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Anderlecht 0 – 3 Ajax: Impressive away victory with smart tactical moves

Frank de Boer’s Ajax managed a second impressive European away win in a row. After defeating Milan at the San Siro 0-2 in De Boer’s first match in charge of Ajax, Ajax added a second consecutive away win by defeating Anderlecht in their Constant Vandenstock Stadium. Although the second half penalty miss by Anderlecht was an important determinant for the match result, and perhaps even for the outcome of this tie, Ajax deservedly won on the basis of a series of smart tactical moves that gave them the upper hand for most of the game.

 

Two different 4-3-3’s

Going into this match everyone involved was certain this was going to be a nice affair. Two teams known for their attacking spirit, playing 4-3-3’s, that should guarantee some good goal scoring opportunities. And after all, for most people interested in football entertainment value is by and large determined on the basis of a close match with lots of scoring opportunities, isn’t it?

The starting line-ups. Two very different interpretations of the 4-3-3.

And two 4-3-3’s there were, albeit with a very different outlay and different tactical tweaks to them. Most notably, Anderlecht played a fluid, rather narrow front three, consisting of Lukaku and Suarez as the two most advanced strikers with Boussoufa roaming behind them as a trequartista, constantly drifting around the pitch in a free role. Ajax, on the contrary, play El Hamdaoui as their most advanced single striker with wingers Ebecilio and Sulejmani in wide roles and the both of them showed excellent defensive awareness, tucking in when needed, thereby converting Ajax’ 4-3-3 to a true 4-5-1 when needed.

 

The first half

The different lay-outs of the front three proved crucial to an understanding of the developments elsewhere on the pitch. Anderlecht’s front three were mostly picked up by Ajax’ centre-backs and holding midfielder, whereas Ajax’ front three, due to their wide wingers, had to be dealt with by Anderlecht’s full-backs and one of the centre-backs. This meant that Ajax had their full-backs as spare men at the back, tucking in when needed, to assist the centre-backs and holding midfielder in defense. In turn, Anderlecht saw their full-backs occupied with defensive tasks throughout most of the match.

Ajax smartly used this different set-up by having Blind and Van der Wiel making runs from deep, assisting wingers Ebecilio and Sulejmani, looking either to create two-versus-one situations here, or rather, to draw midfielders Kanu and Gillet out of position in order to create space in central midfield for Eriksen and De Jong.

 

Dealing with a single holding midfielder

As stated above, both sides played a 4-3-3, so they were characterized by a single holding midfielder, rather than the more defensive ‘double pivot’ in front of the defensive four. The way both teams tried to take advantage of this potential weakness of their opponent was quite different and more than worth a look.

Anderlecht played Boussoufa nominally in Enoh’s space in a role with loads and loads of positional freedom. In a man-marking system this might have simply  been enough to unsettle Enoh’s holding role, but in zonal marking systems, as probably all top flight teams would play using a single holding midfielder, things work slightly different. The roaming attacker would look to position himself either in close proximity of a team mate, looking for a two-versus-one situation, or look to fill in space created by a team mate.

While in theory a very nice concept, the fact that Ajax had spare men at the back at all times, their full-backs, meant the Enoh simply let Boussoufa go for most of the game, only picking him up in his own zone. Should Boussoufa drift very wide, one of the full-backs would pick him up and should he drift ‘semi-wide’, the full-back would tuck in and join the central defender, making it two-versus-two again.

The way Ajax looked to unsettle the single holding midfielder was slightly different, with special attention for El Hamdaoui. Although in for quite some stick recently, after his troubled first months under De Boer’s management and missing a final minutes penalty against Roda recently, Ajax striker El Hamdaoui played a crucial role in this match. He played a very intelligent false nine role throughout the game. El Hamdaoui’s false nine role forced Anderlecht’s centre-backs to make a choice whether to step out of the defensive line when El Hamdaoui dropped off, or to let him be dealt with by the holding midfielder.

Both of these situations were problematic though. A central defender stepping out with the full-backs occupied in wide positions would leave big holes in the defensive line for opposing attacking midfielders to make runs into. Leaving El Hamdaoui at the hands of Biglia, on the other hand, would see him overloaded, already facing Eriksen in that zone and not having Kanu and Gillet available to help out as they had to keep an eye on Ajax’ full-backs. In summary, Ajax overloaded Anderlecht’s midfield with advancing full-backs and a false nine striker.

