Ajax 1-1 Milan: neither plays their best football
An entertaining first half, a much less interesting second half, and a point apiece.
Ajax maintained the 4-3-3 shape they used in the 2-2 draw with Twente, making one change – Demy de Zeeuw replaced the ineffectual Rasmus Lindgren, with Eyong Enoh dropping into a deeper midfield position.
Max Allegri used an off-centre midfield diamond supporting Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, making a formation that was not entirely dissimilar from the one Robinho has enjoyed with Brazil in recent years. Mathieu Flamini played as a shuttler on the right, with Rino Gattuso doing a more defensive-minded job on the left, and Clarence Seedorf playing as a rightish central playmaker.
Milan’s shape gave them (in theory) an extra man in the centre of the pitch, but in practise this only happened when Milan didn’t have the ball – when they did, Flamini moved out to the right, and was then the domain of Vurnon Anita. Robinho started wide but came increasingly inside as the game went on, to the point where he was essentially playing as a second striker.
At some points Milan’s system looked more like a Christmas Tree shape, when Flamini took up a defensive position, and Robinho came inside to join Seedorf in the middle. This caused Ajax problems as they were unable to deal with the double trequartista threat, with Seedorf being more influential than Robinho.
Ajax’s system was similar to at the weekend, although the movement upfront was much better: Mounir El Hamdaoui played something approaching a false nine role, with Suarez playing more centrally, and the Uruguyan was the main dangerman. He created the first goal after nutmegging Alessandro Nesta, and pulling back for El Hamdaoui’s clever spin and shot.
Ajax high line
Just like against Twente, Ajax played a high line and therefore looked very vulnerable to balls over the top of the defence. Robinho wasted an early one-on-one when Ibrahimovic dropped deep, Seedorf flicked a ball through through the defence, and Robinho pulled wide. That was a warning sign for Ajax, and one they would not learn from – the one positive was that they were closing down well in midfield, making it difficult for Milan to play constant balls in this fashion.
But the problem was that they were relying too much on this closing down – de Jong had started the game occupying Andrea Pirlo, but became increasingly slack in his defensive duties. Pirlo had time to loft a ball over the Ajax defence for Seedorf, who knocked the ball onto Ibrahimovic, who finished well against his former club.
Room for Ajax full-backs
As Robinho drifted inside, he increasingly became an easy marking job for Ajax’s right-sided centre-back, Toby Alderweireld. Therefore, Gregory van der Wiel was let off the leash, and he got forward to give Luca Antonini some problems towards the end of the first half.
Ajax had either of their full-backs free as Milan’s diamond shuffled from side to side – generally Anita would be the first in space when Flamini was in a central position, but then Gatusso would come to the middle of the pitch, and Robinho’s unwillingness to track back meant the ball could then be played out to van der Wiel. Like Marseille, Ajax didn’t use this out-ball frequently enough.
Both sides became more narrow after the second half, with Robinho and Suarez both playing more centrally and trying to provide a goal threat. This made for a rather stale game, however, with the midfield battle becoming increasingly scrappy and neither side getting into a good passing rhythm.
Seedorf was the one Milan player who looked like creating something, but Ibrahimovic and Robinho became increasingly static as the game went on, and Seedorf was unable to find many opportunities to play the killer pass.
Game peters out
For Ajax, the injury to Anita just before half-time meant the introduction of Miralem Sulejmani, and he provided much more of an attacking presence down the right-hand side, teaming up with Urby Emanuelson and forcing Kevin-Prince Boateng (who replaced Flamini) back into his own third.
But the second half was contested by two teams seemingly happy to take a point – Milan having won their first game, and Ajax presumably hoping to keep it level with Milan, then get six points over Auxerre in the next two games. The final half hour was a poor spectacle, only lit up by Seedorf, who got a great ovation from both sets of fans when he was replaced by Ignazio Abate.
This was basically as you’d expect (what basically amounted to a) 4-3-3 v 4-3-1-2 to be. Ajax found their full-backs free (but didn’t really exploit this enough) whilst Milan got the ball to Seedorf between the lines, and he caused problems. Both sides had chances to win the game, but a draw was an accurate reflection of the balance of play.
Milan didn’t look entirely comfortable with this system, and when Pato returns it’s difficult to see it remaining their formation.
Ajax slightly disappointed in that they didn’t push forward more for the win, and the main conclusion to draw from the game is that their high line can be exploited very easily. Against both Twente and Milan they’ve conceded goals this way – it’s a natural result of heavy pressing, but in this game they didn’t press very effectively.