Ajax – Valencia: Ajax’ Champions League ambitions evaporate in a frustrating attacking display (0-1)
Valencia were, as always, tough in their way of playing and made life difficult for their opponents. Ajax’s frustrations will most likely have been down to their own inadequacies, as an electric atmosphere could not take the hosts the extra yard needed to qualify for the knockout rounds.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
A Friday night home defeat was not exactly the best prep Erik ten Hag could have hoped for heading into this pivotal Champions League clash. Yet, the coach only felt the need to make two changes from the eleven that suffered the 2-0 loss at home to Willem II, seeing Noussair Mazraoui replace Sergiño Dest at right back, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar depart the attack for Edson Álvarez to bolster the midfield and Dušan Tadić return to his linkup center forward role.
Albert Celades’ weekend preparations were the polar opposite to Ajax’s as their dramatic 4-2 comeback over city rivals Levante put them in good stead heading to Amsterdam for this group grudge match. Just three changes were made, all in the defense department: José Gayà took over from Jaume Costa at left back, Mouktar Diakhaby replaced Ezequiel Garay in the center, and goalkeeper Jaume Doménech was swapped in for Jasper Cillessen, who missed the match against his former club due to injury.
Ajax have the upper hand early on
As if the occasion was not enough, it was hard for the players not to find the noise from the stands contagious, as was reflected in the intensity and persistence of their initial attacking moves.
Helped by Valencia’s surprisingly open 4-4-2 block, the home side were consistently finding ways to get to the byline and deliver cutbacks. Mostly, this was down to Ferrán Torres – Valencia’s wide right midfielder – detaching himself positionally, somewhat, for the purpose of counterattacks. With Ten Hag’s men focusing their attacks down that side, it made for easy pickings, especially as the center-backs acted separately to the near-sided fullback. Consequently, Ajax underlappers Underlap means that the full-back joins the offensive play by playing on the inside of the winger he supports. This is the reverse of an overlap, where the full-back plays on the outside and the winger moves inside. were running in behind Daniel Wass with ease. Even the general access into the flanks was easy since Torres did not make much of an effort to file into the second line.
What Ajax struggled to do however, was actually create chances. This Valencia outfit are typically well prepared to absorb shot after shot, so conceding space deep into their own half, and even their box, did not equal to panic stations. This was evident in how diligently they dealt with the host’s cutback attempts, which were quite easy to deny.
One of the main reasons why the home side struggled, though, was because of their positional distribution in the box. With Dušan Tadić as the central striker, there was not a figure to truly aim for, especially since he was the highest point in the halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. providing more as a short option. And, while this can be a perfectly acceptable way of attacking, it was not having its desired effect here given how effortlessly closing tight spaces down was for their Spanish opponents.
Overall ball-oriented positions from forwards means they struggle to get into positions to attack crosses.
Away from the cutbacks, Ajax regularly resorted to crosses directly in line with the Valencia back-line, but it was moved into this position at such a labored pace that the away could retreat in time. In addition to this, there needed to be adjustment time in the box to prepare for the crosses as the forward-most Ajax players were still positioning themselves in relation to the ball.
Valencia turn the tie
Despite the away side’s initially weak structure, its intentions were clear in a game they had to win in order to qualify from the group. And – to their credit – it paid off within the opening half hour. Were it in their own third, where Ajax maintained an impeccable counterpress – seeing the outermost players attach themselves to the nearest Valencia players in preparation for turnovers – this attack might not have materialized, but because it happened in a more spacious middle third, the visitors were able to break away.
In their usual pattern of play, Rodrigo Moreno would drop through the middle while Kévin Gameiro shifted wide to the left and Torres did the same on the other side, as they both looked to offer outlets to ease themselves of the intense pressure.
Valencia’s up-back-and-through move to find the wide attackers as options.
Gameiro was the chosen recipient on this occasion, which then allowed deep players to get up into support as Carlos Soler received centrally before attempting to play into Gayà’s third-man run. A passing combination between two players, while a third player simultaneously makes a run, usually in behind the opponent’s defensive line. After the initial combination, the ball is quickly played in depth for the third player to run onto. Somewhat fortuitously, it did land at the left back’s feet. With the Ajax double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. so deep in their tracking back, Gayà could shift the ball inside before playing it across to Torres. As he shaped to shoot, he was sharp to notice Rodrigo’s late second attempt at a run in behind, to which the youngster responded with a fantastic disguised through ball to find the Spaniard as Rodrigo thumped it in at the near-post.
