exodus of first team players, manager Erwin Koeman, who had only just started his work at the club this summer, left a few weeks ago, with former Ajax manager Jan Wouters taking care for the moment.

The starting line-ups, although Bulykin and Ooijer replaced De Jong and Alderweireld within the first twenty minutes.

In tactical terms, Utrecht lines up in a 4-3-3 formation with central midfielder Asare looking to roam behind strong striker Mulenga, and the pair of Sneijder and Mårtensson responsible for holding the midfield.

 

Ajax’ flirt with the 3-3-1-3

During this year’s Dutch Cup campaign, Frank de Boer first showed his three-at-the-back system in competitive matches. He did so again amateur side Noordwijk, and later on away at Roda. Against Roda’s 4-4-2 diamond, the 3-3-1-3 did an excellent job, providing an excellent example of why defense should ideally contain one man more than the offenses their defending. De Boer stuck with the system for the follow-up Eredivisie match, again away at Roda, and Ajax earned another victory.

In the preface of the Zagreb match, last week, De Boer proclaimed that Zagreb playing a single striker formation was the main reason not to go with the 3-3-1-3 again, in turn choosing for the more familiar 4-3-3 formation, with offensive full-backs, complemented with offensive intentions for centre-back Vertonghen.

Against Utrecht’s 4-3-3, De Boer went with the expected 4-3-3 again. With Sigthorsson out for quite some time, Siem de Jong made another start in the striker position, although he got injured as early as in the second minute, when Dmitri Bulykin replaced him.

 

Spectacle or painful?

With five first half goals scored it does not make sense to go through all of them in chronological order to describe the tactical developments during the match. As a general theme, both teams threw any notion of control over the space in front of their back fours to the wind and paid the price for it. A match like this will generally go down as a spectacle and a ‘really good game to watch’, but at times the defensive performances of both teams were that far below par that it was painful to watch.

 

Utrecht’s problem

Let’s first describe Utrecht in this regard, and then turn our attention to the visitors. Jan Wouters, known more for his motivational than his tactical qualities in a general sense, lost the balance in his team in midfield. When deploying a 4-3-3 with wide strikers, rather than wide midfielders who tend to put in defensive shifts too, the balance in defensive terms needs to come from the central midfielders. Utrecht fielded three central midfielders today, but Asare mainly played close to striker Mulenga, and apart from topping the fouls charts of the Eredivisie, he is not known for his defensive input. Of the remaining two midfielders, Sneijder (brother Rodney, on loan from Ajax, that is) is a renowned playmaker more than a holding midfielder.

With a defensive line of four afraid to push up all too high when faced with the pace of Boerrigter and Sulejmani, the pair of Sneijder and Mårtersson could never cover the wide space in front of the defense. The resulting freedom was a gift, most notably for Eriksen, but also for both Ajax’ wingers when Utrecht’s full-backs needed to support the centre-backs by playing narrow.

 

Ajax’ problems

Contrary to Utrecht, Ajax did field a genuine holding midfielder in terms of Eyong Enoh. And he did a decent job playing against Asare, apart from that one moment where Enoh failed to step out of Ajax’ back line, which allowed Asare all the time he needed to fire in a shot, finding the net after Enoh’s unlucky deflection. Although the deflection proved vital for that particular shot to find the back of the net, Asare’s wide movement saw him escape the zone of Enoh to the right wing time and again, allowing him to join Duplan in overloading Ajax’ left-back Anita.

An important development in terms of Ajax’ back line might have been the early substitution of Toby Alderweireld. André Ooijer, who replaced him, lacks the pace and agility to deal with quick balls over the top, balls that are inevitably going to come given Ajax’ possession centered style of play. Ooijer’s short-comings in this regard were well illustrated in Utrecht’s second goal.

Ooijer was again at fault for inadequately marking Bovenberg for Utrecht’s third goal of the day. The right-back, who scored regularly from indirect set pieces for Excelsior last season, wasn’t tracked by Ooijer in a man-marking set piece situation that should be well-known terrain for a veteran defender.

Ajax’ miscommunications in the back line were frequent, and most of them could be dealt with through late tackles, but for Utrecht’s fourth goal the defensive line was all over the place. Ajax generally has its defense playing for offside in order to control the space behind the defensive line, but today the centre-backs and full-backs had all sorts of trouble keeping that offside line intact. For the fourth goal none of the four defenders even stayed on the same height of the pitch, and Mulenga was easily onside and in behind the defense.

Finally, Ajax’ fifth conceded goal will hopefully be seen as a demonstration that pragmatism should triumph over principle. Sometimes referred to as ‘the Dutch Disease’, consequently re-circulating the ball to your own goal keeper led to a series of precarious back passes, one of which ultimately saw Vermeer give possession away, only for Asare for fin the back of an empty net.

