Chelsea – Ajax: Utter Chaos At Stamford Bridge (4-4)
Even though it started out as an interesting tactical battle, this match can only be remembered as a representation of utter chaos on a football pitch. Two Chelsea own goals, two Ajax red cards conceded in the same Chelsea attack and a disallowed Chelsea winner meant that when the dust had settled in, both teams left the pitch with four goals scored and a point in hand.
Tactical analysis and match report by K.T. Stockwell.
If one were to pick a darling of the Premier League campaign so far this season it would be difficult to ignore Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. The London-based side and their manager have positively showed themselves through dynamic offensive play – led by a crop of young, engaging talents. Five straight league wins and two dramatic Champions League victories have sped the process up somewhat and now a club that was thought to be undergoing a transition year may instead have their minds firmly focused on the present.
A key member of the youth movement at Chelsea is 21-year-old, center-back Fikayo Tomori, who once again got the start in central defence alongside Kurt Zouma – the tandem flanked by Marcos Alonso and captain, César Azpilicueta at fullback. Shielding the defense in Lampard’s 4-2-3-1 formation were Jorginho and Mateo Kovačić, while Willian, Mason Mount and Christian Pulišić combined to form the advanced three. Up front Tammy Abraham was given the nod – looking to build on his impressive goal-scoring form.
Meanwhile, it was all going swimmingly for Ajax until they met Chelsea in the previous Champions League round – suffering a 1-0 defeat at home in Amsterdam. Manager Erik Ten Hag maintained his vintage 4-2-3-1 formation and largely used the same personnel as in his club’s previous meeting with Chelsea. The one notable addition to the backline being Noussair Mazraoui, who slotted in at right back – which was done to improve his team’s buildup against Chelsea’s high press. Together with Tagliafico, he flanked a center-back duo of Joël Veltman and Daley Blind. In midfield, Mexican international, Edson Álvarez started on the bench, in place of a midfield featuring a 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’. of Lisandro Martínez and Donny van de Beek, with Hakim Ziyech at the tip of the triangle. On the wings, Ten Hag selected Quincy Promes and Brazilian David Neres, while Dušan Tadić reprised his role as the false nine. A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten.
Ajax overloads overwhelm Chelsea defense
Retrospectively Tammy Abraham’s own goal in the second minute truly set the tone for what would end up being a wild fixture. The Chelsea forward put a touch on a sweeping Promes free-kick and the ball floated helplessly past a disoriented Kepa Arrizabalaga. Nevertheless, before the fans could take their seats, Christian Pulišić made a slaloming run off the left wing and into the Ajax box where he was subsequently brought down by Veltman and awarded a penalty. The spot kick was converted coolly by Jorginho and with only four minutes played the matched was tied at one.
Feeding off of the unpredictable start and the buzz around Stamford Bridge, Chelsea began hurtling themselves into a scattered press. At first the disorganized nature of Chelsea’s assault seemed too much for Ten Hag’s side, but after a period of helter-skelter football it was the Dutch club that first managed to calm their game.
Once more level-headed, Ajax began to do what they do best – perhaps better than most any side in Europe – create overloads When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. in every segment of the pitch. This caused serious problems for the hosts, as they continued to press aggressively and with their numerical advantage and calm passing, Ajax found it relatively easy to play through them.
An example of Ajax’s elaborate movement – creating an overload in front of Zouma before spreading the ball wide to Tagliafico in space.
Despite all of Ajax’s clever play in the first half, it was a bit of individual brilliance from Ziyech that led to their second goal. Ziyech received a pass on the right wing and spun a brilliant ball across the box. Meanwhile, at the back post, Promes was able to sneak in behind Azpilicueta, who like much of the Chelsea defense, was preoccupied by Ajax’s numbers in the box. Free of his marker, Promes ghosted onto the end of Ziyech’s profound delivery and turned it home.
Finding themselves down a goal, Chelsea’s intensity increased and they began to press with higher up the pitch. Once again, Ajax’s ability to fluidly shift numbers around the pitch, with Ziyech and van de Beek moving in unison to create overloads, flummoxed the Chelsea defenders, who frequently found themselves on the wrong side of the ball.
Ajax constantly shifting their position in order to find numerical advantages throughout the pitch.
It was Ajax’s ability to pass through the Chelsea defense that resulted in a free-kick for the visitors in the right corner. Once again, for all of Ajax’s deft play, it was a brilliant piece of skill from Ziyech that resulted in their third goal of the match. The Moroccan international whipped the ball across the box – hitting the back post, before it ricocheted off the face of Kepa and into the back of the net. A truly spectacular strike to give Ten Hag’s side a commanding lead.
