Tactical Preview: Bosz’s babes face toughest test yet against Mourinho’s Man Utd
It has only been a year since Peter Bosz took over as Ajax coach, but the atmosphere and belief around his Ajax team seem worlds away from the one his predecessor left behind after their embarrassing surrender of the title on the last day of the season. That game against relegated De Graafschap, which ended 1-1, saw PSV take a second consecutive Eredivisie crown and was fairly representative of the previous 18 months or so under Frank de Boer. Stale in attack, passive in possession, overly-loving of crosses, and reliant on an error from the opponent to create significant chances.
Come to think of it, it may have been a type of football that tonight’s opponents Manchester United are not too unfamiliar with themselves – Frank de Boer did cite Louis van Gaal as his greatest coaching influence after all.
And yet, where Manchester United went for Mourinho, a disciple of Van Gaal himself, perhaps an ‘updated’, more pragmatic, more ruthless version, Ajax opted for the Cruijffian idealism of Peter Bosz. The final choice seemed to be between Bosz and AZ coach John van den Brom, and the former was seen as a bit harder to get because he had just taken up a new job with Maccabi Tel Aviv in January 2016.
But in many ways, this was a dream job for Bosz, who despite being an ex-Feyenoord player, had been a keen subscriber to the Cruijff school of faith since his playing days in the 80’s. As he told the Guardian, he compiled a whole book of snippets of Cruijff’s interviews and tactical details to learn from.
As such, today is the greatest test Bosz has faced in his managerial career so far. As a manager who idolises the Pep Guardiola-coached Barcelona side of 2009-11, he must be looking to their semi-finals exit v Mourinho’s Inter in 2010. Although United come into this tie as resounding favourites, it is not unlikely that Mourinho will try to set his team up as compact as possible in order to squeeze and suffocate the Ajax attack before getting a ball released to Mkhitaryan or Fellaini and then building a quick counter-attack from there.
Ajax on the other hand tend to aim to make use of space when in possession. The difference between Bosz’s Ajax and De Boer’s last one is the fact that this season they play at a higher tempo with the ball and keep possession near the opponent’s third, as opposed to being happy to play the ball around the defence and advancing solely through the flanks.
Bosz remarked at a coaching conference earlier this year about how he was surprised on reading that Pep Guardiola watches his opponents’ games for three whole days, despite having a strong, world-class team. This allowed Pep to specifically identify which opponent players are most likely to be released in a counter or be crucial carriers of the ball in transition, so that he could then formulate a plan to nullify this threat.
There is no doubt that Bosz will have meticulously worked on countering the threats posed by Mkhitaryan and Fellaini, especially today. Fellaini’s height and physicality is unmatched in the Ajax midfield and might involve the centre-backs stepping out of defence to clear aerial balls before they reach the Belgian. Naturally, this also means the Ajax defence will have to be focused and have full understanding of each other’s movements; Marcus Rashford does not need much to go on to make an impact for the Red Devils. What is comforting is that Davinson Sánchez has been great with space behind him, and that in Andre Onana, they possess a sweeper keeper who is quickly off his line and as a bonus, also handy with stopping penalties. In fact, the moments of uncertainty in the away losses this Europa League season occurred when as a team, they were crowded, closer to their own goal.
With playmaker-turned-full back-revelation Daley Sinkgraven ruled out through injury and regular stand-in Nick Viergever suspended, it falls upon Jaïro Riedewald – ignored for much of the season – to take up the mantle on the biggest stage at left back. It is the position where Riedewald first emerged for Ajax, scoring two goals on his debut as a 17-year-old. A similar performance would definitely be welcome today. Riedewald was one of the shining lights of the first half of the 2015-16 season, performing magnificently at centreback before an injury cut his season short, allowing him to only make a very late comeback. While he has not found himself being used ideally in Bosz’s high-tempo system, Riedewald remains a talented young defender, with a great passing range and decent tackling and anticipation.
While it is pretty definite that Davinson Sánchez and Matthijs de Ligt will start in defence, the other full back starting position seems to have been thrown into question late on as he has two different options.
