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Spartak Moscow – Ajax 3 – 0: A broken formation

Ajax went into this game, knowing that they needed to turn up the efficiency after their profligacy of the first leg, leading to a 0-1 loss with a goal scoring chances ratio of 17 to 3. But at the half hour mark they saw themselves two goals down and the game was virtually over. Spartak’s initial pressing dislodged Ajax formation and the home team took excellent advantage.


The line-ups

The starting line-ups

As indicated in the preview to this game, Ajax played their familiar 4-3-3 line-up with just one change compared to the first leg. High-flying goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg fractured his thumb in training, has been operated this week and might not make it back into Ajax’ first team before the end of the season. And with a presumed transfer this summer, he might just have played his last match for the club. On other news, striker Mounir El Hamdaoui still isn’t part of Ajax’ first team squad, after falling out big time with manager de Boer on disciplinary issues.

Spartak started the first leg without pace striker Welliton, Russia’s top scorer of the past season, but he has returned from full fitness and featured in the starting eleven for this game. This means that Artem Dzjuba started from the bench. Another first team regular that returned to the starting eleven was defender Aleksandr Sheshukov, who filled in for Marek Suchy, as the young Czech was suspended after his yellow card in Amsterdam.


Opening phase pressing

In the opening fifteen minutes Spartak pressed heavily and this seemed to take Ajax by surprise. Almost being pressed over their own back line, Ajax’ ball retention was awful and Spartak completely dominated the game. A tell tale of Spartak’s heavy pressing was the frequent involvement of both full-backs during this phase of the game. As if to illustrate this, it was left-back Makeev who was presented with the best early goal scoring opportunity during this phase, but his shot was well blocked by third choice goalkeeper Jeroen Verhoeven.

As is generally the case, this intense level of pressing started to fade around the ten to fifteen minute mark. But this time Spartak did not just fade away in terms of pressing, they seemed to deliberately switch off the pressing and trade it for a deeper stance. The huge contrast between the first and second fifteen minutes and the sudden transition in pressure around the fifteen minute mark could be indicators of a deliberate choice to stop pressing at this intense level. And should this have been a deliberate move by Karpin, it was a game-winning one.


Ajax’ broken formation

In a sense, Ajax never recovered from this early Spartak pressing episode. Their defensive line was pressed to a deep stance early on, but never recovered when the face of the game changed. When Spartak took a more patient approach, Ajax naturally started dominating possession for a while. During this second fifteen minutes of the game Spartak absorbed and neutralized Ajax’ game perfectly, playing a well organized and compact zonal unit, consisting of the back four and the two holding midfielders, Ibson and Carioca. This ensured that in this vital area of the pitch they were always sure to outnumber Ajax’ attackers.

And the key problem for Ajax in this phase was that their defensive line did not adjust accordingly. They maintained a relatively deep position, perhaps in the wake of Welliton’s pace on the counter attack, allowing Spartak way too much space in front of Ajax’ own defense. Vurnon Anita had his hands full man-marking Alex, and any drifting by the Spartak playmaker opened up acres of space for any midfielder to run into.


A matter of time

With Ajax’ formation laid out in broken fashion, it was only a matter of time before they would start conceding. And in quick succession they did. Around the half hour mark Ajax had conceded two goals and, miracles beside, the game was over. The remaining part of the first half consisted of Spartak sitting comfortably on their lead and the young Ajax team dazing to the half time whistle.


Second half changes

Ajax started the second half with two substitutions. Enoh and Özbiliz replaced Blind and Sulejmani, moving Anita to the left-back position. But these individual changes  could never cure the bigger problem of the broken formation that lead to the 2-0 half time score line.

In addition to the two substitutions, Blind also moved both central midfielders, Eriksen and De Zeeuw, into a more advanced position, effectively changing the 4-3-3 to an offensive 4-1-4-1 variant. And this immediately brought more balance to the game, although the fact that Spartak took their foot off the gas given their comfortable lead, must be taken into account in no small part too.

