BeNeLook: Ajax coach Frank de Boer needs a reality check
As Yassin Ayoub slotted home in the 87th minute on Sunday, it confirmed a disappointing result for Ajax that is all too familiar for Frank de Boer. In five years as manager of the Amsterdam side which include four consecutive league titles, the coach has never beaten FC Utrecht in the Galgenwaard.
While it was the first goal of the game and there was still time left, it seemed there was no chance of the Dutch giants clinching the important equaliser as they had never looked like finding a goal throughout the game.
The clash offered the table toppers the chance to extend their lead over reigning champions and main rivals PSV, who dropped two points to Roda JC the previous night.
“I’ve seen a team with real desire,” De Boer reflected after the game, looking to explain his side’s inability to find the net. “You all think it’s easy to get through such a wall. The solution was to play with more one-on-one duels or play more opportunistically, but I have not seen the latter.”
“You saw it with PSV against Roda. It’s not easy against an extremely defensive team.”
“Extremely defensive” – De Boer’s categorisation of struggling Roda JC and mid-table FC Utrecht.
By that summary, you would imagine Ajax came up against a brick wall of an opponent. An utterly conservative and restrictive team intent only on preventing them from getting through on goal, with no intention of creating chances themselves. The coach said after the game that he was not looking to make excuses and that Ajax were lacking a creative spark – the latter is true, but his assertion of a regressive FC Utrecht is completely false (as false as his assessment of the reasons behind PSV’s failings).
If one team looked like scoring, it was Ajax, is the former Netherlands coach’s suggestion, but the opposite is true. The “Sons of the Gods” failed to have a single attempt in the second half of Sunday’s game. Utrecht had five. To label them an “extremely defensive” team is of course not a real criticism, but it suggests De Boer – publicly at least – is completely ignoring the true weaknesses of his team.
Utrecht are not a defensively focused side, they are a well organised one. The visitors’ strategy on Sunday seemed to hinge on right winger Anwar El Ghazi beating defenders in one-on-ones, but with him completely isolated, he found himself faced with a line of three defenders at times. The same went for Amin Younes on the left. Arek Milik’s movement was non-existent, while Davy Klaassen failed to make many connections with team-mates in advanced areas. For a team centred around a passing philosophy, the only way they were going to get through the back line was by individual quality – something De Boer looks to discourage over team moves due to the increase in risk. Utrecht thrive on that. If they can isolate and then double up on players, they easily cover for the deficiencies of their own defenders. Ajax did half of the work for them as there was a complete disconnect through the attack.
His side lined up in a 3-4-3 as a way to gain an advantage against Utrecht’s expected 4-4-2 line up – looking at the game in numbers and his players as pawns, as opposed to tuning his side to prepare them for the style of play they were actually faced with. If Erik Ten Hag thought this was “a tactical game of chess”, then De Boer was a rookie coming up against Bobby Fischer.
Truly, if De Boer genuinely believes Sunday’s opponents were ultra-defensive and that Ajax deserved to win, he is delusional. Hopefully he is just lying for the cameras.
This is typical of the coach this season – he is completely unwilling to acknowledge the failings of his strategy and his team. Excuses such as the age of his squad, defensive nature of opponents and bad luck have been used this term. De Boer has the luxury this time around of being able to improve on his team. No first team regulars left during the summer, while Nemanja Gudelj was signed from AZ and Mitchell Dijks returned when he was bought back from Willem II.
The opening Europa League game this season against Celtic in Amsterdam was a pivotal example. That time his side really did come up against an ultra-defensive side, but still managed to concede two goals and relied on a red card and a lucky goal to secure a 2-2 draw. Cross after cross was thrown into the box, with his players spread out and never moving into pockets of space to bring any kind of intricacy to their play. Ajax’s last attack of the game was practically identical to their first – ball out wide from the midfield, cross in and watch the attack falter. It was easy work for a relatively weak Celtic team to keep them quiet.
Ronny Deila was gutted not to take three points and he was right to be so. De Boer, on the other hand, decided to defend his insistence on Ajax’s wing-based game. “Celtic parked two buses,” he said. “It’s not just the first ball you need to think about, sometimes it drops well for you and you can create a chance from there.” It never worked and it never looked like working, but still he failed to address the issue during the game and had no interest in admitting that the set up was incorrect – this assessment can be applied to four of the other five of Ajax’s Europa League games.
What De Boer says in public and what he really thinks may be two different things, of course, and hopefully they are. But that not enough has changed over the last few months to correct issues which have been blatant since the start of the season is worrying.
He has been relying on the same tactical tweaks over the last five years. They worked the first few times and were impressive changes – throwing a midfielder on as a false No.9 and allowing for more effective passing up the pitch – but they are irrelevant now due to the difference in personnel. He needs to find a new way to inject a fresh style and strategy into his team and for the last year and a half he has failed miserably.
For a coach many (this writer included) touted as a future star, things are looking grim. Perhaps complacency is to blame, with De Boer now having entered his sixth year as Ajax boss, but with a summer move looking likely, he really has to bring something new to this team heading into the second half of the season. Otherwise that fifth league title, as well as the coveted jobs in Europe, will pass him by.