Ajax’s frustration grows
Following an ultimately unsuccessful opening thirty minutes, the hosts were in need of a response, and it is questionable whether they truly got it. There was a little more play coming down the far right side involving Hakim Ziyech but there were further structural problems across the pitch in those instances.
When the ball was positioned on that side, the attacking players all of a sudden became too flat, just hiding on the last line, and with the deepest midfielders too deep, there was no connection between them, or even just across to the far side. Especially with Celades instructing Torres to play in a much stricter role in defense of their one-goal lead, Ajax were struggling to pull open any spaces. The most that could be said for their attacks up and to a point were Ziyech’s diagonals into the box on the cut-in, which looked like posing a couple of problems but nothing substantial.
The closest the home side came was a few minutes before half-time, and although Ziyech was involved, it was in a crossing position unique to what they had managed to work open at any point prior to this. Thanks to it coming in transition, Ziyech, following a switch of play to the left, could receive just deep of his teammate on the flank to curl a ball into the space in-between the goalkeeper and the defense. Here, Donny van de Beek managed to hook a volley up over Jaume but the midfielder’s effort was denied by Gayà’s last-ditch clearance.
Clearly though, Valencia had not entirely shut up shop as was the case for Rodrigo’s chance. Stemming from a free switch of play – which is something Valencia had struggled to pull off due to the intense man-to-man pressure applied by Ajax off the ball – the away side created a good crossing position out on the left. With Lisandro Martínez and Álvarez retreating back into the defensive line, there were acres of space on the edge of the box for Gameiro to receive in. The Frenchman then found Rodrigo on the far-side inside the box with ease, as the Spaniard cut back past Daley Blind to create a good shooting opportunity that was fired straight at André Onana.
Impressive territorial dominance and even a high number of completions into the box, but Ajax often lacked the final touch to create good chances.
Pressure mounts in the second half
Pulling one goal back never seemed like an insurmountable task for such a vibrant attacking side, but the growing pressure was clearly weighing on the Ajax players’ shoulders.
Although their distribution of the ball was better in the second period – not being so one-sided and congested in their approach, spreading play to both sides and delivering crosses with clearer structures – the execution was not. The stretching of the Valencia shape allowed them to move it into wide areas that allowed them to deliver balls into attackers from more optimal angles, but the recurring issue was both to do with their aerial inferiority and how overhit most of those deliveries were.
Ajax did go on to create a couple of key moments but the fact none of it came via their standard route of attack showed the lack of the quality of their attacking moves.
Their biggest opportunity arrived shortly after the hour mark following a couple of consecutive second ball wins – which the hosts were well set up to win and had tried to target as a route forwards on a few occasions in the first half. As Tadić pumped it high and ahead for the two narrow runners beyond him, it landed back at the Serbian’s feet, who then played it first time into Van de Beek’s trademark run from deep. All that was left was for Ziyech to make the run across his man from the far-side, which the Dutch midfielder located but it was met with a sorely disappointing finish wide of the near post.
Erik ten Hag threw on Huntelaar soon enough but nothing could seem to threaten an increasingly-resilient Valencia block, who were finding the confidence to push out and pressurize from the front. Ajax had to wait a further twenty-odd minutes, right at the end, to see another chance fall their way.
From another second ball win – this time more routinely, via substitute Siem de Jong’s flick-on – there was some miscommunication between Jaume and Wass, leading to the latter taking over control of the ball and running it across the face of an empty net. Although he managed to clear it, Martínez’s follow-up shot on the edge of the box was cleanly hit, but not cleanly enough to truly trouble the man between the sticks.
Tempers then flared in stoppage time following an incident which saw Gabriel Paulista exit the pitch but it was too little to late for last season’s semi-finalists.
Two straight home defeats without scoring is hardly how Ten Hag would have anticipated these past five days panning out but that was the reality. In a huge clash away to AZ on Sunday, a defeat would see them give up any margin over second place in the league.
Valencia were not the tipped side pre-match, and why would they have been? But this is exactly the kind of result the Champions League has thrown out this season, which will delight them to no end while meriting a very solid away performance. A confidence boost ahead of a visit from Real Madrid is exactly what they need, as well, as the Spanish side sit a point off the Champions League spots in LaLiga.
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