Ajax ended a difficult streak of European football, to virtually secure the third place in their Champions League group, while also keeping sight on the second place that would provide a prolonged Champions League season. They did so with their single holding midfielder 4-3-3 system, albeit with a genuine destroyer at the base of the midfield. This allowed them to take advantage of the space provided by Zagreb’s 4-4-2 diamond system.
In the absence of striker Sigthorsson, Frank de Boer preferred Siem de Jong up front, rather than target man Bulykin. De Jong offers more passing advantage and off the ball movement, better suiting Ajax’ possession based game than Bulykin would do. The vacancy that this created in central midfield was filled in by advancing Theo Janssen to a more advanced role, an opportunity he took with both hands. Playing in a style and position reminiscent of his player-of-the-season performance at Twente last year, Janssen did an excellent job distributing the ball.
With both De Jong and Janssen playing more advanced than they did before, Eyong Enoh was introduced in the holding midfield role. Enoh is a genuine destroyer type of midfielder, which allows both Janssen and Eriksen a solid base to build upon. He is often criticized for his lack of passing quality, but in this match he completed 43 of his 45 passes (96%), provided 2 key passes and won 6 of 8 tackles.
Dinamo Zagreb’s 4-4-2 diamond
Judging by the excellent football-lineups.com website, Zagreb is a team that tends to mix it up between single and double striker systems. While mostly playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, against Ajax, perhaps pressed by the urgency to win this match in order to keep sight on the third place of the group, they preferred a 4-4-2 system. Their star player, Brazilian Sammir, played in close proximity behind strikers Beciraj and Rukavina.
The first half
Despite De Boer’s promise to start the game with a high level of pressing, it was Ajax who were on the back foot from the first minute on. Zagreb pressed their opponents very high up the pitch, thereby also creating an early goal scoring chance. But as Ajax grew more and more awareness of this high level of pressing, they seemed more capable of playing around the pressure, which opened up space for their own passing game.
An important tactical point in this game is the concept of two teams playing each other with two genuinely different formations. Both Zagreb’s strikers were dealt with by Ajax’ centre backs, with both full-backs ready to help out at times. Enoh did an excellent job neutralizing Sammir’s danger, thereby significantly limiting Zagreb’s offensive options.
In midfield, Ajax’ pair of Janssen and Eriksen succeeded in exploiting the main strength of single striker formations, overloading the opposing midfield. When playing flat 4-4-2’s this should allow the three of Enoh-Janssen-Eriksen to overload a flat pair of central midfielders, and against a diamond midfield, the pair of Janssen and Eriksen overloaded single holding midfielder Calello.
This could have been different had Zagreb not displayed as offensive intentions as they did, but with shuttling midfielders Badelj and Leko often venturing forward, the coverage of the central midfield area was often left at the hands of Calello alone. A series of Ajax chances and half chances was the result, and it was a matter of failed conversion rather than failed creation that kept Ajax from taking a lead. Furthermore, Zagreb’s lack of control was expressed by the high yellow card count, with three of their five defensive players being booked before half time. Most, if not all, of Zagreb’s opportunities arose from simple passes going astray in Ajax’ back line, with particularly Gregory van der Wiel playing way below his usual level.
The second half
With the score level and Ajax dominating possession-wise and slightly dominating chance-wise, Zagreb manager Jurcic seemed intent on increasing the offensive stance of his team. Zagreb’s full-back played higher up the pitch, aiming to win balls earlier on.
The exact opposite of what Jurcic had intended was the result of his move. Ajax took advantage of the space conceded behind Zagreb’s full-backs and exploited the pace of wingers Boerrigter and Sulejmani. The pair of them combined for Ajax’ opening goal in the 48th minute.
After that, there was no way back for Zagreb. Having tried to force the opening goal themselves, they were now in dire need of a comeback goal and were obliged to further increase their offensive intentions. Ajax, however, took excellent use of the extra space provided and Theo Janssen could be seen to spark in a role reminiscent of his excellent past season at Twente.
With the narrow 0-1 score line, the game became more and more of an end-to-end affair, with Ajax having only their weak conversion of goal scoring chances to blame for the fact that it was still a tight match. In the end it was Christian Eriksen who converted a one-on-one chance, having played through by Dimitri Bulykin, who had replaced Boerrigter by then.
Quite a tell tale perhaps was the fact that, forced to remove winger Boerrigter, De Boer refrained from his most expected change to move Eriksen out wide and retract De Jong to his midfield position. Instead, De Jong was shifted out wide, which kept the midfield three, who all had excellent games, as it was.
In the end
It is too early to base any favorable conclusions regarding Ajax’ game on this one match, but these three points do virtually guarantee a prolongation of the European football campaign for them. The fact that Zagreb used a 4-4-2 diamond system, rather than their usual 4-2-3-1, certainly helped Ajax to find the spaces in midfield to express their dominant passing game. And on top of that, pushing the full-backs up in the second half was the one thing needed for Ajax to exploit, given the pace of their wingers.
A sparkling performance by the midfield three of Enoh-Janssen-Eriksen may inspire De Boer to refrain from using Janssen in a single holding midfielder role. And if it’s anything to go by, the choice to move De Jong wide, rather than pulling him back to the midfield role may strengthen this thought.