Alderweireld (left, one assist and one goal) and Eriksen (two assists, one goal)

The goals

Although Ajax did not dominate the game in terms of the amount of possession or chances created or even shots on goal, the concepts outlined above were enough to see them take full advantage. In truth, the strategy described above was a quite risky one, as for large parts of the game, with the full-backs venturing forward and Enoh keeping an eye on Boussoufa, Ajax played one-on-one in defense. And should Stekelenburg not have prevented Anderlecht from opening the score on several occasions during the first half hour, the game would have been different for sure. Finally, missing the early second half penalty at a 0-1 score proved crucial.

Ajax’ second goal stood out in particular as El Hamdaoui’s false nine role could not have been demonstrated any clearer. On top of that, this fine Ajax move involved the three stars of the night. Toby Alderweireld was not pressed by any of the Anderlecht strikers and picked out Eriksen in behind the defensive line with an excellent long pass. The space for Eriksen was created by a text-book false nine run by El Hamdaoui, this time drawing one of the Anderlecht centre-backs from the defensive line.

Ajax 2 – 1 Auxerre: A false nine and a false nr. 10

The double confrontation with AJ Auxerre from France will be decisive on Ajax’ European Football campaign this season. Having faced world class teams Real Madrid and AC Milan in the first two matches, Ajax will have to defend a one point lead over Auxerre to hold onto the third place in Group G of the UEFA Champions League, and to qualify for the knockout stages of the Europa League.

Ajax in Europe

Ajax’ return to the highest level of European club football was certainly  a disappointing affair, mainly personified by Demi de Zeeuw whose tactical indiscipline contributed to the substandard performance in Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium. It could have been a disastrous score line, if not for goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, who by now has the dubious honour to have made the most saves in the group stages of the Champions League.

Ajax regrouped for the home match against Milan, although again de Zeeuw’s tendency to take up advanced midfield positions hindered their game. Furthermore, Ajax played a high pressing game with a very advanced defensive line. While they did succeed in winning some dangerous balls higher up the pitch early on, the passing skills of Pirlo and Seedorf also meant that Ajax suffered fron dangerous through-balls and balls over the top. The final score of 1-1 in that match meant that Ajax took a valuable point from a confrontation that could just as easy have ended in a loss, but with direct rivals Auxerre still empty-handed after their matches against Real and Milan, the prospect of finishing third in this group still looks good.

Auxerre

Auxerre may not be one of the best known clubs in France, well-informed Ajax fans may remember the club from a famous incident in Ajax’ goalkeeping history. In the 1993 UEFA Cup quarter final it was Stanley Menzo who pushed a corner into his own net, ending up losing his first team place to a young Edwin van der Sar.

Auxerre has had a troubled start to this year’s Lique 1 campaign, to say the least and are ranked 17th after winning only 1 of their first nine matches. Apart from the victory over rock-bottem Arles-Avignon, they’ve only scores seven goals in the remaining eight matches and playing home crowds of less than 10,000 people, they’ve not managed a single home victory so far.

Tactics beforehand

The starting line-ups

Despite their disappointing Ligue 1 season so far, defeating Zenit St. Petersburg 2-1 on aggregate in the Champions League qualification may serve to remind of the power of this French team. Generally playing a 4-4-1-1 formation they are known for their defensive stability and will look to create danger from set pieces. Against Zenit, two goals from corners brought them a 2-0 home victory, compensating for the 1-0 away loss.

Ajax plays an inside wingers  4-2-3-1. With attacking midfielder Siem de Jong suffering from a hamstring injury and Uruguayan international Lodeiro still looking to regain match fitness after being injured himself too, manager Jol opted for de Zeeuw in the advanced midfielder role, rather than attacking midfielder Eriksen. Against Auxerre he featured in the same role.

An early goal

Immediately from the kick-off, it was clear that Auxerre would retreat in their own half, making their 4-4-1-1 look very much like a true 4-5-1 formation. Ajax dominated possession and with de Zeeuw in an extremely advanced position played a 4-2-4 formation when in possession during the early stages of the match.

