Dissecting Ajax’s loss to Barcelona: Frank de Boer’s tactical tweak gone wrong
With over five decades of shared history between the two sides, embedded with legendary figures such as Johan Cruijff and Rinus Michels, Ajax and Barcelona are two teams which have gone on opposite trajectories over a long period of time. The identities remain similar to this day, though, as current Ajax coach Frank de Boer himself is another student of this school, growing up and nurturing his skill in Amsterdam before moving down to Iberia, where he was teammates with current Barca coach Luis Enrique for a few years.
However, times have changed considerably from when Michels and Cruijff moved from ‘European champions’ Ajax to ‘struggling’ Barcelona, and this change in effect was facilitated by the transduction of typical Ajax principles into Barcelona and the very core of the club. The roles have completely reversed over time and now Barcelona have become the medium of exemplification of idealistic Dutch football at levels that Ajax can no longer reach.
In simple terms, Ajax were never going to be favourites when the two sides met in the Champions League on Tuesday. Luis Enrique may not follow Cruijffian principles as religiously as Pep Guardiola and De Boer but he has devised a certain winning formula for a newer-look side while ensuring the style doesn’t deviate so diametrically that it compromises the effectiveness of players; the key is still to bring the best out of the plethora of talent in that squad. The quality in the Barcelona XI was always going to get the better of Ajax at some point in Camp Nou – especially since the Dutch champions have looking anything but confident all season so far.
In his pre-match press conference, De Boer mentioned that his team will ‘try using their style and confidence’ to get some kind of a result, though he conceded that it is hard for any team to get points away to the Blaugrana. In a way, De Boer did and in a way, he deviated from the way Ajax typically play. For one, in the first half, he tried to set his team up in two blocks of four, with both Schone and Kishna playing deeper than usual, Klaassen and Zimling almost parallel to each other and Andersen given the role right off Sigthorsson.
This was because Luis Enrique’s Barcelona tend to concentrate their attackers and midfielders down the middle more often than not, depending on fullbacks for width. At times, their 4-3-3 becomes a diamond, with Neymar and Pedro tucking in to attack the goal and Messi dropping deeper to create, which offers an explanation for his 11-assists tally, matching good friend Cesc Fabregas.
Ajax’s initial 4-4-1-1 set up (*gasps* how could he?! A Dutch team playing something that isn’t a direct variation of a 4-3-3? Insanity!) when Barcelona were in possession worked to nullify the threat of the fullbacks, with 19-year-old Ricardo Kishna coming up against arguably the best attacking right-back in today’s game in Dani Alves. The youngster bore the brunt of his manager’s rather uncharacteristic criticism after the match, being accused of giving Alves ‘too much respect’.
The defence tried to stay as compact as possible to keep the explosive Barcelona front three in check but were caught very much off guard when Lionel Messi dropped to almost assume a midfielder’s position often during the game, with Andres Iniesta advancing a bit to keep the balance. The Argentine was to be marked by the Ajax centrebacks but once he dropped so deep, confusion arose in the Ajax ranks as to who would pick him up. Niki Zimling – who was supposed to close down Iniesta, was caught in two minds, unsure who to pick up. At one point, the Dane motioned to Davy Klaassen to take note of Messi’s presence behind him but the youngster already had Ivan Rakitic on his mind. Niklas Moisander followed him out of defence once or twice but then would direct one of Zimling or Klaassen to follow him and thus, the fluidity of Messi’s positional play caused real problems for Ajax in retaining their defensive shape.
And this is exactly what Barcelona capitalized on to break the deadlock too.
The ball is played by Gerard Pique into Rakitic, who is left unmarked as Zimling is still recovering position and Klaassen has his eye on Messi behind him. As a result, centre-back Veltman charges out of defence to press the Croat.
But just as Joel Veltman comes out, Klaassen moves across too and Rakitic lays the ball off, first time to Messi, who in turn, plays a first-touch pass to Pedro, standing much more centrally than a typical winger would. Pedro plays it back to Messi and the sheer quickness of this move has left a huge space behind the Ajax defence as Veltman scampers to try and get back into position.
Messi runs past Klaassen, at the red-and-white defence and as per, Ajax panic. He cuts both the advancing Moisander and the still-recovering Veltman out. Meanwhile, right-back Ricardo van Rhijn, forgets about Neymar and moves centrally to cover for Veltman which Messi senses and lays off to the Brazilian, who applies the finishing touch past Jasper Cillessen. Collective excellence from Barcelona at their best, but the naïvete of Ajax in keeping their focus and shape also to blame.
De Boer’s words were barely converted into action in the match itself. When playing a team such as Luis Enrique’s men, you either take the initiative and press them high, forcing them back, or you take a much more pragmatic approach and keep a low block, a la Inter in 2010.
Rewind to just last year, when Ajax played Barcelona in Amsterdam and that kind of performance, is perhaps what the Ajax boss wanted. The Dutch side started brightly in that match, albeit against a weaker Barcelona team with a majority of its stars rested and most conspicuous in proceedings was how high and hard Ajax were willing to press the Catalan giants. Daley Blind excelled in the first half an hour as defensive midfielder, leading the wave of pressing and altering the tempo of Ajax’s passing. Meanwhile on Tuesday, Zimling failed to even establish his own presence on field.