The support lent by De Zeeuw to Eriksen in the offensive midfield role allowed Ajax more passing options amid the compact block formed by Spartak’s defensive unit: the back-line and the two holding midfielders. Furthermore, by creating what was in effect a line of four right behind striker De Jong, the 4-1-4-1 formation reduced the changes of Spartak playing around Ajax’ high pressing midfielders, a situation that led to a lot of problems in the first half. On top of these changes, Ajax played a higher line, partly forced by the fact that they had to score no less than three goals in order to advance.

Despite the more balanced game, Spartak finished the game off at the hour mark with a nice long range direct free kick. Playmaker Alex curled the ball into the far post, beyond the reaching arms of Verhoeven.


In the end

While the first leg loss may be interpreted as an unlikely outcome of a match that Ajax dominated, this second leg affair was a very different story. Spartak’s early intense pressing seemed to catch Ajax by surprise, and particularly the sudden switch to a more patient game led to a broken Ajax formation. The acres of space conceded in front of the defensive line were far too much for single holding midfielder Anita to cover by himself, as he also had a strict man-marking job on playmaker Alex to do.

By the time De Boer had come to address these issues, Ajax were already a decisive two goals down and in the end the 3-0 score line reflected the fact that Spartak outwitted and outplayed Ajax today.

Ajax 0 – 1 Spartak: Pressing and chances, but a loss nonetheless

Outplaying your opponent for ninety percent of the match, yet still ending up on the wrond end of the score. It’s not the first time such a turn of events happened to Ajax. They managed to impress with their possession-based high pressing game and creating a fair share of chances along the way, but despite the 20 – 3 advantage in terms of goal scoring chances, Ajax failed to find a way past Spartak goalkeeper Dikan.


The line-ups

Ajax lined up, as expected in the preview of this game, with the same starting eleven that comfortably beat AZ in the weekend before. Well aware of Spartak’s counter attacking threat, manager Frank de Boer was quoted saying: “we start to pressure to get the ball back as quick as possible. Pressing left, right, above and below. Always and everywhere. That’s what I say to my players”.

The starting line-ups.

Spartak’s formation was different to the one presented in the preview on two occasions. Up front Welliton was not deemed fit enough to start, after recent injury and was replaced, just like in the Basel matches, by Dzjuba. Furthermore, holding midfielder Sheshukov started from the bench, allowing Brazilian midfielder Ibson to feature beside his compatriot Carioca in defensive midfield.


The first half

As expected, Ajax dominated possession right from the kick-off. With a quick ball circulation and stretching their attack wide, they succeeded in creating a few early chances too. Spartak was limited to defending in their own one-third of the pitch and any potential breaks were broken up early on, with a particularly good performance by Vurnon Anita as Ajax’ holding midfielder.

Despite that, Ajax struggled to put Dikan to the test, as most shots were either from outside of the box, or just off target. In the end, the Spartak goalkeeper did a good job clearing a lot of balls from his goal mouth. The pattern of play repeated itself over and over as Ajax had Spartak pressed thus far in their won half that they had an easy job regaining possession.

While this may sound like Spartak did not stand a chance during the first half, in reality both teams were playing in their comfort zone. Admittedly, this applied somewhat more to Ajax as there were more goal scoring chances than Spartak manager Karpin would have liked, but conceding only a limited number fouls, Spartak kept their tight defensive shape quite well. On top of that, their deep defensive line limited Ajax’ option of playing one of their preferred passes, the Vertonghen cross pass to Sulejmani in behind the opponents’ defense.


The second half

In contrast with the first half, Spartak took a more advanced stance in the beginning of the first half. Pressing Ajax around the midline now, they seemed to catch their Dutch opponents by surprise. Ajax suddenly had a tough time passing the ball into their midfield with all of a sudden too many men in front of the ball. Spartak easily dominated possession during an (afterward) crucial spell of the game, the first ten minutes of the second half.

While in the first half, the frequent runs from deep by both Eriksen and de Zeeuw contributed to the variety in Ajax’ pattern of attacks, during this spell, with Spartak exerting pressure on the central defenders and Anita, it proved counterproductive. Ajax suffered from a vacated central midfield and lost possession early on in some build-up moves.

On one of these occasions, Ajax suffered a goal in a short moment where Anita, who had an otherwise excellent game, lost sight of Spartak’s playmaker Alex.  In possession on the edge of the box, the Brazilian did an excellent job firing the ball past Stekelenburg into goal at the far post. Manager Karpin already had his substitution lined up and proceeded with it. Welliton entered the pitch with Ison leaving. This moved striker Dzjuba to the advanced midfielder / second striker role and match winner Alex to the second holding midfielder position.