 

In the end

Matches like these can be described as either a ‘true goal fest’, or a painful series of defensive errors, and in terms of tactically reviewing a match the latter prevails. In honesty, both teams should have won this match based on their opponents short-comings and the fact that in offensive terms, they generally took advantage of the space presented.

For Utrecht, there may still be hope that Wouters will sort out this obvious problem of conceding acres of space in midfield, although his track record as manager before doesn’t serve to provide much confidence here.

And for Ajax, this may well be the most disappointing defensive performance of the season. The back line was all over the place, missing the communication that is essential in a team that aims to put pressure on their opponent, and therefore plays with a high defensive line. The substitution of Ooijer for Alderweireld introduced a painful series of problems in terms of (A) communication, (B) positioning, and (C) pace to make up for short-comings in either (A) or (B).

Dinamo Zagreb 0 – 2 Ajax: Guests take advantage of difference in formations

Ajax ended a difficult streak of European football, to virtually secure the third place in their Champions League group, while also keeping sight on the second place that would provide a prolonged Champions League season. They did so with their single holding midfielder 4-3-3 system, albeit with a genuine destroyer at the base of the midfield. This allowed them to take advantage of the space provided by Zagreb’s 4-4-2 diamond system.

 

Ajax’ 4-3-3

In the absence of striker Sigthorsson, Frank de Boer preferred Siem de Jong up front, rather than target man Bulykin. De Jong offers more passing advantage and off the ball movement, better suiting Ajax’ possession based game than Bulykin would do. The vacancy that this created in central midfield was filled in by advancing Theo Janssen to a more advanced role, an opportunity he took with both hands. Playing in a style and position reminiscent of his player-of-the-season performance at Twente last year, Janssen did an excellent job distributing the ball.

The starting line-ups

With both De Jong and Janssen playing more advanced than they did before, Eyong Enoh was introduced in the holding midfield role. Enoh is a genuine destroyer type of midfielder, which allows both Janssen and Eriksen a solid base to build upon. He is often criticized for his lack of passing quality, but in this match he completed 43 of his 45 passes (96%), provided 2 key passes and won 6 of 8 tackles.

 

Dinamo Zagreb’s 4-4-2 diamond

Judging by the excellent football-lineups.com website, Zagreb is a team that tends to mix it up between single and double striker systems. While mostly playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, against Ajax, perhaps pressed by the urgency to win this match in order to keep sight on the third place of the group, they preferred a 4-4-2 system. Their star player, Brazilian Sammir, played in close proximity behind strikers Beciraj and Rukavina.

 

The first half

Despite De Boer’s promise to start the game with a high level of pressing, it was Ajax who were on the back foot from the first minute on. Zagreb pressed their opponents very high up the pitch, thereby also creating an early goal scoring chance. But as Ajax grew more and more awareness of this high level of pressing, they seemed more capable of playing around the pressure, which opened up space for their own passing game.

An important tactical point in this game is the concept of two teams playing each other with two genuinely different formations. Both Zagreb’s strikers were dealt with by Ajax’ centre backs, with both full-backs ready to help out at times. Enoh did an excellent job neutralizing Sammir’s danger, thereby significantly limiting Zagreb’s offensive options.

In midfield, Ajax’ pair of Janssen and Eriksen succeeded in exploiting the main strength of single striker formations, overloading the opposing midfield. When playing flat 4-4-2’s this should allow the three of Enoh-Janssen-Eriksen to overload a flat pair of central midfielders, and against a diamond midfield, the pair of Janssen and Eriksen overloaded single holding midfielder Calello.

This could have been different had Zagreb not displayed as offensive intentions as they did, but with shuttling midfielders Badelj and Leko often venturing forward, the coverage of the central midfield area was often left at the hands of Calello alone. A series of Ajax chances and half chances was the result, and it was a matter of failed conversion rather than failed creation that kept Ajax from taking a lead. Furthermore, Zagreb’s lack of control was expressed by the high yellow card count, with three of their five defensive players being booked before half time. Most, if not all, of Zagreb’s opportunities arose from simple passes going astray in Ajax’ back line, with particularly Gregory van der Wiel playing way below his usual level.

 

The second half

With the score level and Ajax dominating possession-wise and slightly dominating chance-wise, Zagreb manager Jurcic seemed intent on increasing the offensive stance of his team. Zagreb’s full-back played higher up the pitch, aiming to win balls earlier on.

The exact opposite of what Jurcic had intended was the result of his move. Ajax took advantage of the space conceded behind Zagreb’s full-backs and exploited the pace of wingers Boerrigter and Sulejmani. The pair of them combined for Ajax’ opening goal in the 48th minute.

