Ajax 1 – 1 AC Milan: Recurrent midfield problems for Ajax

Posted on 7 October 2010

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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.

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Posted in: Champions League