One thing that characterizes Ajax’ interpretation of the 4-2-3-1 is El Hamdaoui’s false nine role. Often leaving the striker area to receive the ball at feet he succeeds in creating spaces in the opposition’s central defense by dragging his marker out of position. Tonight this was accompanied by the advanced role that de Zeeuw occupied, playing like a ‘false nr. 10’ by moving into the striker role. At times this left the compact Auxerre defense in uncertainty and upon re-watching Ajax’ early opening goal, El Hamdaoui’s movement springs to mind as an essential element in the build up to this goal.

Ajax dominating the first half

Stengthened by their early lead, Ajax effectively dominated the twenty minutes of the game. This was about the time it took for Auxerre to regroup and position themselves in a position to exert any pressure on Ajax’ midfield. In the second part of the first half Auxerre succeeded in putting more pressure on Ajax’ controlling midfielders Lindgren and Enoh. This resulted in the fact that de Zeeuw’s advanced position became more of a nuisance to Ajax’ game. With the controlling midfielders lacking a creative midfielder within passing range in front of them, Ajax’ play became more predictable and a sharp decrease in pass completion was the result.

Auxerre still didn’t pose much of an attacking threat, effectively committing only Oliech forward in a lone striker role and keeping Contout on their midfield still. Just before half-time Ajax succeeded in combining through Auxerre’s left flank to score the important second goal. Luis Suarez finished a nice team move where de Zeeuw and El Hamdaoui deserve part of the credit for their passing skill involved in the move.

Half-time changes

Though not reflected in substitutions, a few half-time changes were definitely made. Ajax manager Jol made de Zeeuw play a bit deeper, and Ajax’ familiar 4-2-3-1 shape allowed for a better passing game. Auxerre did advance their wing players bit by bit, slowly building up to a 4-2-3-1 too.

Demi de Zeeuw, Ajax’ false nr. 10, after his opening goal

While Ajax seemed to have had a firm grip on the game so far, things changed ten minutes into the second half as veteran centre-back André Ooijer chose to stop disrupt a goal scoring chance for striker Oliech by committing a cynical foul. He was rightfully dismissed and to see Birse score from the resulting direct free kick must have made his needless red card even more painful.

After the red card

Ajax turned to a 4-3-2 formation, playing El Hamdaoui and Suarez upfront and subbing winger Sulejmani off for another veteran centre-back, Oleguer this time. Auxerre manager Jean Fernandez brought an extra striker by replacing winger Chafni with Queria, changing his team to a 4-4-2 at that time.

Although Auxerre started dominating the game, they did not succeed in creating many goal scoring chances and their lack of firepower was perhaps best illustrated by Oliech truly weak ‘Hand of God’ imitation, leading to his second yellow card of the game, thereby leveling the number of players on the pitch to 10 v 10.

The remaining minutes of the game saw Ajax holding on to their 2-1 lead with the only curiousity coming from referee Benquerenca who handed a red card to one of Auxerre’s unused substitutes. Little it change to the game itself, which finished with a 2-1 score line.

In the end

Winning three points over Auxerre means that Ajax’ prospects of qualifying for the knockout stages of European Football look very good and given Milan’s beating in the Bernabeu they may still hope to prolong their display at the highest stage too.

On a tactical note, El Hamdaoui and de Zeeuw perform a nice combination of a ‘false nine’ and ‘false nr. 10’ role. The downside of playing the advanced midfielder in such an advanced position was however also illustrated in this match in Enoh’s and Lindgren’s passing problems during the second part of the first half.

Post-script

Here’s some data from the UEFA site worth sharing with regards to El Hamdaoui’s false nine role.

He made 51 pass attempts, completing 33 (65%) of them. That is a very high amount of passes for a lone striker to be involved in. And another, rather vague stat presented by this UEFA site is the highest scoring couples of players with regard to passes between them. In this top-7 El Hamdaoui features no less then four times, exchanging 22 passes with Suarez, 20 with Van der Wiel, 16 with Sulejmani and 16 with 16 Lindgren.

For your reference, Ibrahimovic and Higuain, made 28 and 17 pass attempts respectively and don’t show up in their team’s top-7 of players couples with the highest number of passes exchanged between them.

Here’s El Hamdaoui’s passing chalkboard of the Auxerre game. Note his involvement pratically all over the pitch. The number of passes differs slightly from the previously mentioned 51 as a different source is used here.

El Hamdaoui’s passes are spread among a large area of the pitch