After that, there was no way back for Zagreb. Having tried to force the opening goal themselves, they were now in dire need of a comeback goal and were obliged to further increase their offensive intentions. Ajax, however, took excellent use of the extra space provided and Theo Janssen could be seen to spark in a role reminiscent of his excellent past season at Twente.

With the narrow 0-1 score line, the game became more and more of an end-to-end affair, with Ajax having only their weak conversion of goal scoring chances to blame for the fact that it was still a tight match. In the end it was Christian Eriksen who converted a one-on-one chance, having played through by Dimitri Bulykin, who had replaced Boerrigter by then.

Quite a tell tale perhaps was the fact that, forced to remove winger Boerrigter, De Boer refrained from his most expected change to move Eriksen out wide and retract De Jong to his midfield position. Instead, De Jong was shifted out wide, which kept the midfield three, who all had excellent games, as it was.

 

In the end

It is too early to base any favorable conclusions regarding Ajax’ game on this one match, but these three points do virtually guarantee a prolongation of the European football campaign for them. The fact that Zagreb used a 4-4-2 diamond system, rather than their usual 4-2-3-1, certainly helped Ajax to find the spaces in midfield to express their dominant passing game. And on top of that, pushing the full-backs up in the second half was the one thing needed for Ajax to exploit, given the pace of their wingers.

A sparkling performance by the midfield three of Enoh-Janssen-Eriksen may inspire De Boer to refrain from using Janssen in a single holding midfielder role. And if it’s anything to go by, the choice to move De Jong wide, rather than pulling him back to the midfield role may strengthen this thought.

Ajax 2 – 2 AZ: Both teams see their courage rewarded and pay for mistakes

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.

The starting line-ups

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.

Groningen 1 – 0 Ajax: On hard labor and playing to your strengths

By putting up an intense physical battle and smartly targeting their opponent’s weaker points, Groningen earned a 1-0 victory. Winning most tackles in midfield, while pressuring Ajax early on, Groningen frustrated their opponents, paying a price in terms of yellow cards earned, but getting away with three well earned points. Ajax made a powerless and tired experience and never really got to their opponent’s box in order to exploit their own strengths.

 

Unchanged teams

Groningen and Ajax both named unchanged starting elevens from their previous matches, against De Graafschap and Real Madrid respectively. For Groningen the season has started below expectations, with key players like captain Granqvist (Genoa), Stenman (Club Brugge) and Matavz (PSV) leaving the club and only 10 points from the first 7 matches. Manager Huistra consequently sticksuisHH to the 4-2-3-1 that brought about such an impressive debut season for him, and the fifth spot in the league to go with it during that season.

The starting line-ups

Groningen features two full-backs that have been fitted in straight from Ajax’ youth team, where both Huistra and Frank de Boer have managed before making their Eredivisie debuts. Left-back Lorenzo Burnet is a regular starter for Groningen, having to fill the boots of Frederik Stenman to team up with Dusan Tadic in what was claimed to be last year’s most dangerous left wing of the Eredivisie. Right-back Johan Kappelhof features today in the absence of Tom Hiariej. Up front David Teixeira will be looking to build upon the impressive start for his new club. The Uruguayan striker, born in the same area as former Groningen and Ajax striker Luis Suarez, impressed with two goals and an assist in Groningen’s 2-3 away win at De Graafschap last week.

 

Ajax and their issues

There has been no shortage of Ajax coverage on 11tegen11 of lately, and their issues regarding the midfield set-up have been detailed elaborately in the coverage of the 3-0 defeat in Madrid. Today, De Boer named an unchanged starting eleven, with Theo Janssen being given another start to live up to expectations in the single holding midfielder role.

 

The first half

Groningen dominated the first part of the game, mainly by bullying their opponents off the ball in a crowded midfield area. Spaces were kept rather tight by applying a reasonably high defensive line, that worked quite well, apart from one brilliant Siem de Jong through ball where Sulejmani failed to finish the one-on-one with goal keeper Van Loo.

The hosts pressured Ajax far inside their own half, making life difficult for both Ajax’ centre backs to pass the ball into midfield. With that, Groningen successfully targeted exactly the pain spot of the present Ajax team. Vertonghen and Alderweireld had all sorts of trouble passing the ball into the midfield, where Janssen was closely marked by Andersson. Siem de Jong could be seen dropping deeper, to assist Janssen in receiving the ball and to provide more outlet options for his defensive team mates. Still Ajax had all sorts of trouble circulating the ball towards offensive positions and also saw striker Sigthorsson leaving the pitch injured, for Bulykin to come on.

Groningen seemed to switch their wingers, with Tadic playing Anita from Groningen’s right wing and Bacuna coming from the left, teaming up very well with left-back Burnet, who played a very good game against the club that refrained from offering him a professional contract just this summer. On the brink of half time Groningen had their best chance of the game when Bacuna headed over from a left wing cross.

