Ajax beat Kiev 2-1 to advance to the group stages of the Champions League. In a match that, in the end, brought both relief and confidence, Ajax’ common 4-2-3-1 had a tough time against Kiev’s defensive 4-4-2. Jol’s essential midfield adjustments turned the game around, and in a climatic closing ten minutes, Ajax managed to get away with a 2-1 victory.
Last week saw Ajax hold out in Kiev for a 1-1 draw. In that match, Ajax opted to transform their familiar 4-2-3-1 in a lop-sided 4-4-2 formation with left winger Emanuelson playing deep from midfield and right winger Suarez roaming free around central striker El Hamdaoui. Kiev then played their familiar 4-4-2 system where, in the absence of striker Milevski, the second striker role was given to Yarmolenko, coming from the right. Once Ajax succeeded in making penetrating runs through central midfielders de Zeeuw and de Jong, they started creating danger, ending up with a 1-1 score in a match where the 56th minute sending off of Gamash didn’t hurt Ajax either.
This time around, despite the fact that the Ukrainian side had to score at least once to progress, Ajax clearly expected Kiev to sit rather deep, looking to create breaks through the individual quality of strikers Shevchenko and, back from injury, Milevski. However, just like in the first leg, Kiev played a quite high defensive line, taking advantage from the lack of pace in Ajax’ attack . And in their defensive 4-4-2 formation, central midfielders Eremenko and Vukojevic played close to the central defenders, effectively limiting the space in Ajax’ beloved central attacking zone.
As said, Ajax’ familiar formation is a 4-2-3-1 with Enoh providing a destroyer role, de Zeeuw a deep passer role and de Jong playing an advanced creator role, using his off-the-ball skills in creating space for himself and his team mates. On the right side, Suarez likes to drift inside, sometimes ending up in a free drifting role, allowing wing back van der Wiel to make his runs on the right flank. The left flank, figuring either Emanuelson, Eriksen or Sulejmani, is intended to provide width, increasing the fashionable space between the opponents right full back and centre back for de Jong and de Zeeuw to run into.
However, against the defensive 4-4-2 that Kiev fielded, Ajax’ 4-2-3-1 did not shine. On one hand, de Zeeuw and Enoh missed an attacking midfielder to aim their defensive game at. On the other hand, de Jong in attacking midfield and Suarez, drifting in from the right, ran into a forest of Kiev defenders with defending midfielders Eremenko and Vukojevic playing close to their defense.
This was very much the problem that Ajax faced during the first half hour of the game. Directly from the kickoff, Ajax had a very low pass completion rate with virtually no ground passes reaching a forward player. Young Danish winger Eriksen had a tough time even in keeping possession and ended up giving the ball away in dangerous areas, thereby providing Kiev exactly the break-out opportunities that they were looking for. This was certainly, in part, due to his inexperience, but the lack of passing opportunities didn’t help him either.
Another defensive weakness was the absence of left back Vurnon Anita. Who’d have thought that sentence would ever fit a review of Ajax when manager Marco van Basten started to convert the fragile midfielder to the left back position? But Anita’s defensive qualities could not have been illustrated better than by playing Emanuelson at left back. He regularly lost control over the smart positioning of Kiev right winger Gusev and Kiev had at least three excellent goal scoring opportunities in the first half hour. Stekelenburg’s outstanding shot-stopping qualities kept Ajax alive in this phase.
While the left back personal problems could not easily be solved during the match, the midfield imbalance could. Nearing the end of the first half, Ajax clearly started playing in four bands (4-2-3-1) instead of three (4-3-3), by increasing the distance between creator de Jong and destroyer Enoh. Passer de Zeeuw was immediately provided with more space and clear back- and forward passing options.
And it was during this phase, a few minutes before half time that Ajax opened the score through a powerful Vertonghen free kick which reminded of his recent effort in the home match against Vitesse. Although the Vitesse free kick was from further out, the pattern of El Hamdaoui and Suarez aiming for the rebound is very similar. This time Kiev keeper Koval, a highly talented 17-year old pushed the ball away, but it was converted in the rebound by Suarez, who illustrated his two-footedness with a tight angle left foot finish.
After half time, the previously described changes to Ajax’ midfield were even more clear. Destroyer Enoh now played a very conservative role close to central defense, which seems much more adept to Kiev’s 4-4-2. If there’s no attacking midfielder or dropping-deep striker to pick up, then why field two controlling defensive midfielders? Passer de Zeeuw was advanced more and more, occupying positions allowing him to reach creator de Jong with ground passes and in the meantime providing a way out for left winger Eriksen, who consequently had a much better game after half time.
Defending midfielders Eremenko and Vukojevic were now confronted with both de Jong and de Zeeuw, and were consequently less able to provide double cover for Suarez’ technical dribbling skills. On the left wing, Jol tried to exploit this situation by bringing Sulejmani for Eriksen, introducing more pace and a natural wide player. Ajax’ second goal was a direct result of this change. Sulejmani’s pace propelled him past right back Silva and his cross was simply tapped in by El Hamdaoui.
Things got tight in the end as Kiev was awarded a harsh penalty, allowing Shevchenko to score a late 2-1. Ajax even introduced the 36-year old André Ooijer to assist in central defense, and succeeded in securing what was proclaimed as “the most important match of the season”. While this may seem true from a financial point of view, the fact that this same comment was released prior to the clash with PAOK makes it all the more likely that there are more ‘most important matches of the season’ yet to come.
In the end we may praise Jol for his tactical adjustments, shifting de Zeeuw into more advanced positions, adjusting for the shortcomings against a defensive 4-4-2. Or we may criticize him for starting out with two defensive midfielders against a formation with no attacking midfielder. Well, whether the glass is half full or half empty, Ajax joins FC Twente in the draw for the Champions League group stages and that is a good thing for Dutch Football.