Tactical Analysis: Chelsea vs. Ajax
The UEFA Champions League has given us some memorable nights in recent memory but few group stage matches have had anywhere near the madness, thrill and all-round quality that was on show when Frank Lampard’s high-flying Chelsea took on Erik Ten Hag’s league leading Ajax at Stamford Bridge. A game that began as usual at 0-0 with 22 men vying for the ball ended with a scarcely believable score line of 4-4, featuring two own goals, two red cards, two penalties, the now customary VAR controversy and with one team down to nine men. It also featured some incredible technique, spectacular offensive play and some truly outstanding goals, as the two sides went at it in what is likely to be the most open match of the 2019/20 Champion’s League season. The game featured expansive attacking play from both sides, and some intriguing tactical match-ups that will be discussed in this analysis.’
Erik Ten Hag’s side came into this match having won their matches against Lille and Valencia before losing to Chelsea at the Johan Cruyff arena, but more importantly began their season having lost three of their most important players in Lasse Schone, Frenkie de Jong and skipper Matthijs de Ligt. Viewers could have been forgiven for thinking that the team’s window had expired due to these departures, but Ten Hag has demonstrated his flexibility by tailoring his fluid attacking scheme to suit the likes of Hakim Ziyech, Dusan Tadic and new arrival Quincy Promes as the team’s creative engines.
Joel Veltman has taken De Ligt’s place at centre-back alongside Daley Blind while new arrival Lisandro Martinez has made Schone’s central midfield spot his own. The creative verve of Frenkie de Jong has been replaced by a combination of Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech, with the two operating in tandem to build play from the back.
Ajax started the game with intent and aggression, pressing Chelsea’s centre-back duo of Kurt Zouma and Fikayo Tomori and harassing Jorginho when the Italian got on the ball. Lining up in a 433 on paper, Ajax shifted to an extremely fluid 4231 in practice, with van de Beek and Lisandro Martinez forming the pivot with Ziyech ahead behind the captain Tadic and alongside wingers Neres and Promes.
The build-up was organised around the ball playing skills of Blind and Martinez, as the usual pattern was a pentagon shape with the fullbacks Tagliafico and Mazraoui wide, Veltman and Blind slightly apart and Martinez in the centre. This left van de Beek as the free man in midfield with the license to operate according to the flow of the game, and he positioned towards the right near the halfway line. The move allowed Ajax to drop men back and ensure defensive solidity in case they lost the ball, while keeping the option open of pushing players forward by playing through Chelsea’s press.
This proved to be an extremely rewarding set up, as Chelsea found the rapid movement of Ajax’s midfield and offense incredibly difficult to deal with. While Martinez and van de Beek were theoretically stationed as the midfield pivot, they pushed up high and aggressively pressed Chelsea’s ball carrier, albeit with Martinez doing so cautiously and with an eye towards getting back to his spot in central defensive method. However, similar considerations did not apply to van de Beek, who despite being quiet for the majority of the game managed to play his part by creating numerical superiority and getting on the scoresheet. This was achieved as no less than five Ajax players – primarily van de Beek, Neres, Promes, Ziyech and Tadic – pushed up when one of them received the ball, repeatedly catching Chelsea out who often had only the centre-back duo, Azpilicueta and Jorginho protecting them on the break.
Much of Ajax’s play was tilted to the right, where Ziyech and Neres ruthlessly exploited the acres of space left by wandering Marcos Alonso. The constant interchange between Tadic, Ziyech and Neres posed headaches for Alonso, Jorginho and Tomori, who – in the first half – were uncertain about who to pick up and track.
Making matters worse for Chelsea was the fact that switching off even for a moment during Ajax’s overload had punishing consequences, as the opposite winger Promes and midfielder runner van de Beek showed with their goals in the first and second half respectively. Neres demonstrated incredible ball retention throughout the match, constantly creating separation between himself and his marker in order to get a pass away to a teammate. A frequent target was Ziyech who could often be found with a short pass on the same wing, and the sight of the Moroccan cutting in with his left foot often triggered runs into the penalty area by Promes and one of Martinez and van de Beek.