 

The second half

Ajax seemed more intent on providing some pressure themselves from the start of the second half. This resulted in a more open game, with both teams winning balls higher up the pitch. Early in the second half Burnet made two important goal line clearances to keep the score level at 0-0, while goal keeper Van Loo kept a close range header from his team mate Kwakman only just out of his goal.

Groningen’s hard labour in midfield kept tem winning enough balls, frustrating their opponents, and ultimately also opening the score. Man of the match Lorenzo Burnet won a defensive header that started a quick left wing break with Andersson in behind Gregory van der Wiel. After Vermeer initially kept Andersson’s attempt out very well, Van der Wiel committed a handball to earn his, and Ajax’, second yellow card of the game.

Playing against ten men, Groningen didn’t change their game plan. They kept putting e remarkable amount of energy into the game, and only just avoided more serious consequences of their hard labour in the form of getting players sent off too. In the end no less than six Groningen players did receive a yellow card, while substitute Enevoldsen probably earned a bit more for  his tackle on Janssen.

De Boer removed striker Bulykin to introduce André Ooijer in order to restore his four men defensive line, but Ajax seemed to lack the energy to fight their way back into the match, being a man down and facing a hard-battling Groningen team that ultimately earned their 1-0 home victory.

 

In the end

Groningen successfully targeted Ajax’ weak spot. They pressured their opponents very high, making it near impossible for Ajax to pass the ball into their midfield. Although Siem de Jong did drop a bit deeper to provide more outlet options, Ajax’ passing from the back was painful to watch at times.

In danger of repeating the previous post, dealing with Ajax’ problems in midfield, it is safe to say that in order to prevent their midfield from being overrun, Janssen will need to be provided with more short range passing options. Detailed data from this present match is still to come, but data from other matches support this lack of short passes by Janssen. Take for example the PSV match, where Janssen played 4 of his 41 passes short, compared to Eriksen’s 15 of 49 and de Jong’s 16 of 27. This is not to say that Janssen should refrain from longer passing, but merely to underline the lack of control Ajax has over the defensive midfield area of the pitch.

Let’s finish this post with some credit for Groningen, who worked very hard and combined their energetic performance with enough wit to play the game at their particular strength. Manager Huistra possesses a physically strong side capable of winning a fair share of challenges, thereby keeping Ajax far from their own goal and avoiding the game to be played in their own half. In the end a 1-0 victory was their reward and with 13 points from 8 matches, Groningen are beginning to approach their excellent past season.

Real Madrid 3 – 0 Ajax: Tactical trouble at Ajax from a wider perspective

In  the much anticipated replay of last year’s Champions League group stage game ,where Ajax took a true battering and ended up losing 2 – 0 at Madrid, Ajax lost 3 – 0 this time at the Estadio Bernabeu. In terms of ‘face value’ Ajax provided more counter play – in fact their amount of 19 shots registered was higher than any Champions League opponent achieved at the Bernabeu since Bayern in the 2006/07 Champions League quarter final – but the final score line and the dominance expressed by Real’s front four left little to the imagination. Ajax failed the benchmark test that was supposed to show the progress made under manager Frank de Boer in the past year.

 

The wider perspective

Rather than picking on tactical situations of this particular match, or highlighting individual players’ performances, this might be a nice moment to reflect on the tactical shortcomings of Ajax’ optimistic wide forwards 4-3-3 system, which has failed to produce a European football goal for 433 minutes now. In fact, Ajax has failed to win a single match against opposition of equal quality so far this season. The Dutch Super Cup was lost to ten men Twente (1-2), while both the Eredivisie clashes at PSV (2-2) and at home against Twente (1-1) were drawn.

Two players coming in for quite some criticism for their performances during these matches are right full back Gregory van der Wiel and holding midfielder Theo Janssen. While it sometimes seems hard to suppress the knee-jerk reaction to blame the individual players at stake, at the same time such a reaction seems irrational and unfair. Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel definitely has the potential to play an important role for this Ajax team and Theo Janssen rightfully stood out as the Eredivisie player of the year last season, dominating both crucial Eredivisie matches and European fixtures for his club Twente.

So why is it that these two players seem to carry the burden of what’s going wrong at Ajax at this moment?

 

The ‘Ajax philosophy’

The starting line-ups

Ajax have shown difficulty beating opponents of equal or superior stature. At the same time, matches against inferior opposition are won relatively easily, as expressed by the recent club record of scoring twice or more in fifteen consecutive Eredivisie matches. And to be fair, the Eredivisie contains quite a lot of those inferior teams compared to the standards set by Ajax, both in terms of youth player development and the standards of player acquisition.

Manager Frank de Boer consistently has Ajax play in a wide wingers 4-3-3 formation, and the offensive nature of that formation is accompanied by a high pressing, possession based playing style. This way of playing football is deemed essential to expressing ‘the Ajax culture’ and is applied rigidly, with little room for modulation, apart from varying the individual players involved.

