Ajax’much awaited return to the Champions League turned out to be a big deception in their first Group Stage match against the stars of Real Madrid. Although the final 2-0 score-line made it look like a football match, it was in fact a very one-sided affair. Real dominated all areas of the pitch, creating an impressive number of 33 goal-scoring chances and if it was not for Maarten Stekelenburg’s excellent goalkeeping, Ajax would never have come away with only two goals conceded.
Real came to this match of the back of a mediocre performance, earning them a 1-0 home victory against mid-table team Osasuna last weekend, where their narrow attack often played into the hands of their opponents stubborn defensive 4-2-3-1 formation. In the game against Ajax, Karim Benzema was dropped to the bench in favour of winger Angel di Maria, their most expensive summer acquirement who was transferred from Benfica for a mere 25 million. The only other change was a forced one as right-back Sergio Ramos was injured and replaced by Alvaro Arbeloa.
Ajax missed two influential players due to suspensions after their hard-fought battles with PAOK and Dynamo Kiev. Captain and top-scorer Suarez and vice-captain Jan Vertonghen were replaced by Miralem Sulejmani and experienced centre-back André Ooijer. Their system was anticipated to be their regular 4-2-3-1 albeit with a more defensive lookout. However, during the match Enoh appeared to be the only genuine holding midfielder with his supposed-to-be-partner de Zeeuw often postioned higher up the pitch, in a failed attempt to disrupt the passing game of Real’s holding midfielders Khedira and Xabi Alonso.
The wandering postion of Miralem Sulejmani brought a lot of imbalance to Ajax’ formation too. He was expected to figure as a right winger, but was seen to be roaming around quite freely, even ending up on the left side of the pitch quite frequently. Ajax’ theoretical 4-2-3-1 was made to look like a 4-4-2 diamond with Sulejmani wandering around striker El Hamdaoui and de Zeeuw’s advanced position made him look like a right sided midfielder. The lack of right wing pressure liberated Real’s left-back Marcelo from all defensive constraints and allowed him to freely join Real’s attacking play. As a consequence, Ajax’ right-back van der Wiel was constantly overrun by the pair of Christiano Ronaldo and Marcelo. Where in Ajax’ regular Eredivisie matched the inside right winger role creates a lot of space for Van der Wiel to exert his attacking qualities, against superior quality opposition this idea backfired on Ajax and as a consequence 43% of Real’s attacks came through their left wing, compared to 27% through the right.
Let’s look at the positional diagram of Ajax provided by the excellent ESPN gamechart function (if only they’d correct their left-right switch for once!). On first look one would think that Ajax’ attack must have been extreme narrow, however, bear in mind that manager Jol decided to switch Urby Emanuelson to the right wing and Sulejmani to the left wing at half time, making their average position look very central. The main concern illustrated by this diagram is Ajax’ lack of either a second holding midfielder, or a compact triangle of midfielders, like for example in a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 system.
With Ajax lacking numbers in central defensive midfield, Real was offered a playground to display their excellent off-the-ball movement and superior technical ability. Compare Ajax’ single pivot in defensive midfield with Osasuna’s double pivot and suddenly you understand why Osasuna succeeded in frustrating Real’s play with 27 (!) fouls, compared to Ajax’ 7 fouls. It may seem strange to use the number of fouls as a means of illustrating successful play, but the lack of defensive fouls by Ajax indicated that they were never close to disrupting their opponent’s game. In the end, Osasuna succeeded in giving away ‘only’ seven shots on target compared to Ajax’ 14. It may not have brought beauty to the game, but a dedicated second holding midfielder is by now considered of so much value to the game that it’s hard to understand why, especially in an away match against superior opposition Ajax decided not to play one.
If Ajax’ plan would have been to disrupt Real’s passing higher up the pitch than a simple look at the passing statistics, provided by the UEFA website, proves the failure of this plan. Apart from Real’s dedicated attackers (Ronaldo – Özil – de Maria ; Higuain), all of their players (including goalkeeper Casillas) achieved a higher pass completion than Ajax’best passer Ooijer (84%). A better illustration of the complete lack of Ajax pressure does not exist.
In conclusion, Ajax failed to choose between two formations that would have provided them with more defensive stability in an away match against technical superior opposition and paid the price for it. A genuine 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot in defensive midfield playing quite close to a defensive line of four would have allowed Ajax to limit space in central midfield and prevent Real from creating a numerical superiority with inside wingers in this essential area of the pitch. The second option would have been to deploy a defensive 4-1-4-1, which has previously been advocated as the small teams’ answer to the big team’s 4-2-3-1. In a 4-1-4-1 the midfield triangle, composed of two central midfielders close in front of one holding midfielder, would aim to control the essential space in front of the defense.
By giving up their second holding midfielder and playing with a vacated right wing, Ajax played into the hands of Real Madrid. This produced an extremely one-sided affair that must have leave Ajax’ fans quite disappointed. However, let’s not forget that these tactical shortcomings played a big role in offering Real Madrid an excellent playground to make Ajax look very small.