While Tomori and Zouma succeeded in keeping Tadic quiet, Chelsea’s frailty from set pieces exposed them time and again, with Ajax’s opener and third goal coming from mistakes that a top side would not generally commit. The fouls themselves were needlessly given away by the two fullbacks Azpilicueta and Alonso, but more worrying was the defence’s inability to deal with crosses that were whipped in sharply and with pace. This proved to be their undoing on Ajax’s first three goals, as the second came from an outstanding Ziyech cross from deep on the right that tore Chelsea open.
Azpilicueta failed to look over his shoulder in time, as Promes ghosted into the area for a simple tap in via a header. As for the third goal, it is difficult to lay the blame at anyone’s feet except Kepa’s; while the delivery was excellent, the Spaniard could certainly have dealt with it in a better fashion. Still, the fact remained that Chelsea were overwhelmed by Ajax’s fluidity in the first half, though they tightened up considerably after the break.
We didn’t witness much defending from Ajax in the first half, however they were gradually put on the backfoot in the second which culminated in the simultaneous dismissals of their centre back duo.
In defence, Ajax’s shape was a compact 442/4411, with the wingers Neres and Promes dropping alongside van de Been and Martinez – who was the deepest of the four midfielders – while Ziyech interchanged with Tadic up front. The fullbacks were tucked inside to create greater numbers and were largely able to protect their flanks during the first half, but endured a torrid time in the second after Veltman and Blind were sent off. Tagliafico in particular was consistently bested by halftime introduction Reece James and the hardworking Willian, both of whom ran incessantly at Ajax throughout the second half. This was in conjunction with Kovacic repeatedly breaking past Ajax’s midfield by dribbling past three players at once, as well by relying on a sneaky “give and go” with Jorginho in the middle.
This ensured that Ajax were on the backfoot for large spells in the second half, but they somehow still managed to threaten the hosts despite Ten Hag taking off Ziyech and Neres to shore up the midfield and hang on to what was at the time a 3-4 lead. Promes tested Kepa twice in the final ten minutes, while Martinez shot straight at the Spaniard after having received a ball just inside the box.
It speaks volumes about the Dutch side’s mentality that they refused to leave without at least a point after having let a 1-4 lead slip, and that is no mean feat when you have only nine players on the pitch against a side as talented as Lampard’s Chelsea.
No team came into the new season with greater uncertainty than Chelsea and Frank Lampard, but after a rough start to the season that saw them lose 4-0 to Manchester United and slump to a 1-1 with Leicester City they’ve put together a run that sees them second in the table after their against Crystal Palace on Matchday 12. Nearly everyone who was part of the “Loan Army” has stepped up this season, with Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and now Reece James establishing themselves as household names. They have been aided in no small part by a resurgence of sorts on the part of Emerson, Jorginho, Willian and particularly Mateo Kovacic, who have all been instrumental in bringing experience to the side in the absence of the departed Hazard and the injured Pedro, Giroud, Rudiger and Kante.
Chelsea set up in a 433 formation with Pulisic and Willian as wingers and Mount, Jorginho and Kovacic in midfield, with Marcos Alonso starting in place of Emerson at left back. Chelsea’s build up under Lampard is similar in a lot of ways to the method Sarri deployed during his solitary season in charge, with a ‘box’ formation of Zouma, Tomori, Jorginho and Kovacic handling the first stage of build up while the fullbacks stay wide and slightly ahead of the midfield. This left Mount open to combine with Pulisic and Alonso on the left, as the midfield was set as triangle with Kovacic and Mount ahead of Jorginho in practice.
However, the two advanced midfielders had very different roles during the offensive phase of Chelsea’s game, with Kovacic tasked with taking the ball from Jorginho and getting past the first line of Ajax pressure while Mount was to arrive in the box as a late runner from midfield to attack crosses, cutbacks and second balls. Their roles were supported by the wingers Pulisic and Willian, as the American interchanged positions with Mount by drifting inwards whereas Willian dropped into midfield to cope with Ajax’s attacks. Abraham was left isolated up top at times and repeatedly drifted to the right to get on the ball and influence the game, a move he frequently repeated in the first half.
