AJAX vs MANCHESTER UNITED
Europa League Final Tie. Friends Arena, Stockholm. 24.05.2017
A high stakes match; Jose Mourinho had staked it all on a win to secure Champions League qualification by resting players in previous matches. A 6th place finish and a League Cup win wouldn’t be enough for many, two trophies, 6th place and qualification for the senior European tournament probably would be. Inevitably having rested players there was multiple changes from the previous game, in fact ten changes with only Pogba having started against Crystal Palace.
In: Romero, Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Darmian, Herrera, Fellaini, Mata, Mkhitaryan and Rashford.
Out: Pereira, Fosu-Mensah, Bailly, Jones, Mitchell, McTominay, Tuanzebe, Lingard, Rooney and Harrop. .
- Classic Mourinho, he got his plan right, persuaded the players to execute it to the letter and delivered when it mattered. Jose’s plan has been been criticised in some quarters as same old, same old; crudely defensive, but it was more sophisticated than many give it credit for being.
- Ajax wanted to press United who denied Ajax the chance to press by hitting the ball long towards either Rashford or Fellaini. In an attacking sense this didn’t work too well, but it beat the press and meant that Ajax were usually starting from much deeper than they would have liked.
- United’s defensive strategy was highly nuanced. They didn’t press Ajax but instead used careful positioning and cover marking to block space in the middle of the pitch. They tended to concentrate on defending on a narrow front denying space to manoeuvre through the centre of midfield. They were prepared to leave more space in wide areas which invited the Dutch to move the ball wide to their fullbacks or wingers. Side to side, side to side, this pattern became more pronounced as the game wore on.
- It would be wrong to pick out individuals for praise but the defence and midfield three all played well as a unit. Rashford struggled as an attacking force, isolated at the front, but he put in a defensive shift, running to channel Ajax into the areas that United wanted them to play in. What he didn’t do was hold the ball up to bring others into play. Fellaini did do this and United looked better when they moved the ball through him.
- The midfield and defensive unit played so well that Ajax attacking endeavors were all in front of United. They never really got behind our defence and ended the evening resorting to speculative shots from range.
Ajax started the game sloppily, misplacing passes and effectively surrendering the initiative to United. Both sides were initially set up in a 4-3-3 shape but with Pogba dropping deeper than Fellaini and Mata and Mkhitaryan coming narrow United’s shape often morphed into something close to a narrow 4-2-3-1. This said United’s shape became generally more reactive as the game wore on especially given the movement of the midfield three who looked to track the Ajax midfield.
United’s starting shape and how it changed. United’s movement was clearly to a plan but reactive.
Ajax sloppiness gifted United a good chance as early as the 1st minute but Pogba lacked the composure to finish after a mix up between Veltman and Onana in the Ajax goal.
The consequence of Ajax poor start was that they struggled to get out of their own half in the first ten minutes and when they did they usually gave the ball away. When United had the ball they looked to hit it forward quickly usually towards Rashford who was always looking to run behind the Ajax centre backs. Unfortunately the ball forward was not accurate enough to give the United man an opportunity to use his pace effectively. One of the reasons that Ajax were giving the ball away so easily was that they were initially trying to move the ball down the centre of the pitch. United were set up to man mark in the midfield area with Fellaini the furthest forward tracking Schone. Pogba tracked Klaassen and Herrera tracked Ziyech. Fellaini stayed fairly tight to Schone at this stage but Pogba and Herrera tended to stand off their opponent. The problem for Ajax was that they could not rely on Schone to instigate moves and instead had to rely on their centre backs to play the ball out. Sanchez in particular kept giving the ball away with inaccurate forward passes.
Ajax starting shape and United’s midfield tracking
Around the 10th minute mark the pattern began to change simply because Ajax now kept the ball. It is worth describing the pattern of United’s defending at this point because it illustrates a key point. Ajax were now controlling the ball, but United were controlling the game.
The key to the strategy was the deployment of United’s midfield and attacking players. Rashford positioned himself between Sanchez and De Ligt effectively reducing the opportunity for this pair to pass to each other. This required Schone to come very deep to help Ajax switch the ball. Rashford usually positioned himself closer to De ligt. De Ligt isn’t as quick as Sanchez so that if the opportunity arose Rashford’s pace might be too much for De Ligt. The other key point about this through is that De Ligt is considered a better passer of the ball than Sanchez, (we have already mentioned how often Sanchez gave the ball away). Most of Ajax forward moves now started with Sanchez moving forward, often over the halfway line. Rashford rarely looked to press him. As previously described in central midfield United went man for man but they didn’t press instead looking to cover their man and the central space. The two wide forwards, Mata on the right and Mkhitaryan on the left tucked inside in a narrow position which left space outside in the fullback areas. This encourage Ajax to pass wide after they had initially had a lot of difficulties moving the ball through the middle. We would suggest that this is exactly what United wanted Ajax to do.
Ajax passing shapes and Sanchez who United allowed to come forward with the ball
This worked well as a defensive strategy with Ajax forward movement being relatively slow and deliberate. Most of their possession was around the half way line and often in their won half. With United allowing Sanchez the space to move forward most of the Ajax moved were concentrated on their right, United’s left and this put a lot of pressure on Darmian and Mkhitaryan. The Ajax right winger Traore also tended to drop deep here creating overloads on Mkhitaryan who conceded several fouls on Veltman or Traore.