Chances, though no goals

Despite having acquired their desired away goal, Spartak did not retreat like they did in the first half. They maintained the level of pressing they had had success with during the first spell of the second half and Ajax kept on having a tough time breaking their opponents down. It took until the final ten minutes for goalkeeper Dikan to definitely claim his man-of-the-mach award as he consistently kept on clearing all Ajax attempts.


In the end

Despite dominating for most of the match, Ajax was left empty handed at the final whistle. Manager de Boer sounded happy enough with most of the performance by his team, and, based on the first half display, rightly so. But not finishing any of the 20 chances created meant a painful 0-1 defeat results-wise. Particularly for a team that sold top scorer Suarez during the winter break and did not play his replacement, El Hamdaoui, after disciplinary issues.

After a dominant first half performance, Ajax seemed to be surprised by the different Spartak approach of the second half. In the end took them too long to adjust to this higher pressing, as Spartak took full advantage of this short dominant spell.

Tactical preview of Ajax – Spartak Moscow

Ajax’ season so far

Since the appointment of Frank de Boer as manager of Ajax on December 6, 2010, things have definitely changed at the Amsterdam ArenA. His predecessor Martin Jol often had Ajax playing in a pragmatic 4-2-3-1 formation, relying on two holding midfielders to cover for the wing-backs, who bombed forward to provide width to the narrow inside wingers formation. Ajax relied heavily on the creative input of Luis Suarez and often sat back, rather than playing the characteristic high pressing game.

Frank de Boer

De Boer’s arrival coincided with the departure of Luis Suarez, as the club could make an great deal, at least business-wise, by selling him to Liverpool for 26.5 million euro. And from a tactical perspective, things changed quite a bit too. De Boer, a home grown Ajax man, started with what is generally considered to be ‘the Ajax style’. Typical characteristics are the consequent 4-3-3 formation, wide wingers and a high pressing game.

With these principles, results immediately picked up for De Boer. After a 9-5-3 (win-draw-lose) first half of the Eredivisie season under Jol, Ajax continued to a 6-2-1 streak under De Boer, only drawing the difficult away games at Roda and PSV and losing in an odd off-day at Utrecht. On top of that, Ajax’ morale was strengthened by an unexpected 2-0 away victory against AC Milan in the final Champions League group stage match and the double victory over Anderlecht in the first Europa League knock-out round. Meanwhile, Ajax reached the Dutch Cup final, where they will play Twente.


Spartak’s season so far

As the Russian football season has only just begun, Spartak played only three matches so far, two Europa League matches, with unbelievable comebacks, against Basel and one in the Russian Cup against Sibir, a team well-known after their sensational 1-0 win on PSV. Only in the latest match against Sibir, Spartak had no problems in defense. This line is definitely the wekaest line in their team.

Without serious transfers during the winter, manager Valery Karpin still doesn’t have enough high-class players in defense.  The recent arrival of centre-back Marcos Rojo, who recently made his debut in the Argentine national team, is a good addition, but he will still have problems adapting to the squad.

In the match against Sibir the one and only hope for good defense was to pair two defensive midfielders, a move that in fact turned out quite well as they succeeded in winning every ball after long Sibir’ passes to their lone striker.

An important player for Spartak will be the Brazilian striker Welliton, who can be expected to return to the team just in time for the match, after coming back from injury. His presence is of prima importance for Spartak’s offensive approach.


Ajax’ formation

The expected starting line-ups. Note the mirror images that Ajax' 4-3-3 and Spartak's 4-2-3-1 produce.

Expect Ajax to line up in their characteristic 4-3-3 formation and expect them, particularly at home, to play a possession-dominant high pressing game. The choice of the starting eleven has been quite consistent throughout De Boer’s matches so far, but recently the holding midfielder role has been given to Vurnon Anita over Cameroon international Eyong Enoh. While Enoh offered huge commitment in the tackling department, Anita offers a superior passing game.

