What does Ajax’ central midfield do? An analysis of Ajax 1-1 PAOK… (first English contribution on 11tegen11)

Posted on 31 July 2010

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First of all, as you will have noticed by now, this post is written in English. Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about making the switch from a Dutch blog on Dutch football stuff to an English blog about Dutch football. The choice to come out with this English piece is in part meant to assess the feasibility of writing my analysis in English and in part meant to find out whether there is an audience to be served by writing in English instead of Dutch. So, please do speak up, let your opinion be heard in the comments section on this topic.

The three midfielder roles

That being said, let’s focus on the topic at hand here. Yesterday saw the release of this article at Zonal Marking. Another landmark piece indeed, focusing on the role of the passing midfielder in present days. Slowly consuming the concepts outlined by what is in my opinion the leading site on tactical football analysis available, I’ve decided to combine the focus of this article with my analysis of Ajax’ most recent game, their disappointing 1-1 draw at home in the Champions League Qualification match against PAOK Saloniki last wednesday.

Let me first summarize several points raised in this Zonal Marking article. The article focuses on the different types of midfield roles seen in modern 4-5-1 like formations. These formations comprise the recently exploded 4-2-3-1, it’s supposed to be rival 4-3-3 and well as more traditional 4-5-1 formations. These formations share the fact that, in order to create midfield dominance, one of the strikers is withdrawn to a central midfield role, thereby offering a 3 vs 2 advantage in the central part of the pitch. Previously, the central pairing of midfield players generally used to consist of some sort of a destroyer- creator combination with one of the players looking to regain possession by tackling opposition players or making well-timed interceptions. The other part of this pairing would look to get the strikers into dangerous plays through forward passes, combining technical skills and intelligence. This third midfielder, added to the destroyer- creator duo by switching from two-striker formations to 4-5-1 variants, what does he do exactly? This third midfielder is generally not too ‘visible’ during the game, however, he’s generally regarded as vital to the team’s success by his teammates. Think of the Makelele, Carrick, Busquets type of player. In order to dominate possession, this third midfielder is supposed to take up a passing role, doing everything needed to control possession. Generally his play is dominated by short, low-risk passes, rarely controlling the ball with more than a few touches. He adds to the destroyer-creator duo making it a destroyer-creator-passer trio. Again, courtesy to Zonal Marking for pointing all of this out.

The line-ups

Starting line-ups

With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to Ajax’ recent display against Greek outfit PAOK Saloniki. Ajax has been playing a regular 4-2-3-1 line-up for at least the duration of the reign of Martin Jol as manager. Their midfield trio fields an easily recognizable destroyer, a role generally taken up by Cameroen international Eyong Enoh. Their creator is never too hard to pick either, in this game young talent Siem de Jong, who broke into the regular line-up during last-years campaign, took up this role, frequently alternating positons with striker-for-a-day Miralem Sulejmani. The attacking flank roles were taken up by Uruguay’s Luis Suarez on the right and home-grown Urby Emanuelson on the left. This leaves one central midfield player unmentioned: Rasmus Lindgren in a role that is generally filled in by Demi de Zeeuw. The latter, however, still suffers from conditional problems after missing part of the pre-season training due to the facial injury induced by a rough challenge during the WC semi-final against Uruguay.

So, we’ve learned by now that the Ajax midfield should be described as Enoh-de Jong-Lindgren in a destroyer-creator-passer trio. Let’s focus on these players in describing the key moments of this match. It’s a pity that individual, nor overall, passing statistics are not available for this match.

The start of the game

The first fifteen minutes saw a dominant Ajax, with PAOK defending very deep, effectively only putting any sort of pressure when the ball was on their own half. Ball circulation was easy for Ajax, although PAOK succeeded in preventing supposed-to-be passer Lindgren from seeing a lot of the ball, man-marking him out and leaving Enoh unmarked. However, the lack of any sort of pressure meant that this was no problem during this phase of the match. Ajax scored 1-0 in the 13th minute through a Suarez bicycle kick giving them an easy start of the game. PAOK leaving their extremely deep line after this early opening goal effectively meant more space to play for Ajax’ creative quartet upfront. This resulted in a fairly one-sided affair, and Ajax only had itself to blame for not leading by more than 1-0 at half time. This game of Ajax dominating possession was in fact continued immediately after half time with the three midfield players nicely tending to their respective roles.

In this screen you can see that passer Lindgren (orange) takes up a free position, offering wing back Anita an easy passing option. Creator Sulejmani (yellow), for the moment switching positions with Siem de Jong, makes a run to create the necessary depth in play and destroyer Enoh (red) is well positioned, should PAOK win the ball unexpectedly.

Things started to take a turn after about an hour into the match. It looked like manager Martin Jol was not assured to enter the second leg having to defend a narrow 1-0 lead. Demi de Zeeuw, a regular first team player, was brought on to replace Rasmus Lindgren. And he started to take up more advanced positions, looking to bring the attacking quartet into play instead of preferring possession over forward directed passes, like Lindgren evidently did in the first hour of the game.

And this immediately led to the problems depicted in the second screen. Here we see central defender Jan Vertonghen in possession, dribbling into the space vacated by de Zeeuw (orange) taking up a more advanced position. Destroyer Enoh meanwhile controls the potential danger posed by Ivic and de Jong (yellow), takes up a creator position, demanding the ball in a central attacking position.

I suppose we all know by now that de Zeeuw easily squanders possession here, which is the very last thing a passer should do. This kicks off PAOK’s killing counter attack, leading to the equalizer.

In conclusion

So, in general, we’ve seen the ‘classic’ trio of destroyer-creator-passer at work here, which led to an Ajax dominated game, until they took too many risks after subbing on Demi de Zeeuw. In fact Ajax switched to a destroyer-creator-creator type of midfield, unfortunately paying the price. And this could be quite some price indeed…

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Posted in: Champions League