Despite all this and against the run of play United scored. Again this was as a direct consequence of Ajax Sloppiness. An over hit pass resulted in an Ajax throw on their left parallel with the six yard box. There was a complete lack of movement and United boxed Ajax in. Riedewald’s throw went straight to Mata who controlled the ball with a header and turned it back to Fellaini just outside the corner of the penalty area, he played a square pass to Pogba who let the ball run across him. The Ajax defence was too deep and he had time to shoot. His shot was defelected off Sanchez to beat Onana in the Ajax goal. Boom! 1-0 on 18 minutes.
The goal did not have any real effect on the nature of the game. Ajax continued to have the majority of possession but this continued to be around the half way line with United sitting off and covering space. Ajax struggled to make any impression on the United defensive line. Rashford continued to allow Sanchez to move the ball forward and he continued to give the ball away. Mkhitaryan continued to struggle and was booked in the 30th minute but his efforts protected Darmian.
With Fellaini tracking Schone he was often the closest player to Rashford when United hit the ball forward and as the half wore on more of the forward passes went towards Fellaini. He proved more adept at holding the ball up and often in laying the ball off to Mata who was usually tucked in playing beep on the right. Mata would then start a passing move from this position and from this came many of United’s better attacking moments later in the half. Mourinho had clearly pulled off a master stroke opting for the calm intelligence of Mata over the pace of Lingard as these moments effectively stopped Ajax developing a period of sustained pressure through an even more complete dominance of possession.
Ajax did have a good spell between roughly the 30th and 40th minute when they were successful for a while in pressing United. Now their moves were starting much higher up the pitch it was the United midfield and defence doing the work rather than the forward line and midfield. In this period Ajax pressed aggressively and United struggled to not only hold the ball but also to play early balls forward. For all this though Ajax did not create many clear cut shooting chances. What Ajax did well in the phase was to pass the ball early or players received the ball on the move continuing to run with the ball laying off their pass whilst in motion. This is a tactics which can be highly effect against a team that is trying to press you but it didn’t pull United out of their fairly narrow defensive shape because United were not trying to press Ajax.
The last 5 minutes of the half were fairly even with United managing to beat the Ajax press by playing the ball across the pitch rather than looking to hit the ball long.
At the start of the second half it looked as if nothing was going to change and then within three minutes something did, the score line.
Fellaini forced a corner on the United right. Blind centred and Smalling won the header to knock the ball down. Mkhitaryan reacted quicker than his marker to flick the ball beyond Onana from close range. 2-0 after 48 minutes. Boom!
After this goal United there was a period in the game where United seemed to deliberately drop deeper. In fact their shape changed for a while seemingly becoming more of a 4-1-4-1 with Herrera in the space in front of the central defence and Mata and Mkhitaryan dropping deeper in the wide areas. This left Rashford isolated. Ajax continued to dominate possession but continued to make little impression on the United block. The game was now being played in the United half and as United defended their shape changed to a 4-5-1 as the play became compressed. Because United stayed narrow there was little room for Ajax to get through the middle and so instead they continued to play a lot of square passes out to one side before recycling the possession to the opposite side.
There are a couple of key points to note because of this pattern. Firstly Rashford had a couple of good chances to break but because the play had become compressed into the United half he had dropped deeper so that his starting position as he broke was so much further from the Ajax goal. On each occasion Sanchez, who is quick, caught him. Rashford perhaps should have looked to mix it up and occasionally looked to hold the ball up giving others time to get forward in support.
Secondly, and this applies across the whole match it was noticeable how little defending United’s centre backs had to do. The defending was all done by the midfield. Across the whole game Smalling and Blind made a combined total of 7 tackles, (Smalling made none in the first half), they won 100% of their aerial duals, all 5 of which were made by Smalling. Perhaps it is also worth noting when you consider that Smalling and Blind made 7 tackles that Herrera alone made 13, Fellaini made 11 and Mata even equalled the centre backs total of 7!
On 62 minutes Ajax made their first change removing Dolberg who had been completely ineffectual. Dolberg is known for his pace but he had spent a large part of the game running away from the United goal to drop deep as the Ajax movement forward had been so slow. That meant he had been running away from Blind rather than at him. In this United slowing Ajax progress forward down had tactically helped Blind preventing him from being exposed to Dolberg’s pace. Dolberg was replaced by Neres who moved to the Ajax right with Traore taking up a central position.
Ajax made a futher change on 69 minutes replacing Schone with Van de Beek before United made their first change in the 72 minute. This saw Lingard replace Mkhitaryan, positionally a straight swap. The introduction of Lingard did introduce fresh legs with pace as Rashford began to clearly tire. Lingard had a couple of good chances to break late in the game and the introduction of his pace prevented Ajax from overcommitting defenders forward.
The surprising thing about the rest of this game is that Ajax did not at any point change their approach. There was no plan B. They continued to dominate possession but continued to fail to make an impression on the United goal. Romero actually only had to make three goalkeeping actions in the whole match, a save in the 15th minute, a catch in the 87th minute and a further save in the 90th minute.
United made two further substitutions introducing Martial for Rashford in the 84th minute and Rooney for Mata in the 90th minute. Ajax never really looked like scoring.
So United complete the set of available trophies and in so doing qualify for next season’s Champions League.
This was a deserved win founded on a collective effort. Everybody stuck to Jose’s plan and did their part. That plan was that United did not let Ajax press them by playing the ball long and making Ajax start their attacks from deep. They left space in wide areas and blocked the middle of the pitch. When United had the ball Ajax tried to press, when Ajax had the ball United didn’t try to press sure in the knowledge that Ajax weren’t good enough to play through the middle of an organised and disciplined midfield. United let Ajax move the ball wide and defended on a narrow front in the sure and certain knowledge that the goals don’t more from the central position at each end of the pitch. Ajax were rarely able to manoeuvre themselves with the ball into a central area close to United’s goal.