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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.

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.