In a true goal fest, that ultimately saw Utrecht run out 6-4 winners, both teams illustrated their short-comings, rather than their qualities. The prejudice of the Eredivisie being a high scoring league due to a generally low level of defending was fed once more, as virtually all of today’s nine goals involved defensive weaknesses rather than offensive brilliance.
Disappointing would be the best one-word summary of Utrecht’s season up to this game. Having competed in the Europa League group stage of the past season , Utrecht are a very different side at this moment in time. Of last year’s squad that beat Ajax 3-0 at home for De Boer’s first defeat as Ajax manager, only three players remain today. Influential players like Dries Mertens and Kevin Strootman were sold to PSV, while striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel left for Sporting Lissabon. To make things worse, goal keeper Michel Vorm left during pre-season to join new Premier League side Swansea and captain and Danish international Michael Silberbauer left Utrecht for Swiss side Young Boys.
With such severe depletion, only moderate expectations should be kept this present season, and unfortunately this has been what’s in store for Utrecht so far. On top of the exodus of first team players, manager Erwin Koeman, who had only just started his work at the club this summer, left a few weeks ago, with former Ajax manager Jan Wouters taking care for the moment.
In tactical terms, Utrecht lines up in a 4-3-3 formation with central midfielder Asare looking to roam behind strong striker Mulenga, and the pair of Sneijder and Mårtensson responsible for holding the midfield.
Ajax’ flirt with the 3-3-1-3
During this year’s Dutch Cup campaign, Frank de Boer first showed his three-at-the-back system in competitive matches. He did so again amateur side Noordwijk, and later on away at Roda. Against Roda’s 4-4-2 diamond, the 3-3-1-3 did an excellent job, providing an excellent example of why defense should ideally contain one man more than the offenses their defending. De Boer stuck with the system for the follow-up Eredivisie match, again away at Roda, and Ajax earned another victory.
In the preface of the Zagreb match, last week, De Boer proclaimed that Zagreb playing a single striker formation was the main reason not to go with the 3-3-1-3 again, in turn choosing for the more familiar 4-3-3 formation, with offensive full-backs, complemented with offensive intentions for centre-back Vertonghen.
Against Utrecht’s 4-3-3, De Boer went with the expected 4-3-3 again. With Sigthorsson out for quite some time, Siem de Jong made another start in the striker position, although he got injured as early as in the second minute, when Dmitri Bulykin replaced him.
Spectacle or painful?
With five first half goals scored it does not make sense to go through all of them in chronological order to describe the tactical developments during the match. As a general theme, both teams threw any notion of control over the space in front of their back fours to the wind and paid the price for it. A match like this will generally go down as a spectacle and a ‘really good game to watch’, but at times the defensive performances of both teams were that far below par that it was painful to watch.
Let’s first describe Utrecht in this regard, and then turn our attention to the visitors. Jan Wouters, known more for his motivational than his tactical qualities in a general sense, lost the balance in his team in midfield. When deploying a 4-3-3 with wide strikers, rather than wide midfielders who tend to put in defensive shifts too, the balance in defensive terms needs to come from the central midfielders. Utrecht fielded three central midfielders today, but Asare mainly played close to striker Mulenga, and apart from topping the fouls charts of the Eredivisie, he is not known for his defensive input. Of the remaining two midfielders, Sneijder (brother Rodney, on loan from Ajax, that is) is a renowned playmaker more than a holding midfielder.
With a defensive line of four afraid to push up all too high when faced with the pace of Boerrigter and Sulejmani, the pair of Sneijder and Mårtersson could never cover the wide space in front of the defense. The resulting freedom was a gift, most notably for Eriksen, but also for both Ajax’ wingers when Utrecht’s full-backs needed to support the centre-backs by playing narrow.
Contrary to Utrecht, Ajax did field a genuine holding midfielder in terms of Eyong Enoh. And he did a decent job playing against Asare, apart from that one moment where Enoh failed to step out of Ajax’ back line, which allowed Asare all the time he needed to fire in a shot, finding the net after Enoh’s unlucky deflection. Although the deflection proved vital for that particular shot to find the back of the net, Asare’s wide movement saw him escape the zone of Enoh to the right wing time and again, allowing him to join Duplan in overloading Ajax’ left-back Anita.
An important development in terms of Ajax’ back line might have been the early substitution of Toby Alderweireld. André Ooijer, who replaced him, lacks the pace and agility to deal with quick balls over the top, balls that are inevitably going to come given Ajax’ possession centered style of play. Ooijer’s short-comings in this regard were well illustrated in Utrecht’s second goal.
Ooijer was again at fault for inadequately marking Bovenberg for Utrecht’s third goal of the day. The right-back, who scored regularly from indirect set pieces for Excelsior last season, wasn’t tracked by Ooijer in a man-marking set piece situation that should be well-known terrain for a veteran defender.
Ajax’ miscommunications in the back line were frequent, and most of them could be dealt with through late tackles, but for Utrecht’s fourth goal the defensive line was all over the place. Ajax generally has its defense playing for offside in order to control the space behind the defensive line, but today the centre-backs and full-backs had all sorts of trouble keeping that offside line intact. For the fourth goal none of the four defenders even stayed on the same height of the pitch, and Mulenga was easily onside and in behind the defense.
Finally, Ajax’ fifth conceded goal will hopefully be seen as a demonstration that pragmatism should triumph over principle. Sometimes referred to as ‘the Dutch Disease’, consequently re-circulating the ball to your own goal keeper led to a series of precarious back passes, one of which ultimately saw Vermeer give possession away, only for Asare for fin the back of an empty net.
In the end
Matches like these can be described as either a ‘true goal fest’, or a painful series of defensive errors, and in terms of tactically reviewing a match the latter prevails. In honesty, both teams should have won this match based on their opponents short-comings and the fact that in offensive terms, they generally took advantage of the space presented.
For Utrecht, there may still be hope that Wouters will sort out this obvious problem of conceding acres of space in midfield, although his track record as manager before doesn’t serve to provide much confidence here.
And for Ajax, this may well be the most disappointing defensive performance of the season. The back line was all over the place, missing the communication that is essential in a team that aims to put pressure on their opponent, and therefore plays with a high defensive line. The substitution of Ooijer for Alderweireld introduced a painful series of problems in terms of (A) communication, (B) positioning, and (C) pace to make up for short-comings in either (A) or (B).