Up front, Mounir El Hamdaoui has fallen out of favor big time, after a half-time clash with De Boer during Ajax semi-final Cup win over second tier RKC. The Moroccan striker, Ajax’ biggest acquisition at the beginning of the season, ended up being substituted and was relegated to the youth squad until further notice. His place in the lone striker role will be filled in by Siem de Jong, who offers an important back-to-goal presence in the lone striker role and his excellent team work skills will help him bring others into play. Look out for the well-timed runs from deep from both Christian Eriksen and Demi de Zeeuw from the central midfield positions.


Spartak’s formation

Spartak’s formation is usually described as 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1.

In the centre of midfield feature either two defensive midfielders (Sheshukov and Ibson or Carioca) with attacking-minded Alex completing the midfield three, or Sheshukov can play as single defensive midfielder with Alex and Jano (or Ari, the former AZ player) as two more offensive central midfielders, like Spartak played in the home match against Basel. Spartak’s wingers deserve a mention too. Aiden McGeady, the best Spartak player so far, has excellent dribbling skills and a good vision of the game. McGeady often tends to drift inside during Spartak’s attacks, supporting the striker. Dmitry Kombarov, is a less versatile player, who often plays as a classic winger in 4-4-2.

Artem Dzyuba has featured as the lonely striker in all matches so far, and he has performed well. He often drops deeper, and plays a false nine role, creating free space to be exploited by his team mates, like for example Ari in the recent Cup match against Sibir. But Welliton’s return means that Dzyuba will be dropped to the bench, and Spartak’s approach in attack will be more straightforward, using Welliton’s pace and Alex’ passing ability. If Ajax should succeed to mark Alex and Welliton well, it will be hard games for Spartak.

As said, Spartak has most problems in their defensive line, and particularly with the full-backs. Makeev is a young and inexperienced player, and both full-backs had a lot of problems against Sibir and may be expected to have more problems with Ajax’ wingers.


Ajax players to look out for

Jan Vertonghen

The strong Belgian centre-back, a product of Ajax’ excellent youth academy, is an essential element in Ajax’ firm home defense. Since the appointment of De Boer as Ajax manager, the Vertonghen-led defense has kept a clean sheet in an impressive 10 out of 13 games.

Christian Eriksen

The young Dane is without a doubt the brightest talent in this young Ajax squad. Already having played 11 matches for the Danish national team and still just 19 years old, his star definitely started shining under De Boer’s management. While under Jol he was often used in a substitute role, playing from the left wing, for Frank de Boer Eriksen is a key players in his starting eleven. He is Ajax’ central midfield playmaker, and one to keep an interest in for the coming years.

Rising star Christian Eriksen

Miralem Sulejmani

‘The most expensive player in Dutch football history’. That tag proved almost fatal to Sulejmani’s game at Ajax. Purchased for no less than 16 million euro from Heerenveen in 2008, the Serbian wing player had a tough time finding his feet in the ArenA. But over the past months, his pace definitely picked up and he is in excellent form going into the Spartak game. His lightning pace and clinical finish are his biggest weapons.


Spartak players to look out for

Aiden McGeady

Irish international McGeady, who made the brave decision to join Spartak from Celtic in the summer of 2010, is full of determination to prove his name in European games. And what better stage for him to perform that in the Europa League with Spartak? He rejected Aston Villa offer, and choose Russia – and Red-White fans love him for that from the first day. He is not the archetypical British winger, but rather enjoys every moment with the ball and doesn’t prefer the cross. When he’s in possession, and his team mates know by now, he will do something special.

Welliton and McGeady


Last season’s top scorer in the Russian competition is ready to return to action, you be he’s motivated to show himself to the world, as are Alex and McGeady. With his pace, he is a dangerous player, and on top of that his technique and finishing are great. He has been voted the best player of Spartak in 2010 by the fans and there are many rumors at the moment that Russia might adopt him to play for the national squad.

Andrey Dikan

He is the best goalkeeper Spartak has had in the last five years. Calm and solid, he will instill confidence in his inexperienced defenders. He is already 34 years old, but still is one of the most underrated players in Russia, and it is in matches like these that he can show that he is a really good goalkeeper.

This contribution to 11tegen11 was partly guest-written by Russian tactical blogger Eugeny Shevelev. You can find him on Twitter as @shevelevee or visit his blog here.