This way of using the 4-3-3 formation contrasts with most of the teams of equal or superior opposition that Ajax fails to produce results against, and it does so in exactly the full backs and holding midfielder areas of the pitch, where Van der Wiel and Janssen fail to deliver at present. While most other teams make quite clear choices to maintain the balance between offense and defense, De Boer has committed himself to an over-attacking formation that gets picked apart by decent opposition.

Other teams, as evidenced by the recently published UEFA Champions League technical report, maintain their balance either by covering their defensive line with conservative use of their full backs while playing a single holding midfielder, or by covering their offensive full backs by deploying two conservative holding midfielders. De Boer has made it abundantly clear that it is part of his ‘playing philosophy’ to use offensive full backs, while fielding only one holding midfielder, and that rigidness is causing trouble.

 

The Real Madrid goals

All three of Real Madrid’s goals provided excellent cues to the problem at stake. At the first goal, Ajax’ midfield was completely overrun by a brilliantly executed high speed one touch passing move. Both of Ajax’ full backs were overrun by Real’s front four as high as on the midline of the pitch. The second goal saw central playmaker Kaká in acres of space at the edge of the box after Theo Janssen had moved over to the right full back area to cover for Van der Wiel, leaving Kaká a playground of space in a crucial area. A second holding midfielder would have easily closed down that space. Finally, the third goal was preceded by an impressively well executed 60 yard Xabi Alonso pass that picked out advanced full back Arbeloa, indeed, free in Ajax’ right back area with Van der Wiel pressing too high up the pitch and Janssen still on his way back from covering duties at left back.

 

Tactical naivety

It is not the individual effort by Theo Janssen or Gregory van der Wiel that lies at the heart of the problem. One single holding midfielder simply can’t cover for full backs expressing offensive desires. Any side capable of quick ball circulation and witty movement along their offensive players will pick such a side apart.

Against inferior opposition this problem might be less exposed, although Ajax are still looking for their first clean sheet of the Eredivisie season, but the tactical naivety of demanding both offensive input from the full backs and playing a single holding midfielder will be punished when playing decent opposition, where the ‘I’ll just score one more than you do’ approach won’t work.

Meanwhile, Frank de Boer has moved himself into a difficult situation by proclaiming the status of ‘untouchable’ to the present playing style, stressing that this is the true Ajax philosophy. For now it is clear that he isn’t winning any important matches with it.

PSV 2 – 2 Ajax: Does match data confirm the naked eye observations?

The thrilling encounter between PSV and Ajax, which ended in a 2-2 final score after Ajax came back twice, has been reviewed on 11tegen11 immediately after the match had ended. Now that the match data, provided by InStat Football, has come in, it might be interesting to revisit some of the statements made on the basis of naked eye observation and see if the stats point in the same direction.

 

A few points from the match review can easily be tracked.

  1. The draw was deemed a fair result in a match that saw both teams dominate different phases of the game.
  2. Preventing PSV to circulate the ball to Kevin Strootman had been highlighted beforehand as an important part of Ajax’ defensive strategy, which seemed well carried out.
  3. Ajax’ inside right wing role by Eriksen allowed Pieters a relatively easy build-up, leading to a left-sided dominance in PSV’s pattern of play.
  4. There was a distinct lack of defensive quality, with two particularly offensive minded midfield line-ups.

 

Let go over those points one by one and see what the data tell us…

1.       The draw was deemed a fair result in a match that saw both teams dominate different phases of the game.

 

Note the lines for shots, possession and attacks circling around each other during different phases of the match. Red: PSV, blue: Ajax.

Just like we did in the previous match data report, we’ll break down each team’s number of possessions into the number of attacks created with it, and the number of shots created with those attacks. Both teams will be shown to be remarkable similar in this regard, although, as is demonstrated in the above graphs, they dominated during different phases of the game.

Both teams created 75 attacks. PSV did so from 103 possessions, for an attack ratio of 73%, while Ajax did so from 111 possessions, for an attack ratio of 68%. And both teams created 15 shots for a shot ratio of 20%, with 9 attempts coming from inside the box for both teams. PSV managed to find the target with 8 of their shots, while Ajax were slightly less accurate with 6.

 

2.       Preventing PSV to circulate the ball to Kevin Strootman had been highlighted beforehand as an important part of Ajax’ defensive strategy, which seemed well carried out.

In the match against Legia, used to demonstrate that new summer acquisition Kevin Strootman is the most important element in PSV’s possession game, the defensive midfielder was shown to receive far more passes than his team mates: 15% of PSV’s completed passes was directed at Strootman in that game.