For Chelsea this was very much a game of two halves, as they spent much of the first half on the backfoot with Ajax dominating possession and cutting Chelsea open at will. However, it is a credit to Jorginho and Kovacic as Ajax didn’t penetrate too often through the middle, instead exploiting the poor positioning of Marcos Alonso at left back. On multiple occasions in the first half the Spaniard rushed inwards to get on the ball and combine with Mount who went wide in response to Alonso’s runs, however his lack of pace to get back into position saw Ziyech and Neres tear Chelsea open on their left flank.
Alonso’s absence forced one of Jorginho and Mount to constantly cover for the Spaniard, and Ajax quickly occupied the spaces they vacated to overload the wing before switching play to the opposite wing as we witnessed for the second goal. It was a routine that the Dutch side executed with remarkable pace and precision, with the result was that the hosts were under pressure throughout the first half.
However, there were a few bright spots for Chelsea in the first half, which primarily revolved around the ease with which Mateo Kovacic was able to boss Ajax’s midfield duo of van de Beek and Martinez. The Croatian demonstrated outstanding press resistance to hold off multiple players and break Ajax’s lines, and he found Willian or Abraham on a consistent basis whenever he got on the ball in the first half. Kovacic also stepped up to press the Ajax ball carrier during phases when Pulisic and Willian were positioned deeper, with the intent of forcing Ajax to play the ball wide where the wingers were waiting to pounce. Unfortunately, this didn’t work too well in the first half, as Ten Hag’s side repeatedly played through the press through Blind and Martinez.
However, Lampard and fate changed the game for Chelsea in the second half, as the introduction of Reece James at right back led to the departure of the erratic Alonso with Azpilicueta switching over to the left flank. At 1-3 down and only a sliver of hope left, Lampard’s side went for it with intent, and while they were punished in transition by a goal from van de Beek following a wonderful transition the elements were in place for a truly remarkable comeback. In that regard, Zouma’s astonishing run – which left nearly seven players trailing – was prescient, as Chelsea relentlessly attacked the visitors from that point onwards.
The turning point, as it turned out, was the injury suffered by Mason Mount, which forced Lampard to bring on Callum Hudson-Odoi in his place. Chelsea shifted to a 4231 following this switch with Pulisic in the centre flanked by CHO and Willian, and all three players were involved in Azpilicueta’s second goal that began the comeback for the hosts.
Lampard and Chelsea received a major boost with the double dismissal of Ajax’s defensive dup of Veltman and Blind around the 70th minute, which was followed by Jorginho bringing Chelsea closer to their goal by sending Onana the wrong way for a second time from the penalty spot. From here on Chelsea enjoyed a natural numerical superiority that they further bolstered by pushing as many as seven players high up the pitch, as James and Azpilicueta became permanent fixtures in midfield for the hosts and CHO, Pulisic, Willian and Abraham loaded the box. This manifested itself with James netting the equaliser following a scramble in the box after a corner, and it was clear by this point that strategy and tactical planning had long given way to adrenaline and individual talent. That talent showed itself when Onana pulled off a remarkable save from late introduction Batshuayi .
Still, Ajax defended with admirable commitment and continued to threaten on the counter, with the result that they managed to hold Chelsea off in the closing stages of the game to escape with Stamford Bridge with a point. The hosts came from 1-4 down to get to 4-4 with roughly 15 minutes still to play, and in a truly remarkable turn of events left disappointed at having lost out on all three points.
On final analysis this was a match that had a little bit of everything, and captured perfectly the randomness that only the Champion’s League is capable of delivering on a consistent basis. It is a result that leaves the group finely poised, as Valencia, Ajax and Chelsea are still in with a chance of making it out of the group stages.
By: Rick Phillips
Photo: Gabriel Fraga