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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.

Ajax 0 – 4 Real Madrid: Outclassed in every aspect of the game

If not for the UEFA millions of the Champions League, Ajax won’t have anything to look back on once these group stage games are done with. Their game against Real Madrid saw them outclassed in every department, highlighted to the extreme by the unique fact of two Madrid players purposefully upgrading their yellow cards to reds by delaying taking a free kick and a goal kick. The video of this sequence of events might serve to illustrate the gap between Europe’s top teams and a struggling Dutch top team at the moment. Tactics hardly played a role in the game, such was the difference in sheer player quality.


Ajax’ 4-2-3-1

The starting line-ups

Much, perhaps too much has been said on this side about Ajax’ tactics recently. Referring to the recent analysis after the home defeat against ADO, Jol definitely misses balance in his team currently. This was further illustrated in the home draw against PSV where the midfield positioning was debatable once again.

Against Real, Ajax kept on playing the same formation as always. Let’s keep on calling it a 4-2-3-1, although the advanced positions of De Jong and De Zeeuw give the formation a 4-2-4 outlook at times. This time Urby Emanuelson was drafted into a defensive midfield role beside Eyong Enoh. It clearly unsettled Emanuelson who, unsurprisingly, did not have the best of games in an unfamiliar position, having to face top class opposition.


Real’s 4-2-3-1

The huge gap in quality between the sides could not have been illustrated better than by them playing the same formation. This generally favours the better team and tonight was no exception. In contrast to Ajax, Real’s defensive midfielders put in a magnificent effort. Especially Lassana Diarra, completing 91% of his 56 passes and winning countless tackles in the centre of the pitch, drove his team on. Together with Xabi Alonso he was responsible for over a quarter of Real’s passing, illustrating their dominance in the center of the pitch.


The match

As has been said in the introduction to this analysis, tactics hardly came to effect as this was a match between two very unevenly matches teams right from the start. What Ajax could have done was to take this as a fact and go for a well-grouped compact defense, which, initially they did to some extent. It may or may not have been the influence of Emanuelson in this role, but Ajax’ defensive midfield played in close proximity to their defensive line, thereby decreasing the need for a pushed up defensive line that proved costly in earlier matches, for example the home match against Milan. In the screen below, Real illustrates Ajax how to position yourself in a 4-2-3-1 when in possession: wide in attack, compressing space at the back and above all, keeping both defensive midfielders withdrawn. This very important aspect of their positioning allowed Alonso and Diarra to receive the ball at feet in a zone away from Ajax’ pressing.

Real's demonstration of a 4-2-3-1: defenders are red, defensive midfielders orange, attacking midfielders / wingers yellow and the striker blue. Note the strechted attack and the deep position of the defensive midfielders, which allows them space to receive the ball at feet.

But as the match carried on, Ajax got seduced into playing along with their opponents. Emanuelson, initially offering a welcome defensive minded partnership with Enoh, got involved higher up the pitch and Ajax got caught out at the back by the technical superiority of Cristiano Ronaldo and his team mates.


The opening goal and more

After conceding the opening goal, just over half an hour into the match, the match felt practically over. By then Ajax had not managed a single shot on target, which in fact would just be what they managed to create, a single shot on target. Real got their game going and the difference in quality between the sides was obvious from every move. One thing to note here was the fact that, again, Ajax conceded from an indirect free kick, like for example the painful second goal away at Auxerre.

Real’s quick follow-up with a second goal, albeit from a deflected free kick, ensured that the match was in fact over indeed. Beyond this, Ajax was unable to provide the slightest of hope to turn the match around and it was all about Cristiano Ronaldo and his mates from there on.


A bizarre end to the match

Not so much of tactical value, but too bizarre to leave unmentioned here was the closing phase of this match. José Mourinho clearly seemed to instruct first Xabi Alonso and then Sergio Ramos to ‘upgrade’ their yellow cards to reds by having them purposefully delaying the taking of a free kick and a goal kick that long that the referee could hardly do anything else than hand the players a second yellow card. Their direct red means a suspension for the final match of the group stages, leaving them with a clean sheet for the knock-out phase. If the UEFA does not interfere here, which they might certainly do, given that the players clearly showed unsportsmanlike conduct.

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.