In their first Champions League game of the 2011/12 season, Ajax were held to a goalless draw by Lyon. While the home side had all kinds of troubles turning their majority share of possession into anything more than slow build-ups, the away side proved efficient in creating chances, yet extremely inefficient in finding the target.
Ajax’ usual formation
Ajax started with their familiar wide wingers 4-3-3 shape. The only variety applied recently by Frank de Boer in personal terms concerns Ajax’ left back position, where the three of Boilesen, Anita and Blind have shared starting spots so far. Tonight young Boilesen is preferred, indicating Ajax’ offensive intentions going into this match.
Lyon were without three of their big stars as Cris, Gourcuff and Lisandro were absent. Gonalons partnered Källstrom in central midfield, while Grenier dropped off striker Gomis in the hole of the 4-2-3-1. Lyon’s formation showed most characteristics of a 4-2-3-1, although their defensive compactness throughout the match made it look most like a genuine 4-5-1 with both banks grouped closely together.
The first half
The game started with frantic pressing by Lyon, but they abandoned that kick-start tactic after a few minutes. From that moment on, Lyon mostly took a deep stance, waiting for Ajax to build from the back, while keeping the midfield populated densely. Their five midfielders faced Ajax’ three nominal midfielders, which explained much of the game throughout the first half.
Ajax dominated possession at 64% to Lyon’s 36%, but had a lot of problems playing the ball into the midfield, where Lyon had a numerical advantage, and with that, a dominant position. Ajax’ supposed midfield playmaker Eriksen saw quite some of the ball, but was limited in his creative options with so many opposing players close by, while Siem de Jong hardly featured in the first half of the match. Theo Janssen, Ajax’ only deeper midfielder, was closely marked by Grenier, making it difficult for the centre-backs to reach him in the build ups.
While Ajax had trouble turning their possession into anything more than a handful of off target headers from corners, Lyon turned their limited share of possession into promising shooting positions. Striker Gomis had a few shooting chances from inside the box that all arose from quick ground counters after Ajax lost the ball in the midfield area.
The previously raised point on Lyon’s 5v3 dominance comes into the debate here too, as Ajax was forced to bring more bodies to the midfield battle and did so by regularly advancing the full-backs. While Van der Wiel did contribute positively to Ajax’ offensive game, youngster Boilesen was caught out losing possession more than once, inducing dangerous counters with his flank abandoned. Aside from advancing full-backs, also one of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld did advance into defensive midfield at times in attempts to tackle the numerical midfield disadvantage, which obviously also opened option for Lyon to counter.
The second half
The main difference between the first half and the start of the second half was that, either voluntarily or forced, Ajax allowed, or had to allow, more of the possession to their opponents. This did open up more space for Ajax’ offensive midfield to operate in, but Ajax gradually seemed to run out of power to fully take advantage of these options.
Their best spell was probably around the hour mark, when Ajax produced three quick shots on target in succession, which were also their first ones on target. All three of these arose from situations where either a central defender (Vertonghen) or a full-back (Van der Wiel) provided the finish or the key pass.
De Boer’s first substitution, carried out around the 70th minute mark, exactly like in the Heracles match a few days ago, tackled exactly Ajax’ main problem area. Anita replaced Janssen, who, as described above, had a tough time receiving passes at feet due to Grenier’s excellent man-marking duties. Another major problem for Janssen in his presumed deep-lying playmaker role was the difficulty to reach Siem de Jong and Christian Eriksen who were well shielded by Lyon’s numerical advantage in midfield.
After substituting Janssen, both De Jong and Eriksen were seen to collect the ball from slightly deeper positions and Ajax’ distribution showed more variety. Partly as a result of this, the game opened up a bit more, with both sides being presented more scoring opportunities, where they continued to display their troubles to find the target.
In the end
Overall, both sides produced a fairly comparable amount and quality of goal scoring chances, making a draw a fair result. From a tactical standpoint it’s interesting to realize the different philosophy of creating these chances. Ajax aimed practically all of their build-ups at keeping possession, gradually attempting to build their way around Lyon’s packed midfield. Lyon, on the other hand, aimed to snatch upon the options presented as soon as Ajax lost possession in midfield.