Milan 0-0 Ajax: Milan hold on with ten men
Riccardo Montolivo’s early dismissal meant Ajax spent an hour trying, and failing, to break down Milan’s deep defence.
Max Allegri made huge changes from the side which drew 2-2 at Livorno, bringing in six players – Stephan El Shaarawy was the most eye-catching inclusion, although he didn’t last long.
Frank De Boer also made a few changes. Bojan started upfront against his former club, while Daley Blind was at left-back with Christian Poulsen coming into the midfield.
This was far from open, but it was certainly entertaining. Montolivo’s red card forced both managers to change their plans quickly, and overall Ajax – the side needing the win – were unimpressive in their attempts to score.
Both sides press
The major feature at the start of the contest was the heavy pressing from both sides. This was expected from the away team – they pressed very effectively in the previous Champions League match against Barcelona, and after all, this is Ajax, and pressing has always been a key feature of their game.
But it was more surprising that Milan started so energetically. The problem area for Milan was the opposition full-backs, but they closed them down with a combination of their forwards, who started the game helping to start the pressure, but more notably with the two shuttlers, Montolivo and Sulley Muntari, who got out to the flanks quickly.
While they eventually found themselves with a one-man advantage, Ajax were on top even before Montolivo’s dismissal. The high-tempo contest suited their skillset, and it was particularly obvious that their defenders were more comfortable on the ball than their opposite numbers, and capable of playing good forward passes into midfield. Ajax were particularly flexible because their centre-backs, as well as their full-backs, could move forward in possession if Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy were drawn out wide.
Ajax’s most promising area was down the right flank, where Lasse Schone, Davy Klaasen and Ricardo van Rhijn have an excellent relationship. That trio were responsible for most of Ajax’s good attacks against Barcelona, and here they constantly attacked Kevin Constant, taking advantage of his lack of protection from midfield. Schone and Klaasan regularly switched positions and allowed van Rhijn freedom on the overlap – they forced a corner which was headed onto the post by Poulsen, and then Klaasen had a shot well saved by Christian Abbiati following a right-wing cross.
10 v 11
Montolivo’s foul on Poulsen was punished with a straight red, and immediately Allegri made a change. El Shaarawy was removed with Andrea Poli brought on to play in Montolivo’s right-sided midfield position.
But rather than go with a simple 4-3-1-1, with Kaka still behind Balotelli, Allegri opted for a more solid shape. Poli played on the right of a midfield four, with Kaka tucked in on the left, from where he sprinted forward to join Balotelli on the break.
Ajax dominated possession easily during this period, however, with Poulsen completely free in front of Milan’s midfield, always ready to switch the play from side to side. Ajax weren’t creating a great deal, but the pressure was mounting on Milan because they found it very difficult to close down and win the ball in central positions.
Then, Allegri decided to switch to the 4-3-1-1 shape instead. Poli tucked inside and Kaka sat closer to Poulsen. The Dane’s influence was now limited, but this shape gave Ajax’s full-backs plenty of time to overlap down the outside, and Milan became exposed to a stream of crosses.
That said, Ajax didn’t perform particularly impressively in the period before half-time. The full-backs could have pushed 20 yards higher up the pitch, and the overall passing tempo was very slow. They seemingly understood their task – switch the play repeatedly to expose Milan’s narrow midfield – but they did everything extremely slowly.
At half-time, De Boer made an attack-minded change. Poulsen, the defensive midfielder, was no longer needed as Ajax were dominant (although it’s also possible he was hurt by Montolivo’s challenge, too) and therefore De Boer brought on an extra attacker instead, in Danny Hoesen.
Hoesen went upfront, with Bojan moving right and Schone brought back into the holding role. This move helped Ajax move the ball across the pitch much quicker, although they still struggled to play good combinations in the final third. Aside from a one-two between Klaasen and Bojan, they rarely penetrated the Milan defence and the majority of their shots were scrappy and off-target.
Instead, they looked right where Bojan stayed wide, Klaasen continued to get into decent supporting positions, and van Rhijn played almost permanently as an extra right-winger. Two crosses from that flank were badly misjudged by Abbiati, although Ajax never appeared to have a true aerial target in the box.
That’s why De Boer brought on Kolbeinn Sigthorsson as an extra centre-forward, in place of Bojan. He started from the wide-right position Bojan had been playing, but immediately moved into central positions to become a second striker. From the moment he came on, Ajax hit long diagonal balls from the left flank towards the back post, giving them a proper aerial option.
Allegri responded to this change by introducing a third centre-back. Kaka was removed, with Philippe Mexes on, and Milan now 5-3-1. Milan’s counter-attacking threat was non-existent, and Balotelli was asked to run the channels on his own – he won a few free-kicks, helping to ease the pressure.
De Boer’s final change was peculiar – midfielder Thulani Serero off, and Mike van der Hoorn, a young and error-prone defender introduced specifically to provide yet another aerial route upfront. But Ajax’s balls into the box continued to be extremely disappointing – they went for long diagonals from deep positions, rather than working the ball up towards the byline before crossing. This was peculiar considering they threatened when they got the ball into advanced wide positions – and considering Abbiati’s struggles at judging the crosses.
Klassen had a fine overhead attempt with the final kick of the game, but Ajax didn’t really deserve to progress – they did’t show enough quality to penetrate the Milan defence, and their crossing was merely hopeful.
One of the stranger football cliches is the idea that “sometimes it can be harder to play against ten men”, but Ajax will feel the saying is particularly apt this evening. They must have been delighted Milan were attempting to take them on at ‘their’ game – pressing and quick passing. On the evidence of the first 20 minutes, Ajax would probably have outpassed and outplayed the home side here.
But when Milan went down to ten, Allegri’s side sat extremely deep. Ajax didn’t really have any answer to this challenge – despite switching the ball wide frequently, their passing was often laboured and their crosses hit from extremely deep positions, playing into the hands of Milan’s centre-backs. The introduction of Sigthorsson helped a little, but Van der Hoorn’s presence smacked of desperation.
Milan 0-0 Ajax: Milan hold on with ten men