MANCHESTER UNITED vs AJAX
Friends Area, Stockholm. 24.05.2016
Having reached the final of the Europa League United now face Dutch side Ajax in Stockholm and have an opportunity to complete the set of senior trophies available to the club. Importantly the match is also an opportunity to seal qualification for next season’s Champions League, a target which is considered so significant to many at the club that it has meant that this fixture had dominated United’s thinking in recent weeks undermining their efforts in domestic league games.
United and Ajax have met before in European competition and so far it has always been United who have come out on top. Our first meeting was back in 1976 in the previous incarnation of this tournament the UEFA Cup. Back then Tommy Docherty’s side lost to the Dutch side 0-1 in Amsterdam but then won 2-0 at Old Trafford. This was United’s first tie back in European Competition since the late 1960’s and the win was considered a significant triumph given that this was only three seasons after Ajax had won the last of three successive European Cups. Ajax had whoever lost several key players by that point, most notably the imperious pairing of Cryuff and Neeskens.
More recently the two clubs again faced each other in this competition when having been eliminated from the Champions League in 2011-12 United again went through winning one game and losing the other. This time United won 2-0 in Amsterdam but then suffered a 1-2 reverse in the second leg of the round of 32. In this tie the Ajax side featured Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen in both legs with a young Daley Blind making an 81st minute substitute appearance in the second leg at Old Trafford. United lost in the next round to Ander Herrera’s Athletic Bilbao.
Ajax are one of the grandees not just of Dutch but also of European Club football. They are the most successful side in the Dutch domestic game and have an illustrious record in UEFA competitions having won the European Cup/Champions League four times and the old Cup Winners Cup and before its rebranding as the Europa League the UEFA Cup each on one occasion.
Ajax should probably have won more in Europe but as one of the teams which tends to dominate domestically they often find themselves in the senior UEFA competition which is obviously the most challenging. If they found themselves as has been the case this year in the lesser tournament they would naturally be one of the stronger sides and so more likely to make a significant impact. To make an impact in the senior tournament one needs to make a further step up, something that is often difficult for Dutch sides given the overall strength and challenge to the best presented by Eredivisie in general.
That said when Dutch sides are good they are very very good and none better than Ajax. In fact it is for their contribution to the tactical development of the game and the excellence of their play through the late sixties and early seventies the Ajax have earned their status as a grandee of the European game.
Ajax are synonymous with Total football, the Dutch version of an approach to the game which contrary to the popular view they did not invent but which was a key moment in the tactical development of the game and still has resonance today. The lineage of that approach can be traced back to the Austrian “Wunderteam” of the 1930’s through the Hungarians in the 1950’s and even to Real Madrid in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The Tiki-Taka approach of recent years is also a descendent of this “philosophy”. Ajax through took it to an early level. The essence of the approach is the idea that a good footballer, perhaps excepting the goalkeeper should be able to play anywhere because they have a good basic level of all-round skill. They system then encourages the interchanging of player positions on the pitch during the game. It is the interchanging and the pressing tactic which Ajax took to another level although Bayern Munich and Dynamo Kiev were doing much the same thing at about the same time.
The approach has usually been linked to a 4-3-3 system which gives the team good coverage across the whole of the pitch allowing the side to stretch play and make the pitch big in possession and compress play by drawing together and making the pitch small when the opposition has the ball. This is where the pressing comes in, often linked to an aggressive high off-side game. What this all relies on in pace and adventure. The approach requires teams to play a high line to allow a compressing of the play in defence which in turn requires defenders who are quick and cannot be outrun by quick attacking players when the ball is played over the top or too the front quickly. In possession both pace and adventure is required to stretch play quickly and make the most of transitions when the ball is won via the pressing. Louis van Gaal of course is an Ajax man so United fans should be familiar with most of this but of course his time at United illustrated what can happen if the approach is not implemented with these key features. At United he did not have a quick solid defence and he curtailed the adventure in United’s forward players preventing United from stretching and hitting people early. Without pace and adventure this approach can and did at United descend into long periods of aimless possession; but then even at Ajax a criticism of Van Gaal had been that he was too rigid in his application of this concept of football.