In the Ajax match, Strootman received only 21 passes, the third lowest number of PSV’s outfield players, behind Matavz (19) and Manolev (20). The total number of PSV passes was indeed a lot lower (303 vs 543), but the share of PSV passes finding Strootman dropped from 15% in the Legia game to 7% in the Ajax game.

 

3.       Ajax’ inside right wing role by Eriksen allowed Pieters a relatively easy build-up, leading to a left-sided dominance in PSV’s pattern of play.

Initial observation of the match suggested that PSV built the majority of attacks through Pieters, who found himself in a lot of space as Eriksen played a very narrow inside right wing role and often only checked his man when Pieters did advance with the ball at feet. Although Pieters did made more than twice as many passes as his counterpart Manolev (59 vs 29), PSV finished the match with 25 right sided attacks compared to only 19 left sided attacks.

So, somewhere in transition between Pieters’ possession and PSV developing an attack, a preference for right sided passes occurred. An eye-catching difference in this area is the passing game of Toivonen and Wijnaldum. Eleven of Wijnaldum’s 19 passes were directed at the three offensive players (Lens 8 ; Matavz 2 ; Mertens 1), while only three of Toivonen’s 18 passes reached a forward player. So, PSV’s right sided offensive midfielder Wijnaldum, played a significantly more offensive passing game than their left sided midfielder Toivonen did. This may help explain the data described in the above paragraph.

 

4.       There was a distinct lack of defensive quality, with two particularly offensive minded midfield line-ups.

Ajax' first half dribbles, showing a 100% success rate.

Measuring defensive performances has always been the Achilles heel of match data analysis. The most compelling story in this regard is perhaps Manchester United selling Jaap Stam, back in the nineties, when his number of tackles per game started dropping. Assuming that the defender was past his peak, Ferguson sold Stam to Lazio, with some of his best footballing years yet to come. Only later insight revealed that his improved positioning skill allowed him superior defending, without the need for risky tackling. With that in mind, it’s always important to take context into account when assessing the value of raw match data.

The PSV – Ajax game contains very interesting differences regarding both teams and particularly regarding both halves of the match. Ajax succeeded in completing an amazing 16 of their 17 dribble attempts, but all 10 of their offensive half dribbles were made in the first half. PSV, on the other hand, had only two completed dribbles out of 9 attempts in the first half, compared to 8 out of 12 attempts in the second half.

In both teams, several players stood out with a remarkably low rate of ground tackles won, confirming the initial observation of offenses dominating defenses in this match. Some ground tackle success rates for Ajax: Blind (0/6), Van der Wiel (1/6), Janssen (3/10), De Jong (1/4). And for PSV: Pieters (2/8), Marcelo (1/4), Manolev (3/8), Toivonen (1/6).

The introduction of Enoh, who won all of his 7 ground tackles, shifting Anita, who won all six of his ground tackles, to left-back, did increase the amount of tackles won by Ajax, but still didn’t stop PSV from completing a much higher rate of their dribbles in the second half. PSV also created 12 of their 15 attempts in the second half, while Ajax’ attempt were quite evenly spread.

PSV's tackles. Note the big difference between the first half (left) and the second half.

In the end

In short, yes, regarding the four points mentioned above, the data do confirm the observations made during the match. But there still remain so many interesting observations that only come forward when looking at these data. Take for example the difference between Toivonen and Wijnaldum with regard to their passing preference.

Our aim for the near future is to regularly implement the use of match data like these, courteously provided by InStat Football, to structure the observations made regarding tactics and player performances. Should more coverage be available and hopefully in the near future, all Eredivisie match be covered, the necessary context will become available to interpret different data as it should be. At present, though, the intermittent use of match data seems a very helpful tool to structure naked eye observations. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts on this type of analysis, which is only just emerging in the Eredivisie.

 

This post could not have been created without the support of InStat Football.

PSV 2 – 2 Ajax: Fair result in a very passionate match

The first of this season’s clashes between two of the Eredivisie top three teams produced a passionate match that ended in a 2-2 draw, respecting the fact that, in terms of footballing quality, both sides put in an equal share. However, during various phases of the game one of either teams dominated the other, making this an attractive match with an unpredictable outcome till the very end.

 

PSV’s 4-3-3

Manager Fred Rutten had an almost full-strength squad at his disposal. Only central defender Wilfred Bouma wasn’t fit to start the game, making Derijck and Marcelo the preferred centre back pairing. Striker Tim Matavz, a late summer signing from Groningen, made his first Eredivisie start of the season, after starting earlier this week against Legia Warszawa in the Europa League.

