Frank de Boer lost his first Eredivisie home game as an Ajax manager, while Utrecht set a unique series of four wins out of the past for meetings with their fierce rivals. With the complete forward three and back four of his presumed starting XI missing, De Boer never got his team going, while Utrecht proved well organized in defense and taking maximum advantage of the opportunities presented.
This is the first 11tegen11 article to use in-match data. Credit goes to Infostrada Sports, without whom this article could never have been created.
Ajax played an improvised and very young starting XI, with only Enoh, Janssen and Vermeer aged over 23. At the back, Daley Blind made only his tenth Eredivisie start as a centre-back, while his partner Ricardo van Rhijn (3) and left-back Dico Koppers (2) were only just past their starting debuts. Up front, Siem de Jong played the striker role, with Özbiliz and Ebecilio on the wings. Ajax’ midfield seemed least undone by the wave of injuries that hit the squad hard, the midfield three of Eriksen-Janssen-Enoh had started the past four matches too.
For this match, Jan Wouters changed his usual 4-3-3 formation in order to exploit Ajax’ presumed weaknesses. He declared prior to the game that his choice for a flat 4-4-2 system was motivated by the fact that Ajax was forced to start a young centre-back pairing, which he wanted target with the physical presence of Demouge and Gerndt. In midfield, Utrecht missed Martensson, which meant a return to the starting XI for Ajax loanee Rodney Sneijder.
The opening phase
Utrecht’s game plan was easy to decipher right from the kick-off, and it worked very well. Jan Wouters’ team looked quite comfortable out of possession, keeping the two banks of four tight together and refraining from playing an all too high defensive line altogether. Going into this game, Utrecht were one of only two sides that had more possession away from home than at home, even having the lowest overall possession at home of all teams (43.3%).
In possession, they quickly passed the ball forward to target man Frank Demouge. The Utrecht striker smartly dropped off the front line a bit, to win balls in the air in the area of the pitch that was generally covered by Enoh, which allowed Demouge to exploit his length advantage.
Ajax, meanwhile, once again enjoyed possession in their own half. Just like in their away loss at Feyenoord, the Amsterdam side seemed impotent in possession, having all sorts of trouble circulating the ball into the final third of the pitch. Ajax ‘outpassed’ their opponents in sheer number of passes (694 vs 374) and pass completion (76% vs 59%), but this dominance never reflected in the danger it created. The majority of passes were made too far away from Utrecht’s goal, as indicated by the fact that Ajax’ back four of Anita (94), Blind (76), Van Rhijn (74) and Koppers (70) were responsible for 59.6% of all passes.
Judging by the pass count, Ajax had quite some trouble getting left winger Ebecilio into the game. He received only 29 passes throughout the game, compared to Özbiliz’ 47. On top of that, both of Ajax wingers did not contribute anything in terms of offensive threat. Both completed around 55% of their passes, indicating that Ajax lost a lot of possession on the wings, an indirect compliment to Utrechts organized defensive, with excellent games by both full-backs who were well assisted by the defensive work of wide midfielders Kali and Duplan.
Utrecht’s defensive organization was further reflected in their interceptions. While overall, Utrecht did not make significantly more interceptions that Ajax did, they did so in a different part of the pitch. The majority of the 124 turnovers that Ajax won were won in defense (71), while Utrecht often intercepted the ball earlier, winning 49 of their 132 turnovers in midfield. Upon such turnovers, they quickly launched balls forward in the direction of Demouge.
Close to half time, Utrecht took the lead. The first forward run by one of their full-backs allowed Dave Bulthuis to cross from the left wing. Kenneth Vermeer made a mess of his high ball clearance and the ball simply fell to Duplan, who found the back of the empty net with Utrecht’s first shot on target.
The second half
Changes were needed the get Ajax going, and indeed some changes were made. Theo Janssen did not return to the pitch, his place taken by Nicolas Lodeiro, which moved De Jong into a central midfield / second striker role. Full-backs Anita and particularly Koppers were pushed forward more too. The switch around in midfield solved part of the problems that Ajax had. In the first half, De Jong lacked all sorts of support, with Janssen refraining from overlapping, and Eriksen more in a distributing role than coming at the end of moves.
Much of the impotence of Ajax was demonstrated by the fact that by the hour mark Ajax fired in its second shot on target of the game. Ajax’ inefficiency in possession was also demonstrated by looking at the length of possession spells of both teams. Ajax’ average length of possession was 23 seconds, compared to Utrecht’s 14.5. However, Ajax average length of possession that generated a shot was only 9.4, compared to Utrecht’s 35!
This illustrates the fact that, despite dominating possession, Ajax depended on turnovers in Utrecht’s half, which were mostly a result of individual errors by Utrecht players. Combine the fact that Ajax needed opposition half turnovers to create shots the (above presented) fact that most turnovers were won by defensive players and the problem is well shown. Winning most balls in your own half, while being unable to create anything from longer possession spells indicates quite a flawed concept.
Utrecht, on the contrary, were very effective in their longer possession. Admittedly, their possessions were generally shorter, but on longer spells they did managed to create danger. Think of long balls up to the target man striker. Since Demouge loses the ball a lot in such a tactic, possession spells were generally short, but once he did hold the ball up, Utrecht connected very well.
Fading to the end
The graph below illustrates both teams’ completed passes per chunk of five minutes. As can be seen from the graph, Ajax faded around the hour mark. From that moment on, their passing dominance disappeared and only a single shot on target resulted from what should have been on offensive spell in chasing the equalizer. Near the end of the match, Eduard Duplan doubled his tally, with only Utrecht’s second shot on target in the game, further hurting Vermeer’s terrible save percentage, which will see him re-take the bottom spot in the Eredivisie in this regard, with 28.0% of shots on target finding the back of his net.
In the end
This was probably the worst performance that I’ve seen by an Ajax team and for sure the worst of the season. That sounds harsh, but there are objective parameters to go with that. De Boer lost his first Eredivisie home game, Ajax failed to keep a clean sheet for the eighth of nine home Eredivisie games this year, Vermeer failed to keep any of the two shots on target out. Both Ajax’ 8 shots and their 4 shots on target were a season low.
If Ajax turned in its worst performance, the credit should go to Utrecht. Wouters’ switch to two up front worked very well and Demouge played a perfect target man role, targeting Enoh to win headers off. His partnership with Gerndt, who played an energetic and dynamic game around the more static strike was very well executed. In defensive regard, Utrecht’s midfield turned in a performance of high quality, the wide men keeping close to the full-backs, thereby eliminating Ajax’ wingers from the game, and the central midfielders winning balls early on.
Data for this article were provided by Infostrada Sports. Without their generous support, this article could not have been written!