Cham-pains League: What do Ajax have to do to progress in Europe?
8th December 2010. After the sudden departure of the first team manager, the reserves coach was asked to take over. A seasoned former defender but with no top-level managerial experience, leading his old club in its moment of need in the most prestigious competition in the continent – one which he had won as a player – against one of the traditional footballing giants of the competition, actually the very team which he beat in the finals to win his medal as a player.
A chilly night in Milan saw a Frank de Boer-led Ajax emerge victorious over Milan, in his first game in charge of the club as trainer, courtesy of goals by de Zeeuw and Toby Alderweireld. The Amsterdam club could still not qualify for the Round of 16, but in what was a refined performance, the future definitely seemed bright under the novice coach.
13th December 2013. The former reserves coach had now won three domestic league titles on the trot – equaling the record of two revolutionary managers at his club. He took his side to that same team he faced in his first ever match in charge, with a young team, having seen over the last 3 years, his buds blossom into flowers and be sold to suitors. His club needed but a win to qualify for the next round and on the back of two wins in the continent, had every chance to do so.
However, on another chilly night in Milan, what panned out was a goalless draw, where the Dutch side dominated with 71% possession, had 25 shots – 5 on target – but could not find a way past Abbiati. Ajax yet again finished in third place – as they had done in the last three seasons – and were to participate in the Europa League.
However, the Europa League has yielded no fruit either, with exits in the Round of 16 and Round of 32 in the last few seasons.
A few months back, Frank de Boer – with arguably his weakest Ajax squad of recent years (only beaten by this season’s squad) – carved his name into the long-running Ajax legend, becoming the first manager to win four consecutive Eredivisie titles with the Godenzonen, but on the European front, Ajax are still struggling to get their spikes off the starting blocks.
Being drawn with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Dortmund, Milan and Manchester City in their groups so far does not help the cause but Ajax have shown that they are capable of defeating some of these teams and should be looking to finish in 2nd place in their group as a realistic target, given their domestic domination and potential as a team. The UEFA Gods and the drawing system still evidently hates them though – being drawn against two massive teams in Barcelona and PSG as well as APOEL Nicosia, who can be a threat if allowed it. 2nd place may be a bridge too far this season but that is not to say they should not aim for it, or use it as an excuse to continue their poor form in the Europa League too – where they should come up against relatively easier opposition.
However, looking at European competitions in general, Frank de Boer has to be tactically more flexible and give in to some pragmatism when the situation demands it. He must understand the shortcomings of his squad and tweak his tactics such that it fits the bill of his players and it can be done in a way that doesn’t compromise the ‘Ajax style’. De Boer’s Ajax typically play an offensive 4-3-3, with one holding midfielder and very attack-minded fullbacks that push up to form a 2-3-2-3 on field in a high-posession-high-press system. While this has brought great success on the domestic front where the quality of a lot of teams is not at Ajax’s level, when faced with equal or better teams – or even PEC Zwolle, who dismantled Ajax 5-1 in a fan violence-ridden KNVB Beker final – Ajax’s formation seems to fall apart and the naïveté in approach exposed embarrassingly.
In this system, the holding midfielder is excessively worked because he – as one player – has to cover for both fullbacks – two players, functioning high up on opposite sides of the pitch. Exposed first by Real Madrid in 2012 and recently by Roger Schmidt’s Red Bull Salzburg, the two venturing fullbacks leave acres of space behind them and Ajax, naturally, play a high line. This means that with quick distribution of the ball and possibly a swift switch of sides can completely catch Ajax out. Like in the screenshot below, the attacking van Rhijn leaves a lot of grass behind him and when Salzburg get the ball, they switched it around so quickly that Blind – the holding midfielder – was soon left trailing. The centreback pairing became lopsided as Veltman went for the ball but didn’t manage to get it and Moisander positioned himself too close to Veltman, anticipating an impending run from Soriano. However, this opened up a massive gap in the centre for new Southampton signing Saido Mane to be put through on goal and the tracking back leftback (who is actually an attacking midfielder), Lerin Duarte could not do enough while sprinting back to prevent the Senegalese midfielder from slotting past Cillessen.