If there was one clear issue for Ajax in the first half it was the regularity with which they were forced into tactical fouls. Ajax’s overloads come with risk and reward. The risk being that when Chelsea were able to play through Ajax’s numerical advantage they generally found themselves in plenty of space and able to move the ball forward at pace. To slow these attacks Ajax were guilty of several tactical fouls – the most important of which were committed by Blind and Veltman, both of whom received yellow cards.
The match unravels
To begin the second half, Lampard swapped Alonso for Reece James at right back. The Spaniard struggled for the entirety of the first half – unable to put pressure on Ajax offensively and incapable of containing Neres and Ziyech defensively. Meanwhile, tactically, Lampard had his side reduce their pressing intensity – most notably lessening the direct pressure they were putting on Ajax keeper, Onana, during the guest’s buildup. The adjustment had an effect and now the Nigerian international was forced to distribute the ball long and into a collection of Ajax forwards, who suffered from a distinct size disadvantage.
This adjustment, though seemingly minor, allowed Chelsea to generate more possession and in so doing, re-establish themselves in the match. Nonetheless, Ajax remained dangerous on the counterattack and in the 55th minute a counterattack from the visitors led to Ziyech finding van de Beek unmarked in the penalty area – the midfielder played a deft first touch and hammered the ball into the back of the net to give his side a three goal lead.
Subsequently, Mount suffered an injury and was forced off – replaced by Callum Hudson-Odoi, who came in at left wing – shifting Pulišić into the number ten role in the process. This unplanned change proved to have a major impact on Chelsea’s second goal, as it was the American international, who received a lovely cross-field ball from Hudson-Odoi, before putting it back across the face of goal– Azpilicueta meeting it at the back post to poke it home.
It would get worse for Ajax, as five minutes later Blind threw himself into a wild challenge on Abraham and was issued his second yellow of the match. The advantage played on the challenge led to a Chelsea shot on goal, which struck the unsuspecting hand of Veltman – for which he was issued a second yellow. To add insult to injury, Chelsea were awarded a penalty for Veltman’s indiscretion and Jorginho notched his second goal of the evening from the spot.
Two men down and in the interest of self-preservation, Ajax made two changes, bringing on Edson Álvarez in place of Ziyech and young center-back Perr Schuurs for Neres. Álvarez took up Martínez’s position in defensive midfield, while the Argentinian joined Schuurs at center-back. Unfortunately for the visitors, the introduction of the substitutes corresponded directly with James pounding home a rebound off the crossbar to even the match, meaning Chelsea scored three goals in ten minutes, a remarkable comeback, even if it was completed playing eleven-against-nine. Minutes later, it looked like Azpilicueta had scored the winner, only for him to be denied by VAR because of Abraham’s handball.
Ajax scrambled to get control of their defensive shape and eventually found themselves in a fluid 4-3-1 / 4-2-2 formation. Unable to help themselves, Ten Hag’s side continued to press high up the pitch and were successful in creating one or two legitimate chances, including an Álvarez strike that was saved by Kepa.
3 of of Ajax’s 5 shots on target have come since they went down to nine men (when they already had four goals). Reasonably unusual.
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) November 5, 2019
For their part, Chelsea came close through Michy Batshuayi, but were stunned by a brilliant save from Onana. And even though this match never felt like it would settle into a draw and surely would end with a spectacular late winner to complete the drama, it actually ended level after 94 minutes.
It is difficult enough to draw conclusions from matches featuring one red card – let alone two. Nevertheless, Ajax will be encouraged by their ability to hold onto the draw and take solace in the fact that, eleven-versus-eleven, they were the better side. Ajax were the great entertainers of last year’s Champions League and it seems little has changed this season. Ten Hag’s system demands intense pressing, movement and intricate passing and when it is successful at the highest level it remains some of the greatest football in the world. The drawback is its delicacy – one misstep against capable European opponents can result in disaster.
Likewise, Chelsea will be elated they were able to come back and rescue a point at home – claiming a total of four points off Ajax in a competitive Group H. It is not a secret that Chelsea’s youth, while refreshing, can sometimes be overwhelmed by the occasion and in the first half that certainly seemed to be the case. Lampard’s side were far too rash in their pressing and as a consequence, frequently lost both their positioning and their heads. Nonetheless, the manager and to a degree the players are playing with house money this season and reaching the Champions League knockout rounds would be the ultimate jackpot.
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