Ajax went into this game, knowing that they needed to turn up the efficiency after their profligacy of the first leg, leading to a 0-1 loss with a goal scoring chances ratio of 17 to 3. But at the half hour mark they saw themselves two goals down and the game was virtually over. Spartak’s initial pressing dislodged Ajax formation and the home team took excellent advantage.
As indicated in the preview to this game, Ajax played their familiar 4-3-3 line-up with just one change compared to the first leg. High-flying goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg fractured his thumb in training, has been operated this week and might not make it back into Ajax’ first team before the end of the season. And with a presumed transfer this summer, he might just have played his last match for the club. On other news, striker Mounir El Hamdaoui still isn’t part of Ajax’ first team squad, after falling out big time with manager de Boer on disciplinary issues.
Spartak started the first leg without pace striker Welliton, Russia’s top scorer of the past season, but he has returned from full fitness and featured in the starting eleven for this game. This means that Artem Dzjuba started from the bench. Another first team regular that returned to the starting eleven was defender Aleksandr Sheshukov, who filled in for Marek Suchy, as the young Czech was suspended after his yellow card in Amsterdam.
Opening phase pressing
In the opening fifteen minutes Spartak pressed heavily and this seemed to take Ajax by surprise. Almost being pressed over their own back line, Ajax’ ball retention was awful and Spartak completely dominated the game. A tell tale of Spartak’s heavy pressing was the frequent involvement of both full-backs during this phase of the game. As if to illustrate this, it was left-back Makeev who was presented with the best early goal scoring opportunity during this phase, but his shot was well blocked by third choice goalkeeper Jeroen Verhoeven.
As is generally the case, this intense level of pressing started to fade around the ten to fifteen minute mark. But this time Spartak did not just fade away in terms of pressing, they seemed to deliberately switch off the pressing and trade it for a deeper stance. The huge contrast between the first and second fifteen minutes and the sudden transition in pressure around the fifteen minute mark could be indicators of a deliberate choice to stop pressing at this intense level. And should this have been a deliberate move by Karpin, it was a game-winning one.
Ajax’ broken formation
In a sense, Ajax never recovered from this early Spartak pressing episode. Their defensive line was pressed to a deep stance early on, but never recovered when the face of the game changed. When Spartak took a more patient approach, Ajax naturally started dominating possession for a while. During this second fifteen minutes of the game Spartak absorbed and neutralized Ajax’ game perfectly, playing a well organized and compact zonal unit, consisting of the back four and the two holding midfielders, Ibson and Carioca. This ensured that in this vital area of the pitch they were always sure to outnumber Ajax’ attackers.
And the key problem for Ajax in this phase was that their defensive line did not adjust accordingly. They maintained a relatively deep position, perhaps in the wake of Welliton’s pace on the counter attack, allowing Spartak way too much space in front of Ajax’ own defense. Vurnon Anita had his hands full man-marking Alex, and any drifting by the Spartak playmaker opened up acres of space for any midfielder to run into.
A matter of time
With Ajax’ formation laid out in broken fashion, it was only a matter of time before they would start conceding. And in quick succession they did. Around the half hour mark Ajax had conceded two goals and, miracles beside, the game was over. The remaining part of the first half consisted of Spartak sitting comfortably on their lead and the young Ajax team dazing to the half time whistle.
Second half changes
Ajax started the second half with two substitutions. Enoh and Özbiliz replaced Blind and Sulejmani, moving Anita to the left-back position. But these individual changes could never cure the bigger problem of the broken formation that lead to the 2-0 half time score line.
In addition to the two substitutions, Blind also moved both central midfielders, Eriksen and De Zeeuw, into a more advanced position, effectively changing the 4-3-3 to an offensive 4-1-4-1 variant. And this immediately brought more balance to the game, although the fact that Spartak took their foot off the gas given their comfortable lead, must be taken into account in no small part too.
The support lent by De Zeeuw to Eriksen in the offensive midfield role allowed Ajax more passing options amid the compact block formed by Spartak’s defensive unit: the back-line and the two holding midfielders. Furthermore, by creating what was in effect a line of four right behind striker De Jong, the 4-1-4-1 formation reduced the changes of Spartak playing around Ajax’ high pressing midfielders, a situation that led to a lot of problems in the first half. On top of these changes, Ajax played a higher line, partly forced by the fact that they had to score no less than three goals in order to advance.
Despite the more balanced game, Spartak finished the game off at the hour mark with a nice long range direct free kick. Playmaker Alex curled the ball into the far post, beyond the reaching arms of Verhoeven.
In the end
While the first leg loss may be interpreted as an unlikely outcome of a match that Ajax dominated, this second leg affair was a very different story. Spartak’s early intense pressing seemed to catch Ajax by surprise, and particularly the sudden switch to a more patient game led to a broken Ajax formation. The acres of space conceded in front of the defensive line were far too much for single holding midfielder Anita to cover by himself, as he also had a strict man-marking job on playmaker Alex to do.
By the time De Boer had come to address these issues, Ajax were already a decisive two goals down and in the end the 3-0 score line reflected the fact that Spartak outwitted and outplayed Ajax today.