Tag Archives: Double Pivot

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.

Real Madrid 2 – 0 Ajax : Big Real makes Ajax look very small

Ajax’much awaited return to the Champions League turned out to be a big deception in their first Group Stage match against the stars of Real Madrid. Although the final 2-0 score-line made it look like a football match, it was in fact a very one-sided affair. Real dominated all areas of the pitch, creating an impressive number of 33 goal-scoring chances and if it was not for Maarten Stekelenburg’s excellent goalkeeping, Ajax would never have come away with only two goals conceded.

Real came to this match of the back of a mediocre performance, earning them a 1-0 home victory against mid-table team Osasuna last weekend, where their narrow attack often played into the hands of their opponents stubborn defensive 4-2-3-1 formation. In the game against Ajax, Karim Benzema was dropped to the bench in favour of winger Angel di Maria, their most expensive summer acquirement who was transferred from Benfica for a mere 25 million. The only other change was a forced one as right-back Sergio Ramos was injured and replaced by Alvaro Arbeloa.

Ajax’ 4-2-3-1 going to a 4-4-2 diamond, opening up Real”s playground

Ajax missed two influential players due to suspensions after their hard-fought battles with PAOK and Dynamo Kiev. Captain and top-scorer Suarez and vice-captain Jan Vertonghen were replaced by Miralem Sulejmani and experienced centre-back André Ooijer. Their system was anticipated to be their regular 4-2-3-1 albeit with a more defensive lookout. However, during the match Enoh appeared to be the only genuine holding midfielder with his supposed-to-be-partner de Zeeuw often postioned higher up the pitch, in a failed attempt to disrupt the passing game of Real’s holding midfielders Khedira and Xabi Alonso.

The wandering postion of Miralem Sulejmani brought a lot of imbalance to Ajax’ formation too. He was expected to figure as a right winger, but was seen to be roaming around quite freely, even ending up on the left side of the pitch quite frequently. Ajax’ theoretical 4-2-3-1 was made to look like a 4-4-2 diamond with Sulejmani wandering around striker El Hamdaoui and de Zeeuw’s advanced position made him look like a right sided midfielder. The lack of right wing pressure liberated Real’s left-back Marcelo from all defensive constraints and allowed him to freely join Real’s attacking play. As a consequence, Ajax’ right-back van der Wiel was constantly overrun by the pair of Christiano Ronaldo and Marcelo. Where in Ajax’ regular Eredivisie matched the inside right winger role creates a lot of space for Van der Wiel to exert his attacking qualities, against superior quality opposition this idea backfired on Ajax and as a consequence 43% of Real’s attacks came through their left wing, compared to 27% through the right.

Let’s look at the positional diagram of Ajax provided by the excellent ESPN gamechart function (if only they’d correct their left-right switch for once!). On first look one would think that Ajax’ attack must have been extreme narrow, however, bear in mind that manager Jol decided to switch Urby Emanuelson to the right wing and Sulejmani to the left wing at half time, making their average position look very central. The main concern illustrated by this diagram is Ajax’ lack of either a second holding midfielder, or a compact triangle of midfielders, like for example in a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 system.

Ajax’ average positions showing Enoh’s (nr. 6) isolated position and De Zeeuw’s (nr. 20) rather advanced central position (ESPN Gamecast reverses left and right!)

With Ajax lacking numbers in central defensive midfield, Real was offered a playground to display their excellent off-the-ball movement and superior technical ability. Compare Ajax’ single pivot in defensive midfield with Osasuna’s double pivot and suddenly you understand why Osasuna succeeded in frustrating Real’s play with 27 (!) fouls, compared to Ajax’ 7 fouls. It may seem strange to use the number of fouls as a means of illustrating successful play, but the lack of defensive fouls by Ajax indicated that they were never close to disrupting their opponent’s game. In the end, Osasuna succeeded in giving away ‘only’ seven shots on target compared to Ajax’ 14. It may not have brought beauty to the game, but a dedicated second holding midfielder is by now considered of so much value to the game that it’s hard to understand why, especially in an away match against superior opposition Ajax decided not to play one.

If Ajax’ plan would have been to disrupt Real’s passing higher up the pitch than a simple look at the passing statistics, provided by the UEFA website, proves the failure of this plan. Apart from Real’s dedicated attackers (Ronaldo – Özil – de Maria ; Higuain), all of their players (including goalkeeper Casillas) achieved a higher pass completion than Ajax’best passer Ooijer (84%). A better illustration of the complete lack of Ajax pressure does not exist.

In conclusion, Ajax failed to choose between two formations that would have provided them with more defensive stability in an away match against technical superior opposition and paid the price for it. A genuine 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot in defensive midfield playing quite close to a defensive line of four would have allowed Ajax to limit space in central midfield and prevent Real from creating a numerical superiority with inside wingers in this essential area of the pitch. The second option would have been to deploy a defensive 4-1-4-1, which has previously been advocated as the small teams’ answer to the big team’s 4-2-3-1. In a 4-1-4-1 the midfield triangle, composed of two central midfielders close in front of one holding midfielder, would aim to control the essential space in front of the defense.

By giving up their second holding midfielder and playing with a vacated right wing, Ajax played into the hands of Real Madrid. This produced an extremely one-sided  affair that must have leave Ajax’ fans quite disappointed. However, let’s not forget that these tactical shortcomings played a big role in offering Real Madrid an excellent playground to make Ajax look very small.