Moreover, Ajax like to build up their attack patiently when in possession, with the two centrebacks – currently Veltman and Moisander – heavily involved in bringing the ball out of defence. They are used to teams pressing high initially in the Eredivisie but it is rare that it lasts more than the opening 15-20 minutes of the game. Ajax eventually are allowed to have the ball and play their game. However, when the pressing persists for long periods in a game, it disrupts Ajax’s rhythm in formation as the defence line drops deeper and a bigger gap results between the advancing midfield and fullbacks, and the ‘three’ centrebacks. This was a problem even with Blind but will be more pronounced now, with Viergever, since he is naturally, well, a centreback. In his few matches in midfield, he does tend to drop much deeper into the defence than Blind did so it becomes a 3-4-3 more than a 2-3-2-3. New boy Niki Zimling is a fantastic technical player when he’s fit – which Ajax will hope he will be for most of the season – and he could fit into the #6 role better.
An option could be to play both Zimling and Viergever together in European ties at the expense of Serero. De Boer did try out Blind and Viergever together in the early parts of the season and there definitely was a better defensive stability to the team with Blind’s legs and creativity while Viergever sat back. However, Zimling is not Blind and does not possess the vision he did, but this is still a fairly good option compared to the current midfield triumvirate which seems so disjointed.
However, the problem is not simply with defending. Even when they have the ball, Ajax do not seem to be able to break down the defences in Europe – highlighted by their goalless draw v Milan, which killed their closest chance at progressing to the knockouts for the first time since 2006.
Having gone a man down in the first half, when Montolivo was sent off, Milan turned to an ultra-defensive strategy and though Ajax dominated, they simply could not score. De Boer’s decision to play Bojan as a striker was a gamble that did not pay off, the little Catalan – already in a bad vein of form – finding it hard to cope by Bonera and Zapata. Moreover, it made little sense when juxtaposed with the fact that both Blind and van Rhijn kept bombarding the box with crosses, but their target man was 170cm tall with not particularly exceptional heading skills.
At half time, the taller and stronger Hoesen replaced Bojan up front, with the ex-Barcelona man moving to the right and Schone to the deep midfield role, though typically it would’ve made more sense to revert to three at the back, push Blind up to his more natural, effective midfield role and attack more purposefully. The last straw on the night was bringing Mike van der Hoorn on – which was supposedly since he is a 190cm tall defender and offers a good target when crossing into the box, but he is a defender nonetheless and lacks the movement inside the box to be effective.
It is not as if de Boer has never been tactically flexible before, he has and he has seen success, such as the 3-1 win at the Etihad where he opted to switch Siem de Jong and Eriksen’s roles, playing Eriksen in a false 9 position and Siem de Jong in midfield – the opposite of where you would usually expect de Jong and Eriksen to play. This worked to great effect as Eriksen could drop deep to link up play and function in his favored position, while Siem offered the lungs to run up into attack and back, also overlapping Eriksen whose movement caused turbulence between the two centrebacks.
The issue is that for de Boer’s first 3 league wins, Eriksen was the focal point of the team. He created, he supplied, he took them to another level. With his departure, Serero has been brought into the team (Klaassen for de Jong more than Eriksen) and while he offers stamina, he doesn’t offer any creative output. Both Serero and Klaassen are more likely to get on the scoresheet than get someone else on it. Hence, Blind was the midfielder who offered the creativity – along with the almost “deep-deep-playmakers” in centrebacks Moisander and Veltman. Viergever does not possess that sort of a passing range and is more content when just asked to clean up at the back. This is a problem not only in Europe but domestically too, but will be exposed many more times in the continental competition. As already mentioned, when teams realise this and press the centrebacks, Ajax’s fluency is lost. In addition, the team relies heavily upon Lasse Schone to conjure things in attack and give them a direction. Schone plays on the wings but he isn’t the fastest of players and tends to drift in and around the pitch. Place an effective man marker on him and he’s shut out.
The striker predicament is a sticky one. Sigthorsson has been confirmed as a starter vs PSG but his form has been well under par for Ajax for quite some time. He did get on the scoresheet with Iceland but some of the chances he missed vs Groningen and AZ were horrendous. If chances like that present themselves in an elite knockout competition, you should finish them off sans excuses, but with Sigthorsson, you are never quite sure. Arek Milik scored twice on the weekend, but his movement is still lacking and he does not seem to be on the same wavelength as his teammates.
The solution for the overarching problems could be a move not unlike the Eriksen-de Jong switch de Boer did vs Man City. He could inject some much much-needed creativity in midfield by starting Lucas Andersen finally in his favored #10 position alongisde two of Serero, Viergever or Zimling and move Klaassen upto the striker’s role. Klaassen has a brilliant eye for goal and while he is not as creative as an attacking midfielder could be, he definitely has the movement and technical ability to be a ‘false 9’. It is not a role he’s very uncomfortable or unfamiliar with either, having played it for the Dutch U20 team quite a few times.
