Frank de Boer’s Ajax managed a second impressive European away win in a row. After defeating Milan at the San Siro 0-2 in De Boer’s first match in charge of Ajax, Ajax added a second consecutive away win by defeating Anderlecht in their Constant Vandenstock Stadium. Although the second half penalty miss by Anderlecht was an important determinant for the match result, and perhaps even for the outcome of this tie, Ajax deservedly won on the basis of a series of smart tactical moves that gave them the upper hand for most of the game.
Two different 4-3-3’s
Going into this match everyone involved was certain this was going to be a nice affair. Two teams known for their attacking spirit, playing 4-3-3’s, that should guarantee some good goal scoring opportunities. And after all, for most people interested in football entertainment value is by and large determined on the basis of a close match with lots of scoring opportunities, isn’t it?
And two 4-3-3’s there were, albeit with a very different outlay and different tactical tweaks to them. Most notably, Anderlecht played a fluid, rather narrow front three, consisting of Lukaku and Suarez as the two most advanced strikers with Boussoufa roaming behind them as a trequartista, constantly drifting around the pitch in a free role. Ajax, on the contrary, play El Hamdaoui as their most advanced single striker with wingers Ebecilio and Sulejmani in wide roles and the both of them showed excellent defensive awareness, tucking in when needed, thereby converting Ajax’ 4-3-3 to a true 4-5-1 when needed.
The first half
The different lay-outs of the front three proved crucial to an understanding of the developments elsewhere on the pitch. Anderlecht’s front three were mostly picked up by Ajax’ centre-backs and holding midfielder, whereas Ajax’ front three, due to their wide wingers, had to be dealt with by Anderlecht’s full-backs and one of the centre-backs. This meant that Ajax had their full-backs as spare men at the back, tucking in when needed, to assist the centre-backs and holding midfielder in defense. In turn, Anderlecht saw their full-backs occupied with defensive tasks throughout most of the match.
Ajax smartly used this different set-up by having Blind and Van der Wiel making runs from deep, assisting wingers Ebecilio and Sulejmani, looking either to create two-versus-one situations here, or rather, to draw midfielders Kanu and Gillet out of position in order to create space in central midfield for Eriksen and De Jong.
Dealing with a single holding midfielder
As stated above, both sides played a 4-3-3, so they were characterized by a single holding midfielder, rather than the more defensive ‘double pivot’ in front of the defensive four. The way both teams tried to take advantage of this potential weakness of their opponent was quite different and more than worth a look.
Anderlecht played Boussoufa nominally in Enoh’s space in a role with loads and loads of positional freedom. In a man-marking system this might have simply been enough to unsettle Enoh’s holding role, but in zonal marking systems, as probably all top flight teams would play using a single holding midfielder, things work slightly different. The roaming attacker would look to position himself either in close proximity of a team mate, looking for a two-versus-one situation, or look to fill in space created by a team mate.
While in theory a very nice concept, the fact that Ajax had spare men at the back at all times, their full-backs, meant the Enoh simply let Boussoufa go for most of the game, only picking him up in his own zone. Should Boussoufa drift very wide, one of the full-backs would pick him up and should he drift ‘semi-wide’, the full-back would tuck in and join the central defender, making it two-versus-two again.
The way Ajax looked to unsettle the single holding midfielder was slightly different, with special attention for El Hamdaoui. Although in for quite some stick recently, after his troubled first months under De Boer’s management and missing a final minutes penalty against Roda recently, Ajax striker El Hamdaoui played a crucial role in this match. He played a very intelligent false nine role throughout the game. El Hamdaoui’s false nine role forced Anderlecht’s centre-backs to make a choice whether to step out of the defensive line when El Hamdaoui dropped off, or to let him be dealt with by the holding midfielder.
Both of these situations were problematic though. A central defender stepping out with the full-backs occupied in wide positions would leave big holes in the defensive line for opposing attacking midfielders to make runs into. Leaving El Hamdaoui at the hands of Biglia, on the other hand, would see him overloaded, already facing Eriksen in that zone and not having Kanu and Gillet available to help out as they had to keep an eye on Ajax’ full-backs. In summary, Ajax overloaded Anderlecht’s midfield with advancing full-backs and a false nine striker.
Although Ajax did not dominate the game in terms of the amount of possession or chances created or even shots on goal, the concepts outlined above were enough to see them take full advantage. In truth, the strategy described above was a quite risky one, as for large parts of the game, with the full-backs venturing forward and Enoh keeping an eye on Boussoufa, Ajax played one-on-one in defense. And should Stekelenburg not have prevented Anderlecht from opening the score on several occasions during the first half hour, the game would have been different for sure. Finally, missing the early second half penalty at a 0-1 score proved crucial.
Ajax’ second goal stood out in particular as El Hamdaoui’s false nine role could not have been demonstrated any clearer. On top of that, this fine Ajax move involved the three stars of the night. Toby Alderweireld was not pressed by any of the Anderlecht strikers and picked out Eriksen in behind the defensive line with an excellent long pass. The space for Eriksen was created by a text-book false nine run by El Hamdaoui, this time drawing one of the Anderlecht centre-backs from the defensive line.