The double confrontation with AJ Auxerre from France will be decisive on Ajax’ European Football campaign this season. Having faced world class teams Real Madrid and AC Milan in the first two matches, Ajax will have to defend a one point lead over Auxerre to hold onto the third place in Group G of the UEFA Champions League, and to qualify for the knockout stages of the Europa League.
Ajax in Europe
Ajax’ return to the highest level of European club football was certainly a disappointing affair, mainly personified by Demi de Zeeuw whose tactical indiscipline contributed to the substandard performance in Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium. It could have been a disastrous score line, if not for goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, who by now has the dubious honour to have made the most saves in the group stages of the Champions League.
Ajax regrouped for the home match against Milan, although again de Zeeuw’s tendency to take up advanced midfield positions hindered their game. Furthermore, Ajax played a high pressing game with a very advanced defensive line. While they did succeed in winning some dangerous balls higher up the pitch early on, the passing skills of Pirlo and Seedorf also meant that Ajax suffered fron dangerous through-balls and balls over the top. The final score of 1-1 in that match meant that Ajax took a valuable point from a confrontation that could just as easy have ended in a loss, but with direct rivals Auxerre still empty-handed after their matches against Real and Milan, the prospect of finishing third in this group still looks good.
Auxerre may not be one of the best known clubs in France, well-informed Ajax fans may remember the club from a famous incident in Ajax’ goalkeeping history. In the 1993 UEFA Cup quarter final it was Stanley Menzo who pushed a corner into his own net, ending up losing his first team place to a young Edwin van der Sar.
Auxerre has had a troubled start to this year’s Lique 1 campaign, to say the least and are ranked 17th after winning only 1 of their first nine matches. Apart from the victory over rock-bottem Arles-Avignon, they’ve only scores seven goals in the remaining eight matches and playing home crowds of less than 10,000 people, they’ve not managed a single home victory so far.
Despite their disappointing Ligue 1 season so far, defeating Zenit St. Petersburg 2-1 on aggregate in the Champions League qualification may serve to remind of the power of this French team. Generally playing a 4-4-1-1 formation they are known for their defensive stability and will look to create danger from set pieces. Against Zenit, two goals from corners brought them a 2-0 home victory, compensating for the 1-0 away loss.
Ajax plays an inside wingers 4-2-3-1. With attacking midfielder Siem de Jong suffering from a hamstring injury and Uruguayan international Lodeiro still looking to regain match fitness after being injured himself too, manager Jol opted for de Zeeuw in the advanced midfielder role, rather than attacking midfielder Eriksen. Against Auxerre he featured in the same role.
An early goal
Immediately from the kick-off, it was clear that Auxerre would retreat in their own half, making their 4-4-1-1 look very much like a true 4-5-1 formation. Ajax dominated possession and with de Zeeuw in an extremely advanced position played a 4-2-4 formation when in possession during the early stages of the match.
One thing that characterizes Ajax’ interpretation of the 4-2-3-1 is El Hamdaoui’s false nine role. Often leaving the striker area to receive the ball at feet he succeeds in creating spaces in the opposition’s central defense by dragging his marker out of position. Tonight this was accompanied by the advanced role that de Zeeuw occupied, playing like a ‘false nr. 10’ by moving into the striker role. At times this left the compact Auxerre defense in uncertainty and upon re-watching Ajax’ early opening goal, El Hamdaoui’s movement springs to mind as an essential element in the build up to this goal.
Ajax dominating the first half
Stengthened by their early lead, Ajax effectively dominated the twenty minutes of the game. This was about the time it took for Auxerre to regroup and position themselves in a position to exert any pressure on Ajax’ midfield. In the second part of the first half Auxerre succeeded in putting more pressure on Ajax’ controlling midfielders Lindgren and Enoh. This resulted in the fact that de Zeeuw’s advanced position became more of a nuisance to Ajax’ game. With the controlling midfielders lacking a creative midfielder within passing range in front of them, Ajax’ play became more predictable and a sharp decrease in pass completion was the result.
Auxerre still didn’t pose much of an attacking threat, effectively committing only Oliech forward in a lone striker role and keeping Contout on their midfield still. Just before half-time Ajax succeeded in combining through Auxerre’s left flank to score the important second goal. Luis Suarez finished a nice team move where de Zeeuw and El Hamdaoui deserve part of the credit for their passing skill involved in the move.
Though not reflected in substitutions, a few half-time changes were definitely made. Ajax manager Jol made de Zeeuw play a bit deeper, and Ajax’ familiar 4-2-3-1 shape allowed for a better passing game. Auxerre did advance their wing players bit by bit, slowly building up to a 4-2-3-1 too.
While Ajax seemed to have had a firm grip on the game so far, things changed ten minutes into the second half as veteran centre-back André Ooijer chose to stop disrupt a goal scoring chance for striker Oliech by committing a cynical foul. He was rightfully dismissed and to see Birse score from the resulting direct free kick must have made his needless red card even more painful.
After the red card
Ajax turned to a 4-3-2 formation, playing El Hamdaoui and Suarez upfront and subbing winger Sulejmani off for another veteran centre-back, Oleguer this time. Auxerre manager Jean Fernandez brought an extra striker by replacing winger Chafni with Queria, changing his team to a 4-4-2 at that time.
Although Auxerre started dominating the game, they did not succeed in creating many goal scoring chances and their lack of firepower was perhaps best illustrated by Oliech truly weak ‘Hand of God’ imitation, leading to his second yellow card of the game, thereby leveling the number of players on the pitch to 10 v 10.
The remaining minutes of the game saw Ajax holding on to their 2-1 lead with the only curiousity coming from referee Benquerenca who handed a red card to one of Auxerre’s unused substitutes. Little it change to the game itself, which finished with a 2-1 score line.
In the end
Winning three points over Auxerre means that Ajax’ prospects of qualifying for the knockout stages of European Football look very good and given Milan’s beating in the Bernabeu they may still hope to prolong their display at the highest stage too.
On a tactical note, El Hamdaoui and de Zeeuw perform a nice combination of a ‘false nine’ and ‘false nr. 10’ role. The downside of playing the advanced midfielder in such an advanced position was however also illustrated in this match in Enoh’s and Lindgren’s passing problems during the second part of the first half.
Here’s some data from the UEFA site worth sharing with regards to El Hamdaoui’s false nine role.
He made 51 pass attempts, completing 33 (65%) of them. That is a very high amount of passes for a lone striker to be involved in. And another, rather vague stat presented by this UEFA site is the highest scoring couples of players with regard to passes between them. In this top-7 El Hamdaoui features no less then four times, exchanging 22 passes with Suarez, 20 with Van der Wiel, 16 with Sulejmani and 16 with 16 Lindgren.
For your reference, Ibrahimovic and Higuain, made 28 and 17 pass attempts respectively and don’t show up in their team’s top-7 of players couples with the highest number of passes exchanged between them.
Here’s El Hamdaoui’s passing chalkboard of the Auxerre game. Note his involvement pratically all over the pitch. The number of passes differs slightly from the previously mentioned 51 as a different source is used here.