Ajax adapted their formation to finally find the right solution to the problems that Auxerre’s 4-4-1-1 caused them. Unfortunately it was too little too late for Ajax, as Auxerre managed to win through a deflected shot and a debatable offside situation in a quickly taken free-kick.
During their confrontation in Amsterdam, Auxerre confirmed their status of a defensive minded team. On paper playing a 4-4-1-1, the deep role of central attacking midfielder Contout turned their formation in a flat 4-5-1. Up until the red card for Ajax defender André Ooijer, Ajax had a firm grip on the game and even after this moment, although at some point they switched to a 4-4-2 by introducing Queria, Auxerre was never the team to take the initiative.
Tonight Ajax misses veteran centre-back Ooijer, after his red card in the previous match. Judged on the basis of the past few weeks he seems to have made it to Jol’s preferred first eleven over Toby Alderweireld and Oleguer. Tonight it’s the young Belgian replacing him again and he’ll surely be looking to regain his place in the heart of Ajax’ defense.
Further switches have been made in Ajax midfield. During the past few weeks, Ajax’ midfield three was composed of Eyong Enoh and Rasmus Lindgren in a holding role with Siem de Jong playing the man-in-the-hole role. At times, de Jong’s role was occupied by Demi de Zeeuw, previously used in a holding role, but held responsible for the positional indiscipline that contributed to the disappointing result of the away match at Real Madrid . When used in the attacking midfielder position, like in the previous match against Auxerre, de Zeeuw flourishes in a quite advanced role like a ‘false nr. 10’, looking to connect with El Hamdaoui’s ‘false nine’ tendency.
Auxerre misses first choice striker Jelen for a longer period now, but his replacement Oliech is suspended after his red card in the previous match with Ajax. Tonight Julien Quercia, subbed on in the previous match, is granted a rare start. Behind him, an even more rare starter features in an attacking midfield role, Frédéric Sammaritano had only spent 54 minutes on the pitch this season, spread over five spells as a sub.
The first half
The match started out pretty much as expected, Ajax slightly dominated possession, but did not create any danger as yet with their ground play in attack. Auxerre looked happy to sit back a bit and look for quick breaks during which their relatively small (1.68m and 1.62m) attackers showed a good sense of movement early on, rather running at balls in space than receiving direct balls.
Like in the previous match between these teams, an early goal decided the tactical fate of the game. Auxerre managed to grab the lead, deservedly so, through a deflected shot by Sammaritano from just outside the area. From that moment on, they sat even deeper inside their own half, waiting for their breaks to come. With two teams playing different formations, most danger often occurs on predictable places. Auxerre’s rather deep wide midfielders were often able to receive the ball at feet and run at Ajax’ full-backs. Both Contout on the right and Birsa on the left took the opportunity at hand to create a lot of danger from this area.
A further contribution to the fact that Ajax’ play disappointed was clear from their first half passing stats. A team average 78% with an absolute number of 259 passes completed is definitely on the high side, but only 51 of those passes came from the attacking four players (Emanuelson 14, De Zeeuw 8, Suarez 18, El Hamdaoui 11). So it was quite clear that Ajax was able to pass the ball around quite freely among their back four and the two controlling midfielders, but as soon as an attacking move was made, they lost possession. The fact that De Zeeuw, in a position that should be dominant in a 4-2-3-1 completed only 8 of 13 passes is indicative of the fact that Ajax missed the link between midfield and attack in this phase.
A major determinant of this low pass completion in the opposing half is not the technical execution of the passes, but merely the fact that Ajax defended two attacking Auxerre players with no less than six defense minded players. In consequence, this left Auxerre eight outfield players to defend Ajax’ four attacking players. The passing stats become a lot more insightful when considering this tactical shortcoming.
The second half
At half-time Ajax manager Jol started his series of attacking substitutions. First off, Siem de Jong was introduced for the surplus second controlling midfielder Enoh. Moving de Zeeuw back a bit into a box-to-box midfielder role gave Ajax a slightly more attacking outlook, but their problem of overdefending was not solved yet.
This took until the second substitution, near the hour mark. Sulejmani was introduced for Anita, with Emanuelson moving to left-back. This meant that, in possession, Ajax moved their full-backs forward on the flank, effectively leaving only Lindgren and the centre-backs to defend Auxerre’s striker. With Ajax’ attacking numerical inferiority now solved, chances started to come in numbers.
Toby Alderweireld capitalized on one of a series of Ajax chances by heading home a Suarez cross for an equalizer that changing to the correct tactics deserved. Ajax went on and upped the pressure further, looking for the win rather than a single point. But instead it was Auxerre that got the win in the end. By smartly taking advantage of a quickly taken free-kick they managed to sneak in the winning goal through substitute striker Langil, who, despite receiving the ball in offside position, was allowed through on the Ajax goal.
In the end
Judging by the on-pitch action this might have seemed just one of those matches that Ajax seem to have and unfortunately their European campaign has been severely impeded over the past years by these kind of showings.
But taking a more tactical approach one might argue that it becomes time that Ajax starts to adapt their tactics to the opponent’s formation and playing style, rather than consequently try and impose their style on the opposing team. Ajax is by no means a defensive team, but having adopted the 4-2-3-1 system, the risk of overdefending against a team playing only two attacking players could have been foreseen. Playing six defensive minded players against a team very well known for their 4-4-1-1 is one example, but leaving space in front of the full-backs for the opposing wide midfielders to run onto is another. The importance of avoiding to overdefend could not have been better illiustrated than by the difference between Ajax’ first hour and the final half hour of the game. Unfortunately for Ajax, in the end Auxerre even managed to sneak a winning goal in, but hopefully this serves to make tonight’s lesson easier to remember in the future.