Another missing presence was that of South African Thulani Serero’s. He has been used as a No. 6 recently and admittedly, is not the most creative of attacking midfielders, but Serero has the stamina of a marathon runner and while Klaassen has a work rate, Serero has the lungs to hunt down opponents – which again came in handy last year and was missed dearly on Tuesday.
Now, would a 4-3-3 have fared better than the initial 4-4-1-1 experiment? It is definitely possible that it would have. The players are more used to it and understand its requirements. It also allows for better organization of pressing against another 4-3-3, such as when one central midfielder goes up to press, he still has cover in the other two dropping slightly behind him. This pivotal balance is essential and more so, when you have a player such as Zimling (who is making Christian Poulsen look rather good now) in the middle of the park.
On the note of Zimling, the Dane made the difference in the second half against PSG for Ajax as he brought a quicker tempo to the way the midfield functioned than Nick Viergever but since then has been largely disappointing in pretty much ever outing. While it can be argued whether the first goal was entirely his fault for failing to cover Rakitic or not, the second one definitely has a greater influence on it from Zimling.
Collecting the ball from Veltman, the Dane immediately gives it away to Javier Mascherano who relays it to Iniesta. Meanwhile, Zimling stands frozen to the spot for a few seconds, waiting for some realisation to sink in. When he does react, he retreats back and if there is one thing you really should not do when facing a player of Iniesta’s quality, it is to give him time and space. The Spaniard got both and picked out Messi’s run, coming in from the left where Viergever was still running back into position. Text-book counter as Zimling’s neither-here-nor-there indecisiveness resulted in confusion for Moisander and Veltman; Veltman should be looking over at Pedro while Moisander keeps an eye on Messi. In the end, Viergever had to make quite an effort to get back and stop Messi and probably did enough in his defence, and Cillessen’s parry just was not strong enough to prevent the ball from crossing the line.
De Boer subbed in striker Arek Milik for Kishna at half time as Sigthorsson moved wide. The Pole, who has recently impressed for his national side, brought some much-needed energy to the frontline and with more pace than Sigthorsson, Milik pressed higher and tried to harass Pique.
Barcelona allowed Ajax relatively more possession in this half but the Godenzonen were extremely slow in their buildup and seemed rather fazed by the opposition and Camp Nou. When they could get the ball out of defence, they failed to link up properly and got even their fundamentals wrong: misplacing passes, over-hitting and not communicating. The lack of a tempo-setter in midfield could not have been more obvious and Frank de Boer’s mind at one point would have surely considered what could have been had he been a bit more stubborn about Blind with Overmars on deadline day.
The introduction of Anwar El Ghazi brought a more conventional 4-3-3, as Schone moved from midfield to the left wing and Andersen slotted back, shielded by Riedewald who continues the tradition of Ajax left-backs-turned-midfielders. He also injected some urgency in the attack – something very obviously missing from Ajax’s play as a whole and direct penetration.
Riedewald started the move that resulted in the Ajax goal, playing a one-two with Milik before playing it on for the Polish striker to have a shot, which rebounded off Bartra and landed for El Ghazi to put his foot through. The first goal conceded at Camp Nou this season for the Liga powerhouse and an example of how, even though Riedewald is not a midfielder, the basic acceleration and quick feet he added to the midfield could create a goal from a period of considerable possession.
Ultimately the result did come down to the very simple difference in quality between the two sides, but the larger issue at hand is the lack of sheer focus and inability to cope with the intimidation factor of the name Barcelona mentally as even the likes of Klaassen and Schone, who are Ajax’s relatively more consistent performers failed to even string a few passes together and keep the attack going.
Credit, where it is due, must be given to young Lucas Andersen. Given a rather free role on the night, the Dane seemed most likely to create something for Ajax and constantly interchanged positions and linked up with compatriot Schone. He created just one chance less than all of the other Ajax players combined, substitutes included and seems to finally be on the right way to reaching his potential.
The fact that coach De Boer is willing to try out different tactical systems tailored to the opposition is an encouraging sign for his own development as a coach. However, he did fail in his team selection as Zimling – if you wish to see it this way – possibly cost Ajax the game in the first half , and he should have at the very least, directed his team to press higher up and target Pique and Bartra to prevent them getting the ball out to Mascherano. But in focusing on the fullbacks, the coach allowed Barcelona to do what they do best and work their way down the centre of Ajax.
Yes, Ajax when pressing high, can be vulnerable on the counter, as shown by Sandro Ramirez’s goal in the same game, as well as balls played over the defensive high line. However, it does say something when the entire approach to defending seems to lack ‘proactiveness’ after the first five minutes. This is the balance someone like Blind brought to the midfield, such that he knew when the team needed to press and how he should be positioned to make sure he will be in a good enough position to defend any resultant counter.
The issue of the striker choice looms again. Sigthorsson seems to be De Boer’s No. 1 as of now, but Milik is high on confidence after a good international break, with a well-taken goal against World Champions Germany. He injected pace and drive into the attack and showed a real hunger to make a difference. One of his crosses was nearly turned into his own net by Pique and it was the Pole’s blocked shot that fell to El Ghazi for his goal. His 45-minute cameo was certainly better than what Sigthorsson mustered over 75 but whether it was enough to get him another chance to start this weekend against Go Ahead Eagles is to be seen.
There is a very very small, mathematical chance that Ajax will make it to the knockouts but even beyond qualifying in third for the Europa League, just finding some consistency in the starting XI and the team’s form should be the imperative for the ex-Dutch captain now.