The starting line-ups. Eriksen's inside right wing role proved key to the tactical direction the match took

 

Ajax’ starting XI issues

In contrast to Rutten, De Boer did have some choices to make ahead of this important game. Right winger Sulejmani injured his hamstring in the Champions League match against Lyon and will be sidelined for up to four weeks. Furthermore, De Boer would be looking to strengthen his defensive midfield, as starting a midfield three of deep-lying playmaker Janssen, creative central midfielder Eriksen and all-round man Siem de Jong would carry the risk of being overrun by the ball playing qualities of PSV’s Strootman-Toivonen-Wijnaldum triangle.

In the build up to this game, roughly two variants have been proposed for De Boer to solve these issues. As a first option, and Ajax did play this variant for the first few minutes of the game, Sigthorsson could be shifted out to the right wing, with Siem de Jong filling in the striker role and Anita being brought into the squad in defensive midfield. The second option, which Ajax played from the 5th minute on, was to play Christian Eriksen in an inside right wing role, leaving Sigthorsson up front and, again, bringing Anita into the central defensive midfield.

 

PSV’s kick-start

PSV exerted some frantic pressing early on, resulting in a 2nd minute opening goal by Tim Matavz. To those familiar with the recent breakdown of PSV’s game it should come to no surprise that the attack was constructed along the left wing. Gregory van der Wiel missed a crucial challenge, which unleashed Pieters wide, allowing to cross for Matavz who was left in acres of space by Alderweireld. With just two minutes on the clock, Ajax continued an impressive negative record of eight straight away games where they conceded the first goal. This time had it all to do in Eindhoven.

With this score line, an interesting battle evolved. As outlined above, Ajax had made some forced, yet crucial, changes to their right wing line-up. Eriksen often drifted inside, thereby strengthening the central midfield area and vacating space for Van der Wiel to express his forward drive. Understandably, this worked quite well when Ajax had possession of the ball, but it also meant that they conceded way too much space on PSV’s dangerous left flank. PSV’s attacks were well frustrated centrally, where De Jong and Eriksen cut out the passing to Strootman, but Ajax allowed an easy way out. PSV simply built through Pieters, who often doubled up with Mertens to overload Ajax’ right flank. This imbalance was further enhanced by Ajax’ tendency, just like Legia did, to allow left central back Marcelo much more time on the ball than his right sided central defensive partner, Derijck in this case.

 

Ajax’ gradual recovery

A fifteen minute injury break, involving PSV goal keeper Tyton, who was knocked out in a clash with defender Derijck, induced a kind of extra half time break, halfway through the first half. After this period, Ajax crowned a more dominant spell with Sigthorsson’s equalizer, after the Icelandic striker showed his physical qualities in winning the ball in the edge of PSV’s box.

Ajax captain Vertonghen regularly dribbled into the midfield, providing the extra man in midfield here, while PSV’s problems defending their lead seemed to concentrate in their midfield area. The midfield three of Strootman-Toivonen-Wijnaldum, much praised for their qualities ion possession, often seemed unable to win the ball back other than by making numerous fouls during this phase of the match.

 

The second half

Much like they did in the first half, PSV started with a high degree of pressing, which resulted in them regaining the initiative. It seems like playing for a goal suits the qualities of the current squad much better than sitting on a lead, as with the present 1-1 score line, PSV created the better chances, ultimately leading to Wijnaldum’s penalty kick goal after Van der Wiel went in clumsily on Mertens on the edge of the box.

The openness of the second half had much to do with the lack of defensive input by both team’s offensive midfielders and wingers. On PSV’s side, Toivonen and, less so, Wijnaldum all too often refrained from adequately tracking back, while left winger Mertens seemed instructed to leave Van der Wiel to left back Pieters in order to take advantage as soon as PSV regained possession.

 

 

Ajax, on the other hand, rendered too much freedom to PSV’s left back Pieters as Eriksen often drifted inside. On top of that, as they were a goal down for much of the first and second half, Siem de Jong positioned himself closer and closer to the striker position in search for the equalizer. This may also have contributed to the high midfield foul rate, as most markers closed down men in possession from quite a distance, rather than pressing them back from an organized defensive line.

 

The big man

Frank de Boer took many by surprise by introducing strong target man Bulykin for Sigthorsson around the hour mark. Ajax took a more opportunistic approach to the game and wasn’t shy of leaping the ball forward to the big man, with Siem de Jong now playing quite close to Bulykin, looking to collect and flick-ons.

In the end, much like their 3-3 draw at VVV last week, PSV proved unable to hold onto a lead. Rutten didn’t adapt his formation to Ajax’ more pragmatic playing style, and, with chances appearing on both ends of the pitch, ultimately paid the price. Introducing defensive midfielder Ojo for either Wijnaldum or Toivonen would have seemed appropriate, as both offensive midfielders didn’t cover themselves in glory with regard to their defensive input.

Ajax got their equalizer through a poacher’s finish by Bulykin, who beat last year’s ADO team mate Derijck for a cross by Van der Wiel, who saw his offensive input rewarded, but shouldn’t forget his share in conceding the penalty goal earlier that half.

