If not for the UEFA millions of the Champions League, Ajax won’t have anything to look back on once these group stage games are done with. Their game against Real Madrid saw them outclassed in every department, highlighted to the extreme by the unique fact of two Madrid players purposefully upgrading their yellow cards to reds by delaying taking a free kick and a goal kick. The video of this sequence of events might serve to illustrate the gap between Europe’s top teams and a struggling Dutch top team at the moment. Tactics hardly played a role in the game, such was the difference in sheer player quality.
Much, perhaps too much has been said on this side about Ajax’ tactics recently. Referring to the recent analysis after the home defeat against ADO, Jol definitely misses balance in his team currently. This was further illustrated in the home draw against PSV where the midfield positioning was debatable once again.
Against Real, Ajax kept on playing the same formation as always. Let’s keep on calling it a 4-2-3-1, although the advanced positions of De Jong and De Zeeuw give the formation a 4-2-4 outlook at times. This time Urby Emanuelson was drafted into a defensive midfield role beside Eyong Enoh. It clearly unsettled Emanuelson who, unsurprisingly, did not have the best of games in an unfamiliar position, having to face top class opposition.
The huge gap in quality between the sides could not have been illustrated better than by them playing the same formation. This generally favours the better team and tonight was no exception. In contrast to Ajax, Real’s defensive midfielders put in a magnificent effort. Especially Lassana Diarra, completing 91% of his 56 passes and winning countless tackles in the centre of the pitch, drove his team on. Together with Xabi Alonso he was responsible for over a quarter of Real’s passing, illustrating their dominance in the center of the pitch.
As has been said in the introduction to this analysis, tactics hardly came to effect as this was a match between two very unevenly matches teams right from the start. What Ajax could have done was to take this as a fact and go for a well-grouped compact defense, which, initially they did to some extent. It may or may not have been the influence of Emanuelson in this role, but Ajax’ defensive midfield played in close proximity to their defensive line, thereby decreasing the need for a pushed up defensive line that proved costly in earlier matches, for example the home match against Milan. In the screen below, Real illustrates Ajax how to position yourself in a 4-2-3-1 when in possession: wide in attack, compressing space at the back and above all, keeping both defensive midfielders withdrawn. This very important aspect of their positioning allowed Alonso and Diarra to receive the ball at feet in a zone away from Ajax’ pressing.
But as the match carried on, Ajax got seduced into playing along with their opponents. Emanuelson, initially offering a welcome defensive minded partnership with Enoh, got involved higher up the pitch and Ajax got caught out at the back by the technical superiority of Cristiano Ronaldo and his team mates.
The opening goal and more
After conceding the opening goal, just over half an hour into the match, the match felt practically over. By then Ajax had not managed a single shot on target, which in fact would just be what they managed to create, a single shot on target. Real got their game going and the difference in quality between the sides was obvious from every move. One thing to note here was the fact that, again, Ajax conceded from an indirect free kick, like for example the painful second goal away at Auxerre.
Real’s quick follow-up with a second goal, albeit from a deflected free kick, ensured that the match was in fact over indeed. Beyond this, Ajax was unable to provide the slightest of hope to turn the match around and it was all about Cristiano Ronaldo and his mates from there on.
A bizarre end to the match
Not so much of tactical value, but too bizarre to leave unmentioned here was the closing phase of this match. José Mourinho clearly seemed to instruct first Xabi Alonso and then Sergio Ramos to ‘upgrade’ their yellow cards to reds by having them purposefully delaying the taking of a free kick and a goal kick that long that the referee could hardly do anything else than hand the players a second yellow card. Their direct red means a suspension for the final match of the group stages, leaving them with a clean sheet for the knock-out phase. If the UEFA does not interfere here, which they might certainly do, given that the players clearly showed unsportsmanlike conduct.