The cream of European football clubs play their make-it-or-break-it matches during the beautiful month of may, competing in the final stages of the Champions League. On the contrary, for Ajax, despite having won that competition a mere 15 years ago, the most important matches nowadays take place in the month of August. Check out this excellent in-depth analysis of Ajax’ financial problems and it’s easy to realize that missing out on European Football would mean a catastrophe for the club. Well, in order to avoid this financial downfall Ajax needed at least a high scoring draw in their return match against Panthessalonikeios Athlitikos Omilos Konstantinoupoliton, or POAK Saloniki.
And this was exactly what they produced, with an excellent display upon returning after half time, converting a 1-0 PAOK lead into a comfortable 1-3, practically securing the desired Champions League play-off qualification. At that point in time PAOK needed three more goals and despite Ajax’ messy performance leading to a 3-3 draw, it was just enough to qualify.
Ajax started out with their familiar 4-2-3-1 line-up, with yet another lay-out upfront compared to the previous matches against PAOK at home and against Twente for the Johan Cruijff Schaal. Top scorer Luis Suarez was the leading striker this time, with Miralem Sulejmani on the right wing. The latter is by now at West Ham United, just a medical test away from a year long loan to the Premier League club. Urby Emanuelson again, was preferred on the left wing and Lindgren regained his fitness just in time to start beside Demi de Zeeuw in a controlling midfield role.
PAOK was essentially unchanged from their line-up in Amsterdam last week, keeping star player Zlatan Muslimovic out of the first eleven. Whether he deemed not fit enough to start or deemed a too attacking choice in combination with striker Salpingidis and playmaker Ivic remains of doubt. PAOK certainly set-out for some hard-core defending, transforming into a 4-1-4-1 line-up under Ajax’ pressure in the first few minutes.
Their shape is illustrated here. The two bands of four are easy to spot, with Vitolo in a destroyer midfield role, successfully marking Siem de Jong out of the game. This 4-1-4-1 line-up is reminiscent of Japans tactical plan during the last world cup, ensuring a defensive formation that proved very difficult to break down for Van Marwijks Netherlands team obtaining only a narrow 1-0 victory.
Ajax exerted heavy pressure on the Greeks, pushing both wing backs high up the pitch, resulting in long ball played into space to lone striker Salpingidis who often found himself isolated against two central defenders. Sulejmani practically featured in a free role, starting from the right wing, but all too often drifting inside. While, on the positive side, this opened up a lot of space for right back Gregory van der Wiel to express his attacking qualities on the right wing, it also impeded Ajax’ central attack where Sulejmani often played too close to striker Suarez and creator de Jong, limiting their positional options.
Van der Wiel’s unusual weak display
Perhaps the physical stress that this system put on Gregory van der Wiel contributed to his unusual blunders who were painfully obvious in the first half. His strange half-high back-pass in the 14th minute will probably never be explained and his shortcomings in defending PAOK’s set pieces were particularly obvious during their free kicks in the 13th and 16th minute, leading to Vieirinha’s opening goal from a header. PAOK, understandably, withdrew even further, squeezing their bands of four close together, effectively limiting Ajax’ options for the remainder of the first half. With their Greek opponents defending a 1-0 home lead, Ajax’ were forced to make some changes in order to disrupt the effective defense machine that a tight 4-1-4-1 in effect is. And so they did!
Half time changes
Take a look at this screen, displaying Ajax’ positional set-up in the first minute after half time. Note the wide stretch of play offered by wingers Emanuelson and Sulejmani (yellow), in contrast especially to Sulejmani’s drifting in during the first half of the game.
This immediately opened up spaces for Siem de Jong (yellow) to deploy his off-the-ball skills. Furthermore, as you can also see in this screen, passing midfielders de Zeeuw and Lindgren (orange) started taking turns in penetrating PAOK’s defensive line. Their forward runs turned them more or less into box-to-box midfielders, with one covering for the other when needed.
This is another example of how wide Ajax’ attack is set-up immediately after half time. The wide position of wingers Emanuelson and Sulejmani force the Greek defenders to choose between marking their winger or closing in on their central defense to aid them in defending striker Suarez and creator de Jong. This screen below is taken during the cross pass of Alderweireld, providing the assist for Suarez’ 48th minute equalizer.
Ajax’ spell of glory
It took Ajax ten minutes to convert PAOK’s 1-0 lead into a comfortable 1-3 after this obvious tactical change. The remainder of the game saw the Greek come back to 2-3 after another display of weak Ajax defending of a set piece cross. This is definitely something that Martin Jol and his side will have to work on in the near future. Nearing the end of the match Ivic equalized the score, but it was too late to change the result of the two match confrontation.
The second half display of Ajax might ensure that they have an attacking line-up capable of producing in Europe and should their defensive weakness from set pieces improve on a short-term then we might see a good Ajax season. Remember, the season has only just started!