Joël Veltman, who has adapted to Bosz’s ideology very well, is an excellent reader of the game — a quality he honed over years as a centre back, is usually the preferred option. His ability to know when to step out of defence to cover a midfielder when Ajax are not in possession is a rare quality that Bosz admires. However, the 25-year-old is not a great tackler and often either gives away cheap fouls or too much space to the left winger. It often goes unpunished, as Pieter Zwart of VI and Catenaccio discovered, no left winger has scored against Ajax in a game that Veltman has started at right back. However, in the tough away matches this season, he was a liability, getting sent off against Schalke and being saved by the bell against Lyon as he, already on a yellow, was subbed off just after he made a bookable offense.
On the other hand, there is the dependable Kenny Tete, who is arguably the best tackler in the Ajax squad but is not as forthcoming with the ball as Veltman. The 22-year-old is almost definitely destined to leave Ajax this summer and may have the chance to make his final game a truly memorable one. Tete was especially crucial in the games where Veltman and Viergever went off, as the Dutchman made several blocks and crucial interceptions in his own box to thwart a last-minute Schalke/Lyon aggregate equaliser and ensure Ajax’s progression to the final.
Furthermore, in training yesterday at the Friends Arena, Ajax seemed to be training with Riedewald-Younes and Tete-Traore always on the same team. It is hard to definitively use this to know whether Tete will start ahead of Veltman, but it might indicate how Ajax may want to work around their flanks, given Younes and Traore are almost 100% starters.
If Tete does start, it will be the same back 4 that started at home vs Lyon and put up an impressive show. A defence, with an average age of 19.8 in a major European final, which is probably high up on the list of ‘Things José Mourinho Would Never Do’.
In attack, Ajax can expect that Mourinho will task combative Scrappy Doo v2.0 Ander Herrera with taking creative force Hakim Ziyech out of the game – similar to the way he was tasked with marking Eden Hazard. As such, Ajax will have to create movements that either enable Ziyech to move into spaces where he can pick up the ball and quickly look for a pass, or alternatively, use Ziyech to pull Herrera away and disrupt the Man Utd set-up to create expanses of space for the likes of Davy Klaassen and Amin Younes to float into.
United are lacking starters such as Bailly and Rojo at the back, and the likes of Smalling are not the best on the ball. As such, the high three-pronged press of Ajax might cause some trouble and potentially a miss-pass at the back, which they must capitalise on, in the turnover.
Yesterday, in training, Ajax played many rondos and small-sided, space-limited games. The Ajax pressing waves usually occur with four players surrounding the ball within a 5-7m radius and while this was a way to enforce that, it was also a way for the players to pass their way in and out of crowded, tight defences; a situation which no doubt, will arise at various points in the game. To their credit, the Ajax players were on it.
The midfield is the setting for the other incredibly interesting battle, which is Davy Klaassen vs Paul Pogba. They are extremely similar in their playing styles as box-to-box midfielders with an eye for goal, but the latter is better with the ball while the former is absolutely inexhaustible in his energy on the pitch.
Eyes will also be on 19-year-old striker Kasper Dolberg, who has already notched up 23 goals in all competitions this season, averaging around a goal every two games. 15 of these have come in the league, which is the highest tally for an Ajax teenager since Patrick Kluivert in 1995/96. The same Patrick Kluivert who of course, scored Ajax’s last winner in a European final in 1994/95.
Penalties are a possibility, albeit not something Ajax might be looking forward to. Even though they have a skilled penalty-stopper in Onana, Ajax have missed four penalties this season; the highest tally in the league. A shootout might also prompt Mourinho to take another leaf out of Van Gaal’s book and make a goalkeeper substitution, bringing David de Gea on for Sergio Romero.
Given how these two managers’ philosophies are nearly the anti-theses of each other, this will make for an interesting match. Ajax, the entertainers who score freely and and play openly, against a Manchester United side who scored less goals in their league than Bournemouth, who were only promoted last season. Ajax, who are a tad naïve and would rather take the risks even if it leaves them exposed at the back, against Manchester United, who have been compact and watertight, wanting to ensure they don’t concede before they think about scoring.
“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.”
So goes one of Cruijff’s typical adages. Bosz has produced the quality this season. This is his personal test of getting a result while playing the Ajax way.