LOSC Lille – Ajax: Lille Almost Fend Off Dominant Ajax. Almost… (1-2)
Ajax had nearly 65% possession and limited Lille to only three shots in the entire match. As one of those shots resulted in a goal, Lille seemed to sneak away with the win, despite an average performance. A little help from the referee put Ajax on track to equalize and even snatch the win in the end.
Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.
These two teams met in the group stage of the Champions League last season. Those encounters resulted in two wins for Ajax, who scored five goals in total and kept Lille scoreless. When digging a bit deeper than just looking at the results, it’s easy to see Lille could have done a lot better last season based on their performances, most notably in the game at home.
This time, they hosted Ajax as proud leaders of Ligue 1. Their sturdy 4-4-2 formation is built upon the steady center-back pairing of the experienced José Fonte and former Ajax youth player Sven Botman. In central midfield, Renato Sanches and Boubakary Soumaré hold things together, while the attacking quartet of Jonathan Bamba, Jonathan David, Yusuf Yazıcı and Timothy Weah can hold things compact and then strike on the counterattack.
Ajax caused a lot of self-inflicted damage by not submitting €22.5m record signing Sébastien Haller for Europa League fixtures. Goalkeeper André Onana was on the receiving end of a doping-related suspension dished out bij UEFA. Rare for professional footballers, though the one-year ban is low compared to suspensions for professional athletes in other sports.
Their 4-2-3-1 formation was therefore spearheaded by false nine A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. Dušan Tadić and featured veteran goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg between the posts. In the absence of Noussair Mazraoui, talented defender Devyne Rensch played as right back. Daley Blind took the midfield role normally filled in by the suspended Ryan Gravenberch, meaning Lisandro Martínez played as the left central defender.
Ajax dominate the ball in curious shape
Football is in love with symmetry when it comes to describing formations, but it is very hard to describe the buildup formation Ajax used in a symmetrical way. As soon as they commenced their buildup, either Daley Blind or Edson Álvarez would drop into the defense and one of the two would act as a lone midfielder.
Left back Nico Tagliafico would hold a traditional role on the left, with left winger David Neres on the inside. On the other flank, right back Rensch would operate higher up the field, almost as a number ten in the right 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. while Antony played as an out-and-out winger. This created an asymmetric shape that is hard to label with a set of numbers.
Ajax buildup formation: three defenders, one midfielder just in front.
In theory, pushing so many players upfield would leave Ajax vulnerable on the counterattack, especially against an effective counterattacking team like Lille. Their excellent counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. prevented Lille from doing damage – they would win the ball back 13 times from open play in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.
25th minute. Example of Ajax’ counterpressing. After losing the ball, Neres pressed forward. Ajax players around him do the same, preventing Lille from playing forward.
Whenever Ajax reached the final third, they still had a hard time breaking through Lille’s defensive 4-4-2 formation. Whenever they did create something it was as a result of slightly more opportunistic play, like in the 28th minute, when Álvarez chipped a ball into the box, intended for Rensch, but falling for Antony. The Brazilian’s half-volleyed shot was kept out by Lille goalkeeper Mike Maignan.
Both teams went into half-time with a clear tactical problem that prevented them from creating chances to solve. Lille were not able to get out of their low block and do anything on the counterattack, while Ajax had 65% of the ball and only took three shots in the first half.
Tadić the false nine from yesteryear
The state of the game did not change during the opening stages of the second half, though Ajax did seam to tweak their approach in possession. Where Tadić had been getting on the ball in the right halfspace mostly in the first half, he operated more on the inside left during the second half.
An example of how he dropped deeper and brought others into play led to the first big chance of the second half. In the 47th minute, Tagliafico brought the ball out from the back and found Tadić with a good low pass. The Ajax captain played a one-touch pass and found Davy Klaassen’s run, whose subsequent left-footed effort did not find Antony. Vibes of the 2018/19 season, when Tadić bossed some of Europe’s best defenses with his drop-and-play combination game.
47th minute. Ajax overloading Lille centrally. Tadić collecting the ball, launching Davy Klaassen into space.
In this stage, it became clear Ajax had a tactical problem on both flanks. Neres was having a bad game on an individual level, but was also not helped by Tadić playing in the same zone as he did, while the outer flank was manned by Tagliafico.
On the other flank, Rensch played on the inside. In theory, this was done to draw Lille players towards him, in order to create space on the outside for dribbling specialist Antony. This happened very rarely. Against the well-organized set defense of Lille, Antony always ended up in a one-versus-two situation – as we all know, it is difficult to create something that way.
Twenty minutes of mayhem
The game had been in the same game state for the entire match – until the 73rd minute that is. A wayward long ball played over the top by Lille was mopped up by Tagliafico. What should have been a routine backpass to goalkeeper Stekelenburg ended up being mishit. Right in the feet of Timothy Weah, who calmly finished and put Lille up. Fun fact: the only shot between the posts from Lille in the entire match.
Now trailing, Ajax dialed up their attacking approach a notch. In came physically imposing striker Brian Brobbey for Neres, as Tadić was moved to the left. Ajax kept pushing and would see their efforts rewarded, with a little help from Slovakian referee Ivan Kružliak…
With seven minutes of regular play remaining, Tagliafico picked up a second ball after one of Ajax’ many crosses was worked away by Lille’s defense. While in the action, he was very lightly touched by Sanches before he connected with the ball. The referee pointed to the spot after this very normal duel – a harsh punishment for Lille, especially when taking into consideration this was a decision made after the referee had been called to the side of the pitch by the video assistant referee. Tadić made no mistake from the spot and the game was level.
Two minutes later, Ajax created their biggest chance from open play. A rare defensive mistake by Lille – Botman stepping out of the heart of defense to press Klaassen – created a passing lane to set Brobbey up one-versus-one with Maignan. His first-time finish was enough to get the ball past the Lille goalkeeper and would provide Ajax with the win.
Ajax can be very proud of this performance. They have some fine-tuning to do on the flanks and could have created more shots. Based on good pressing and great positional play, they had Lille in their grip during this true clash of styles.
Lisandro Martínez (112) and Daley Blind (102) completed a total of 214 passes combined yesterday. Lille completed 268 passes.
— JT (@JeroenTP5) February 19, 2021
Lille manager Christophe Galtier was furious about this performance afterwards and confirmed his teams’ biggest tactical problem when speaking to L’Equipe: ‘We fell short and did too little. In the first half, we lacked rhythm and intensity. When we did manage to conquer the ball, we immediately lost it again. My players played below their technical level, I can’t explain it.’
Both teams meet in the Johan Cruijff ArenA next Thursday. If Lille wants to get anything in Amsterdam this time around, they will need to come up with a better transition from defense to attack, though it remains to be seen if Ajax can bring this level on the ball again next week.
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