Ajax has been drawn against Legia Warsaw in the knockout phase of the Europa League and to get far in the Europa League and European Competitions they need to adapt, especially defensively. This piece outlines where they need to improve and shore up defensively.

  • By Chaka Simbeye
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ajabarac djddjThis week marks both the Champions League and Europa League draws and although the Dutch no longer have any representatives in the Champions League, they have three in the Europa League. One of those teams is the current Eredivisie champions Ajax who, after coming out of another tough Champions League group, find themselves in the Europa League. Ajax have been a formidable force in the Eredivisie since the arrival Frank De Boer and for the last four years and one who keeps a close eye on their League dominance would wonder why they don’t do well in European competitions?

The easiest answer would be that they need easier competition as in the last few years, they have been in groups with both Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona and this year they were in the same group as Barcelona (for the 2nd consecutive time) and French Champions Paris Saint-Germain as well as Apoel. For a team who have a constant stream of important players leaving the club being replaced by youngsters from De Toekomst, this aren’t the most conventional teams for them to be playing against. This season they lost leaders like Siem De Jong and Daley Blind, while goalscorer from the win over Barcelona last season, Danny Hoesen also left the club. However, the more pressing problem is that Ajax isn’t adapting and to succeed in European football against most teams in Europe, a team has to be adaptable.

In Ajax’s 4-0 loss to Barcelona at the Camp Nou last season, their deficiencies were highlighted. Although the first goal came from an unstoppable Messi free-kick, his second goal was preventable because as Sergio Busquets begins to drive the ball at the Ajax defence, the defenders panic and hurriedly rush towards each other to stop him leaving Neymar completely free and unmarked on the left while Messi was unmarked on the right. Busquets slips the ball to Messi who cuts in and scores but it is bizarre as the attacking players are merely trotting back. Denswil, Moisander and Van Rhin are the defenders being attacked and they are caught in two minds as Alexis Sanchez is eagerly waiting to get behind them so they all rush to close him down but as Messi receives the ball, they all forget Alexis and rush towards Messi as he slips past Denswil and scores. Although Messi scores it is important to remember, that both Neymar and Sanchez are left free primed and ready for the rebound. For the third goal as Neymar crosses in, Daley Blind has lost his man Sanchez while Pique is allowed to get a run on Denswil and jumps high above both him and Kenneth Vermeer to score. In this situation, defenders are not tight enough on the attackers in the box and the likes of Pique and Sanchez are given space to manoeuvre and again, Sanchez is left completely free for the rebound. The fourth goal will be remembered as a testament to Messi’s brilliance but is also at the fault of Ajax’s flawed defensive system as Messi dribbles into the box to pass the ball into the net between two Ajax defenders as Vermeer helplessly stood and watched the ball roll into the net with, again Sanchez free for the rebound. The attacking players failed to help the defence out and as a result Ajax were slaughtered, one of the main themes of this game were Ajax attackers trudging back at minimal pace and barely defending.

The game at the Amsterdam ArenA was different as Ajax set out a game plan to block the passing lanes between the defence and midfield and force the Barcelona defence to move the ball out wide. It was a brilliant plan as when the Barca defence shifted out wide to Montoya and Neymar, Ajax hustled for the ball and won it back almost every time. The defence dropped deeper to allow midfielders to drop deep and gain possession but Ajax pressed higher and were consistent with their intensity. The Barcelona defence were stifled, taking longer to play the ball out as they didn’t know where to play it before they sent a long searching ball into the Ajax half which the home team won back easily. Although an impractical back pass from Van Rhin led to Neymar stealing the ball and Veltman fouling the Brazilian in an attempt to win the ball back which led to a red card and penalty. However Ajax won the game 2-1 and it was a beautiful spectacle for the football purists as they saw the real purveyors of total football, take it back that night in their eyes.

But Ajax was out of the Champions League and they were soon disposed of by Roger Schmidt’s Red Bull Salzburg side in the Europa League knockout phase. The instances were similar as they Ajax defence failed to decide when to track their man and when to step up make the tackle. Sadio Mane, Jonathan Soriano and Alan tortured the Ajax defence both home and away with Salzburg scoring three in each. The first goal in Amsterdam consists of Mane driving the ball in the centre and slipping it too Alan out wide who is fouled by Veltman for the penalty, again Ajax panicked and their defence squeezed together. The last two goals in Amsterdam happened when Salzburg realised the space between the defence and midfield and Salzburg’s pacy attack dropped deeper to allow the Ajax defence to push forward, only from Mane to get past the defence on the right and score. Soriano’s third was a long range effort from near the halfway line after Ajax lost the ball in midfield and Soriano noticed that the defence were sitting high and Jasper Cillessen was miles from his line.

This season was more of the same as they faced Barca at the Camp Nou once again; Messi played some intricate passes with Pedro and created some space to run at the Ajax defence as he found Neymar on the right who slotted it in. Messi, Rakitic and Pedro were all free in the six yard box for the rebound in this particular instance. This was in the first ten minutes and Barca scored again in the twenty-fourth minute as a misplaced Riedewald pass landed at the feat of Iniesta who finds Messi with defence splitting pass as he is running from the left with Viergiever on the wrong side of him trying to muscle him off the ball. At the Amsterdam ArenA, it is more of the same from the beginning as in the fourth minute, Messi runs at the defence who pull together and allow him to find Pedro on the overlap which culminates in an offside goal for Neymar. In this game, Veltman gets sent off for pulling Messi back, a decision he believes he needs to make as Messi would get through on goal and score just like the way he gets sent off a year earlier except this is as a result of two yellow cards. Messi scores his second as he is running at the defence, passes the ball out wide to Pedro who crosses it back to Messi who slides in and scores with no hassle. The defence ran to each other again and Messi slipped out of their attention as they rushed to close down Pedro.

In a year the likes of Van Rhin, Moisander and Veltman who have all played Barca more than twice have failed to adjust. It is not their fault as the fault lies with the system that allows them to be thrown in the deep end without a life jacket. Ajax need to have more players behind the ball fighting for possession as with a few more bodies at the back, some of these goals are avoidable. The defence also need to hold their own with the full-backs holding their position and not rushing in at every sign of trouble. In a year with basically the same defence, Ajax haven’t adapted and to succeed in European competition, a team needs to adapt.

Chaka Simbeye (69 Posts)