De Boer has to understand, in Europe, to comprehend that styles around the continent vary differently compared to the Eredivisie, where his team have it slightly easier, with a general overall better quality than his opposition more often than not.. Playing two defensive midfielders when required would not hurt, nor would reacting appropriately to situations with relevant tactical changes.
De Boer hails Louis van Gaal as his managerial inspiration but has to start adapting the 62-year-old soon-to-be Man United coach’s pragmatism in his own management too. When van Gaal realized that without Strootman, a 4-3-3 would fail, he switched the entire formation to a 5-3-2 to make sure at least the rest of the squad would play in roles that both relatively fit them and didn’t jeopardise the team’s chances. Against both Australia and Chile, he switched the formation within the game to 4-3-3 when he felt a change was necessary and a stifling 3-4-3 v Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. It is not necessary that pragmatism comes at the expense of beauty of the ‘Ajax way’ as de Boer likes calling it, it can be incorporated while playing good football, but would require much more efficient and quality players than Ajax possess at the moment.
Though a bit less stubbornness from the manager in his tactics will go a long way, another important aspect to Ajax doing well in Europe is the departure of key players. The Amsterdam club have fared exceptionally well when it is taken into account that they have lost pretty much all of their club captains since Frank de Boer took over, as well as Christian Eriksen – who had been the integral cog in midfield for three title-winning seasons under the ex-Barcelona man, and the likes of Toby Alderweireld, Maarten Stekelenburg and Vurnon Anita.
This is an inevitability at Ajax, has been for much longer than most people think it is and probably will be, given the limitations of the league and the nation in fulfilling footballers’ wishes. As Overmars admitted himself, they have the money to bring in top-draw footballers but no one quite feels attracted by the prospect of playing in the Eredivisie.
It is perhaps a cycle that is vicious at the moment but can be virtuous with the right results. Overmars has to firstly, convince at least a few of his starlets to stay on and let de Boer build a team that can stick together for at least 3 years and secondly, make the right type of investments in the market, signing Richairo Zivkovic and Robert Muric (who is still getting a work permit) is a step in the right direction, definitely, and with the fact that Ajax still have one of the better academies in the Netherlands means that they only need to make a few investments, but have to make sure these investments are not wasted a la Mike van der Hoorn or more significantly, Miralen Sulejmani. The loss of Daley Blind will sting. He was touted to be one of Frank de Boer’s ‘water carriers’ and stay for Ajax for longer than he has, but it is a situation that could have been better handled by Overmars.
The loss of captain Siem de Jong this summer is still a big one, but relatively easier to take compared to Eriksen or Vertonghen, given the fact that Siem had been injured for more than 85% of last season, which means Ajax are much more used to playing – and winning – without the Swiss-born current Newcastle man. The biggest loss possibly comes in the form of Daley Blind – a player who Ajax did not expect to leave until the very end of the transfer market, when Manchester United suddenly swooped in with a bid too good for Overmars to refuse – though it would have been immense as a statement and for Ajax’s on-field fortunes if he had managed to put off the signing and retain Blind.
There is definitely a lack of experience in the Ajax squad at the moment – with an average age of only 22,8 years (which is admittedly influenced a bit by the 29-year-old Moisander and Zimling who aren’t very amazingly experienced themselves despite the age), but this is perhaps what de Boer requires – to both experiment with tactically and be able to retain for a few more years to build a stable team. The likes of van Rhijn, Klaassen and Veltman still have 4-5 years on their contract and realistically, should stay at Ajax at least until 2016.
After years of failure and a managerial merry-go-round, Ajax have come back with a resurgence under Frank de Boer and with the ex-Oranje captain having achieved amazing things in the league, the next logical step would certainly be to focus on the cups – winning the domestic ones and progressing further in the continental ones.
In a group with Barcelona and PSG – both teams capable of even winning the Champions League – 3rd place seems to be Ajax’s place in the group, but this season, at the very least, they must look to progress further in the Europa League. They are not a team of great individuals – they don’t possess that talent that PSV has – but they have to work on being a good team together both domestically and in Europe and while no one expects them to go all in and reach the last four or two, they should be looking to progress more as a team than they have.