Outplaying your opponent for ninety percent of the match, yet still ending up on the wrond end of the score. It’s not the first time such a turn of events happened to Ajax. They managed to impress with their possession-based high pressing game and creating a fair share of chances along the way, but despite the 20 – 3 advantage in terms of goal scoring chances, Ajax failed to find a way past Spartak goalkeeper Dikan.
Ajax lined up, as expected in the preview of this game, with the same starting eleven that comfortably beat AZ in the weekend before. Well aware of Spartak’s counter attacking threat, manager Frank de Boer was quoted saying: “we start to pressure to get the ball back as quick as possible. Pressing left, right, above and below. Always and everywhere. That’s what I say to my players”.
Spartak’s formation was different to the one presented in the preview on two occasions. Up front Welliton was not deemed fit enough to start, after recent injury and was replaced, just like in the Basel matches, by Dzjuba. Furthermore, holding midfielder Sheshukov started from the bench, allowing Brazilian midfielder Ibson to feature beside his compatriot Carioca in defensive midfield.
The first half
As expected, Ajax dominated possession right from the kick-off. With a quick ball circulation and stretching their attack wide, they succeeded in creating a few early chances too. Spartak was limited to defending in their own one-third of the pitch and any potential breaks were broken up early on, with a particularly good performance by Vurnon Anita as Ajax’ holding midfielder.
Despite that, Ajax struggled to put Dikan to the test, as most shots were either from outside of the box, or just off target. In the end, the Spartak goalkeeper did a good job clearing a lot of balls from his goal mouth. The pattern of play repeated itself over and over as Ajax had Spartak pressed thus far in their won half that they had an easy job regaining possession.
While this may sound like Spartak did not stand a chance during the first half, in reality both teams were playing in their comfort zone. Admittedly, this applied somewhat more to Ajax as there were more goal scoring chances than Spartak manager Karpin would have liked, but conceding only a limited number fouls, Spartak kept their tight defensive shape quite well. On top of that, their deep defensive line limited Ajax’ option of playing one of their preferred passes, the Vertonghen cross pass to Sulejmani in behind the opponents’ defense.
The second half
In contrast with the first half, Spartak took a more advanced stance in the beginning of the first half. Pressing Ajax around the midline now, they seemed to catch their Dutch opponents by surprise. Ajax suddenly had a tough time passing the ball into their midfield with all of a sudden too many men in front of the ball. Spartak easily dominated possession during an (afterward) crucial spell of the game, the first ten minutes of the second half.
While in the first half, the frequent runs from deep by both Eriksen and de Zeeuw contributed to the variety in Ajax’ pattern of attacks, during this spell, with Spartak exerting pressure on the central defenders and Anita, it proved counterproductive. Ajax suffered from a vacated central midfield and lost possession early on in some build-up moves.
On one of these occasions, Ajax suffered a goal in a short moment where Anita, who had an otherwise excellent game, lost sight of Spartak’s playmaker Alex. In possession on the edge of the box, the Brazilian did an excellent job firing the ball past Stekelenburg into goal at the far post. Manager Karpin already had his substitution lined up and proceeded with it. Welliton entered the pitch with Ison leaving. This moved striker Dzjuba to the advanced midfielder / second striker role and match winner Alex to the second holding midfielder position.
Chances, though no goals
Despite having acquired their desired away goal, Spartak did not retreat like they did in the first half. They maintained the level of pressing they had had success with during the first spell of the second half and Ajax kept on having a tough time breaking their opponents down. It took until the final ten minutes for goalkeeper Dikan to definitely claim his man-of-the-mach award as he consistently kept on clearing all Ajax attempts.
In the end
Despite dominating for most of the match, Ajax was left empty handed at the final whistle. Manager de Boer sounded happy enough with most of the performance by his team, and, based on the first half display, rightly so. But not finishing any of the 20 chances created meant a painful 0-1 defeat results-wise. Particularly for a team that sold top scorer Suarez during the winter break and did not play his replacement, El Hamdaoui, after disciplinary issues.
After a dominant first half performance, Ajax seemed to be surprised by the different Spartak approach of the second half. In the end took them too long to adjust to this higher pressing, as Spartak took full advantage of this short dominant spell.