Frank De Boer at the crossroads after Ajax’s draw with Celtic
With an abundance of possession, home advantage and facing a side with 10 men for the final 15 minutes, Ajax’s first Europa League group stage game was expected to end in a fairly routine win. However, the Eredivisie giants failed to overcome Scottish champions Celtic on Thursday night, with another slow, disappointing performance.
Frank de Boer’s men remain unbeaten in the Eredivisie, but performances have been underwhelming and predictable – it was no different against Celtic.
Ajax were given free rein of the majority of the pitch when in possession in the early stages as Celtic sat deep in two lines. The limited space afforded closer to the visitors’ goal, however, made things extremely difficult.
When Frank de Boer took over in 2010, he immediately looked to bring back the ‘typical Ajax’ style of play, and it helped fire them to immediate success. However, there is one aspect of that revered style which has been missing of late – playing in triangles. The home side were not active enough in seeking out space around the box. As a result, Daley Sinkgraven and Nemanja Gudelj were left to face pressure with no advanced passing options available. Celtic were doing their job well in holding them back, but it was made easy as Ajax had no way of bringing any intricacy into their play. Had they reverted back to their focus on making passes short and getting round opponents with the use of small triangles, things might have been easier.
Ajax’s equaliser came from an Amin Younes run from the left side towards goal which brought Davy Klaassen closer and unsettled Celtic’s defence. A pass to Klaassen and a back heel into the space made available from his movement gave Viktor Fischer the time to slot the ball past Craig Gordon from the edge of the box. It was quick and it was neat, but Ajax did not adopt it as a bigger aspect of their gameplan.
Younes, featuring for the first time in the Ajax senior team, gave the home side a new dimension to their attacks. With some neat touches, good close control and a desire to charge forward with the ball, he helped bring the attack together, allowing for such intricate passes and helping to create something. It was disappointing then that De Boer had to take the winger off 18 minutes into the second half because of fitness issues, bringing on striker Arek Milik.
Ajax could have dealt with their attacking inefficiency and been confident of creating a crucial opening eventually had their defence not been incredibly weak. Their marking was quite atrocious and both goals were certainly preventable. Celtic did well to create such attacks, but the Ajax back line should have been better placed to cut them out.
In the second half, there were flashes that Ajax were capable of more effective play, with the focus being on using Younes’ technique and drive, but they were scuppered by poor touches from Fischer and Klaassen.
The introduction of Thulani Serero for Sinkgraven gave the potential for sharper and quicker attacks through the middle. Sinkgraven had been poor from the start and was too hesitant to go forward with or without the ball. The South African substitute, wiry and quick, made his way into the spaces in the middle. They struggled to utilise it though.
After Emilio Izaguirre was sent off with a second yellow card towards the end of the second half, Celtic’s sole plan was to defend their lead. As Ajax pressed forward, all of the away side’s players were standing within 30 yards of goal and so the team in red and white were forced wide, with El Ghazi and Mitchell Dijks whipping in crosses.
Another Ajax goal did seem likely and De Boer said in his post-match press conference that they were waiting on it.
The defining moment came after 84 minutes, when a Lasse Schone free kick evaded Gordon and flew into the net. But it was a lucky escape. Ajax had been far too flat throughout the 90 minutes and had no extra plans to deal with Celtic’s restrictive game.
As it entered injury time, Kenny Tete and Joel Veltman exchanged passes in Ajax’s own half before it was sent long to Schone on the left for a cross. When you have a numerical advantage at home with just minutes remaining and your only plan is to rely on a move which has given no joy in the previous 32 attempts, it seems clear you ran out of ideas some time ago. Ajax can recover from this, of course, but doing so and having any hope of impressing in Europe depends on De Boer adding something new to this attack. Their Eredivisie campaign might hinge on it too.