This season can be seen as the start of a new cycle for Ajax. Having enjoyed 4 successive Eredivisie wins under previous manager Frank de Boer between 2010-11 and 2013-14 they have finished second this year under new manager Peter Bosz. The start of the cycle has been defined by the emergence of a young vibrant side that have developed and improved as the season has progressed. They are a collection of quick, talented and seemingly fearless players who play the traditional Ajax game in the usual Ajax formation.
The season didn’t necessarily start that well at least in international competition with the side losing in the final qualifying round of the Champions League to a side United have defeated en route to the Europa League final; FC Rostov. They drew 1-1 in Amsterdam before crashing out 4-1 in the Russia. Ajax have also come up against another of United’s opponents during the competition; they shared a Europa League group with Celta de Vigo finishing ahead of them to win the group. In the first head to head with Vigo they drew 2-2 in Spain and then won 3-2 in the return fixture in Holland.
We have already talked about the Ajax way. They are brave and usually go at opponents scoring lots of goals but also conceding plenty. They usually set up as 4-3-3 with the very dangerous pacy Kasper Dolberg as the central striker flanked by Amin Youne and Chelsea Loan player Bertrane Traore. Ajax attack with width and this pair will take United on but tend to stretch teams to make space in the middle before passing the ball in rather than delivering high crosses. Justin Kluivert, 17-year-old son of Patrick occasionally features at right wing.
An Ajax midfield always seems to comprise a three with a single holding player and two players in more advanced positions. Those advanced midfield players are usually Davy Klassen to the left and Lasse Schone on the right. Klassen is the undoubted creative hub of the side and United will probably look to shut him down. The deep midfield player has often been Hakim Ziyech and he will be positioned as a link in front of the defensive pair of highly rated Davinson Sanchez and Nick Viergever, although Schone or De Jong have also featured here.
Perhaps the one part of the Ajax philosophy that this side doesn’t yet full embrace is the high press. They do have a tendency to sit deeper and wait before looking to hit the opposition with pace. United might well have more of the ball on Wednesday night.
Ajax’s areas of weakness seem to be the number of rash challenges and fouls they tend to give away. Both Ziyech and Klassen particularly tend to commit rash challenges and perhaps that is because as players they are not natural pressers of the ball and perhaps that’s why this side doesn’t press as much as you would expect from an Ajax side. Right back Veltman also regularly commits plenty of fouls and he may be a weak link that United should run at. The Ajax keeper Andre Onana is also prone to make a mistake. Ajax usually get away with all this because they attack so well and score so many goals.
Who knows? Jose Mourinho has a history of keeping it tight in Cup finals but does Jose have a defence strong enough to resist Ajax attacking verve. We would expect Jose to try and play a solid game looking to control the centre of the pitch but he will not want to allow Ajax quick wide players space to run. When United have the ball we would expect them to look to move the ball forward quickly towards Rashford and either Lingard and/or Mkhitaryan in an attempt to put Ajax under early pressure and force mistakes and fouls. Much will depend on whether Pogba and Herrera along with another player, probably Fellaini, can control the centre of the pitch and cut off the supply towards the Ajax front players. United will probably have chances but they will need to be far more clinical than they have often been this season.
Many are making United favourites for this game but it is a difficult tie. Ajax are a strong emerging young side who know no fear. United have beaten the new Dutch Champions Feyenoord who finished a point ahead of Ajax but they have also lost to them this year so that doesn’t tell us a lot. United will need to be on their game, focused and alert so it’s all about which United side turns up. The last time United could be said to have played like that was in the league game against Chelsea just over a month ago. In that game Jose had a plan and his side executed it to perfection. He will have a plan again and if the team execute it well and critically take their chances they have an excellent chance of taking the one major trophy that has eluded them in their history to date.