 

In the end

A draw seems a fair result to the game, and at least both teams got there in more spectacular fashion than they did in last year’s 0-0 in both of their Eredivisie clashes. Any football fans that may have turned their attention to the Eredivisie just for this high billed game have been rewarded with a very open, high scoring and attractive game, but the stigma of the Eredivisie being a low quality league regarding defensive organization might just have gotten a bit stronger today.

Ajax 0 – 0 Lyon: A balanced game between two teams with different intentions

In their first Champions League game of the 2011/12 season, Ajax were held to a goalless draw by Lyon. While the home side had all kinds of troubles turning their majority share of possession into anything more than slow build-ups, the away side proved efficient in creating chances, yet extremely inefficient in finding the target.

 

Ajax’ usual formation

Ajax started with their familiar wide wingers 4-3-3 shape. The only variety applied recently by Frank de Boer in personal terms concerns Ajax’ left back position, where the three of Boilesen, Anita and Blind have shared starting spots so far. Tonight young Boilesen is preferred, indicating Ajax’ offensive intentions going into this match.

 

Lyon’s shape

The starting line-ups

Lyon were without three  of their big stars as Cris, Gourcuff and Lisandro were absent. Gonalons partnered Källstrom in central midfield, while Grenier dropped off striker Gomis in the hole of the 4-2-3-1. Lyon’s formation showed most characteristics of a 4-2-3-1, although their defensive compactness throughout the match made it look most like a genuine 4-5-1 with both banks grouped closely together.

 

The first half

The game started with frantic pressing by Lyon, but they abandoned that kick-start tactic after a few minutes. From that moment on, Lyon mostly took a deep stance, waiting for Ajax to build from the back, while keeping the midfield populated densely. Their five midfielders faced Ajax’ three nominal midfielders, which explained much of the game throughout the first half.

Ajax dominated possession at 64% to Lyon’s 36%, but had a lot of problems playing the ball into the midfield, where Lyon had a numerical advantage, and with that, a dominant position. Ajax’ supposed midfield playmaker Eriksen saw quite some of the ball, but was limited in his creative options with so many opposing players close by, while Siem de Jong hardly featured in the first half of the match. Theo Janssen, Ajax’ only deeper midfielder, was closely marked by Grenier, making it difficult for the centre-backs to reach him in the build ups.

 

Lyon’s counters

While Ajax had trouble turning their possession into anything more than a handful of off target headers from corners, Lyon turned their limited share of possession into promising shooting positions. Striker Gomis had a few shooting chances from inside the box that all arose from quick ground counters after Ajax lost the ball in the midfield area.

The previously raised point on Lyon’s 5v3 dominance comes into the debate here too, as Ajax was forced to bring more bodies to the midfield battle and did so by regularly advancing the full-backs. While Van der Wiel did contribute positively to Ajax’ offensive game, youngster Boilesen was caught out losing possession more than once, inducing dangerous counters with his flank abandoned. Aside from advancing full-backs, also one of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld did advance into defensive midfield at times in attempts to tackle the numerical midfield disadvantage, which obviously also opened option for Lyon to counter.

 

The second half

The main difference between the first half and the start of the second half was that, either voluntarily or forced, Ajax allowed, or had to allow, more of the possession to their opponents. This did open up more space for Ajax’ offensive midfield to operate in, but Ajax gradually seemed to run out of power to fully take advantage of these options.

Their best spell was probably around the hour mark, when Ajax produced three quick shots on target in succession, which were also their first ones on target. All three of these arose from situations where either a central defender (Vertonghen) or a full-back (Van der Wiel) provided the finish or the key pass.

De Boer’s first substitution, carried out around the 70th minute mark, exactly like in the Heracles match a few days ago, tackled exactly Ajax’ main problem area. Anita replaced Janssen, who, as described above, had a tough time receiving passes at feet due to Grenier’s excellent man-marking duties. Another major problem for Janssen in his presumed deep-lying playmaker role was the difficulty to reach Siem de Jong and Christian Eriksen who were well shielded by Lyon’s numerical advantage in midfield.

After substituting Janssen, both De Jong and Eriksen were seen to collect the ball from slightly deeper positions and Ajax’ distribution showed more variety. Partly as a result of this, the game opened up a bit more, with both sides being presented more scoring opportunities, where they continued to display their troubles to find the target.

 

In the end

Overall, both sides produced a fairly comparable amount and quality of goal scoring chances, making a draw a fair result. From a tactical standpoint it’s interesting to realize the different philosophy of creating these chances. Ajax aimed practically all of their build-ups at keeping possession, gradually attempting to build their way around Lyon’s packed midfield. Lyon, on the other hand, aimed to snatch upon the options presented as soon as Ajax lost possession in midfield.