Tactical preview of Ajax – Spartak Moscow

Posted on 9 March 2011


Ajax’ season so far

Since the appointment of Frank de Boer as manager of Ajax on December 6, 2010, things have definitely changed at the Amsterdam ArenA. His predecessor Martin Jol often had Ajax playing in a pragmatic 4-2-3-1 formation, relying on two holding midfielders to cover for the wing-backs, who bombed forward to provide width to the narrow inside wingers formation. Ajax relied heavily on the creative input of Luis Suarez and often sat back, rather than playing the characteristic high pressing game.

Frank de Boer

De Boer’s arrival coincided with the departure of Luis Suarez, as the club could make an great deal, at least business-wise, by selling him to Liverpool for 26.5 million euro. And from a tactical perspective, things changed quite a bit too. De Boer, a home grown Ajax man, started with what is generally considered to be ‘the Ajax style’. Typical characteristics are the consequent 4-3-3 formation, wide wingers and a high pressing game.

With these principles, results immediately picked up for De Boer. After a 9-5-3 (win-draw-lose) first half of the Eredivisie season under Jol, Ajax continued to a 6-2-1 streak under De Boer, only drawing the difficult away games at Roda and PSV and losing in an odd off-day at Utrecht. On top of that, Ajax’ morale was strengthened by an unexpected 2-0 away victory against AC Milan in the final Champions League group stage match and the double victory over Anderlecht in the first Europa League knock-out round. Meanwhile, Ajax reached the Dutch Cup final, where they will play Twente.


Spartak’s season so far

As the Russian football season has only just begun, Spartak played only three matches so far, two Europa League matches, with unbelievable comebacks, against Basel and one in the Russian Cup against Sibir, a team well-known after their sensational 1-0 win on PSV. Only in the latest match against Sibir, Spartak had no problems in defense. This line is definitely the wekaest line in their team.

Without serious transfers during the winter, manager Valery Karpin still doesn’t have enough high-class players in defense.  The recent arrival of centre-back Marcos Rojo, who recently made his debut in the Argentine national team, is a good addition, but he will still have problems adapting to the squad.

In the match against Sibir the one and only hope for good defense was to pair two defensive midfielders, a move that in fact turned out quite well as they succeeded in winning every ball after long Sibir’ passes to their lone striker.

An important player for Spartak will be the Brazilian striker Welliton, who can be expected to return to the team just in time for the match, after coming back from injury. His presence is of prima importance for Spartak’s offensive approach.


Ajax’ formation

The expected starting line-ups. Note the mirror images that Ajax' 4-3-3 and Spartak's 4-2-3-1 produce.

Expect Ajax to line up in their characteristic 4-3-3 formation and expect them, particularly at home, to play a possession-dominant high pressing game. The choice of the starting eleven has been quite consistent throughout De Boer’s matches so far, but recently the holding midfielder role has been given to Vurnon Anita over Cameroon international Eyong Enoh. While Enoh offered huge commitment in the tackling department, Anita offers a superior passing game.

Up front, Mounir El Hamdaoui has fallen out of favor big time, after a half-time clash with De Boer during Ajax semi-final Cup win over second tier RKC. The Moroccan striker, Ajax’ biggest acquisition at the beginning of the season, ended up being substituted and was relegated to the youth squad until further notice. His place in the lone striker role will be filled in by Siem de Jong, who offers an important back-to-goal presence in the lone striker role and his excellent team work skills will help him bring others into play. Look out for the well-timed runs from deep from both Christian Eriksen and Demi de Zeeuw from the central midfield positions.


Spartak’s formation

Spartak’s formation is usually described as 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1.

In the centre of midfield feature either two defensive midfielders (Sheshukov and Ibson or Carioca) with attacking-minded Alex completing the midfield three, or Sheshukov can play as single defensive midfielder with Alex and Jano (or Ari, the former AZ player) as two more offensive central midfielders, like Spartak played in the home match against Basel. Spartak’s wingers deserve a mention too. Aiden McGeady, the best Spartak player so far, has excellent dribbling skills and a good vision of the game. McGeady often tends to drift inside during Spartak’s attacks, supporting the striker. Dmitry Kombarov, is a less versatile player, who often plays as a classic winger in 4-4-2.

Artem Dzyuba has featured as the lonely striker in all matches so far, and he has performed well. He often drops deeper, and plays a false nine role, creating free space to be exploited by his team mates, like for example Ari in the recent Cup match against Sibir. But Welliton’s return means that Dzyuba will be dropped to the bench, and Spartak’s approach in attack will be more straightforward, using Welliton’s pace and Alex’ passing ability. If Ajax should succeed to mark Alex and Welliton well, it will be hard games for Spartak.

As said, Spartak has most problems in their defensive line, and particularly with the full-backs. Makeev is a young and inexperienced player, and both full-backs had a lot of problems against Sibir and may be expected to have more problems with Ajax’ wingers.


Ajax players to look out for

Jan Vertonghen

The strong Belgian centre-back, a product of Ajax’ excellent youth academy, is an essential element in Ajax’ firm home defense. Since the appointment of De Boer as Ajax manager, the Vertonghen-led defense has kept a clean sheet in an impressive 10 out of 13 games.

Christian Eriksen

The young Dane is without a doubt the brightest talent in this young Ajax squad. Already having played 11 matches for the Danish national team and still just 19 years old, his star definitely started shining under De Boer’s management. While under Jol he was often used in a substitute role, playing from the left wing, for Frank de Boer Eriksen is a key players in his starting eleven. He is Ajax’ central midfield playmaker, and one to keep an interest in for the coming years.

Rising star Christian Eriksen

Miralem Sulejmani

‘The most expensive player in Dutch football history’. That tag proved almost fatal to Sulejmani’s game at Ajax. Purchased for no less than 16 million euro from Heerenveen in 2008, the Serbian wing player had a tough time finding his feet in the ArenA. But over the past months, his pace definitely picked up and he is in excellent form going into the Spartak game. His lightning pace and clinical finish are his biggest weapons.


Spartak players to look out for

Aiden McGeady

Irish international McGeady, who made the brave decision to join Spartak from Celtic in the summer of 2010, is full of determination to prove his name in European games. And what better stage for him to perform that in the Europa League with Spartak? He rejected Aston Villa offer, and choose Russia – and Red-White fans love him for that from the first day. He is not the archetypical British winger, but rather enjoys every moment with the ball and doesn’t prefer the cross. When he’s in possession, and his team mates know by now, he will do something special.

Welliton and McGeady


Last season’s top scorer in the Russian competition is ready to return to action, you be he’s motivated to show himself to the world, as are Alex and McGeady. With his pace, he is a dangerous player, and on top of that his technique and finishing are great. He has been voted the best player of Spartak in 2010 by the fans and there are many rumors at the moment that Russia might adopt him to play for the national squad.

Andrey Dikan

He is the best goalkeeper Spartak has had in the last five years. Calm and solid, he will instill confidence in his inexperienced defenders. He is already 34 years old, but still is one of the most underrated players in Russia, and it is in matches like these that he can show that he is a really good goalkeeper.

This contribution to 11tegen11 was partly guest-written by Russian tactical blogger Eugeny Shevelev. You can find him on Twitter as @shevelevee or visit his blog here.

Posted in: Europa League