When Peter Bosz left Ajax to go to Borussia Dortmund, the fans hoped they’d get a new coach with similar ideas. Well, Marcel Keizer does seem to have a similar start as Bosz. Last season, Rostov was Ajax’ henchman blocking their ascent into the Champions League. Bosz’ risquee tactics blew up in his face, but… the Europa League did end up being a more appropriate platform for the Sons of Gods. They reached the finals, and on another day, could have won it.
Still, CL football is what Ajax needs, craves… Sadly, this season they will have to miss out again and again it seems it was the risky approach to the game which cost Keizer and Ajax.
This season start was a weird one of course. Marcel Keizer’s appointment was remarkable but it was Appie Nouri’s terrible ordeal which really put a wet blanket over the whole club and everyone with an Ajax heart. The players were still visibly rattled, even weeks after the event. And the Nice game, at home, was used for the fans to pay tribute to the little playmaker. This video was produced, it played on the big screen before the match and Donny van de Beek – Appie’s football soul mate – had to swallow his tears.
The fans chanted Nouri’s name for minutes and the Nouri family was Ajax’ guests in the VIP stands.
But, the show must go on and Ajax wouldn’t be Ajax if they didn’t try and use these setbacks and emotional backdrops to try and rise up and use the difficulties in their favour.
Marcel Keizer is the next coach in a long long line of fine football experts to try and find that balance. To control matches, with a stable and compact organisation but with threatening and fast attacking spells. Co Adriaanse, Martin Jol, Henk ten Cate, Ronald Koeman, Frank de Boer… they all seem to have failed, according to the Ajax afficionados to reach the ultimate level: results with breathtaking football.
And Marcel Keizer hasn’t found the recipe either. Early days of course, but sadly, CL qualifications are early in the season and the home game resulted in 2-2. The away goal rule sank the proud club.
Nice players Jean-Michaël Seri and Alassane Plea sprint forward with exuberance. Just like in the first 25 minutes of the match, Ajax takes big risks in the turnover of possession to loss of possession. Both left back Viergever and holding mid Schone step out to encounter right midfielder Melou. It’s Melou who just intercepted a failed square pass of Kluivert. The result: a one v one for Sanchez and Matthijs de Ligt, in acres of space. But, Davinson Sanchez is on time and takes the ball back, which results in Ajax being the winner in this particular 2 v 2 situation.
And the cause for this gamble is clear when Joel Veltman passes the ball swiftly into playmaker Hakim Ziyech. The former Heerenveen prospect has basically initiated dangerous counter-attacks by Nice, with his risky and failing through balls. But this time, Ziyech gets the kudos for his vision. His pass is inch-perfect. Donny van de Beek Bergkampesque first touch allows him to turn and score: 1-1.
The 2-1 is the result of five Ajax players putting forward pressure on Nice at the byline.
Before Ajax’ second goal, the Amsterdam press is more extreme. The corner kick is defended by Nice, but five Ajax players smell a slip. Veltman and Younes work as a team and Kluivert takes the ball and passes to the well positioned Ziyech. Again, he demonstrates why his team mates forgive him his failed attempts. He finds Viergever stampeding into the box, who heads the ball into the feet of the other defender: Davinson Sanchez, who scores the 2-1. The result of modern Total Football?
This is exactly the playing style with which Peter Bosz got the Ajax fans on their feet. Ajax creates an impressive number of opportunities vs Schalke 04 and Olympique Lyon but they also allow their opponents massive chances. Quite the difference to Frank de Boer’s Ajax. In his seasons 14/15 and 15/16 the defensive strength was evident, but the many critical fans regularly boo-ed the team for being boring.
Every Ajax coach faces the dilemma of offering a spectacle but without conceding too many goals. With Keizer, Ajax has another extreme thinking coach, just like Bosz before him. No matter who the opponent and no matter what’s at stake: Ajax picks the attacking and risky options.
In the 25 minutes before the masterclass leading to the Ajax equaliser, the disadvantages of these options come to light.
In Keizer’s 4-3-3, the mid midfielder is playing deep, with usually five players – at least – in front of the ball. Sometimes, the wingbacks go on the overlap even. Which means that with loss of possession, the so-called rest-defence is lacking. Which has consequences for Lasse Schone, who is a fine player on the ball, but vulnerable in bigger spaces.
This illustrates the vulnerability of Ajax: five offensive players are immediately out of play when the ball is given up.
Ajax tries to deal with this, by pushing up Sanchez and De Ligt. They are sometimes pressing up all the way onto the opponent’s half. Backs Veltman and Viergever usually follow their man. Which means there is hardly any protection for the two centre backs, in this case vs striker Plea. Whenever Plea pulls away to the wing, the central axes is wide open.
Take a look at the opening goal of Nice. De Ligt pushes up, and Sanchez is lured away by Plea. A top team like Nice has the wherewithal to take advantage of this situation. In a way, Ajax was lucky that the French team – new employers of Wesley Sneijder – didn’t take the opportunity to decide the game early.
The Ajax centre is wide open for the Nice opener
But then there is the stage where Ajax rises up. Under difficult circumstances, they stick to their game plan. And this works for Ajax, when Justin Kluivert runs circles around his opponent, at times. Nice starts to drop back more and more and Ajax wins the ball back in midfield more often. With the support of the fans, this leads to a period in which Ajax dominates and creates opportunities. These are the two faces of Keizer’s Ajax: gallery play and kamikaze play go hand in hand….
Like a gambler putting all his chips on red at the roulette table. Fantastic, if it works out. But disastrous if it fails. And when the results come in, it pays off to be brave. But if the results won’t come, the moniker will change to naive.
This false start against Nice will give Keizer something to think about in his honeymoon period with Ajax. Do I stick to my guns, and believe in my vision, even if results are bad and our defence is constantly under pressure?
At Young Ajax, Keizer stuck to his game plan and vision, but will he be able to do the same if his work is under a magnifying glass. And this question will also come in the heads of the young and inexperienced players. Will the defenders keep on pushing up when the goals rain into the Ajax net? Or will they start to have doubts?
Situation in the run up to the decider, Nice scores 2-2. Ajax applies man to man marking all over the pitch.
The solutions are quite simple for Keizer: say farewell to the pair-approach. In international football, zonal defending is the norm. But Ajax selected a version of man-marking. With only eleven minutes to go, a goal kick results in a one v one all over the pitch. Ajax loses the header for the ball and immediately they have a numerical disadvantage around their own box. And while Ajax is in front. Qualified for the next round. And with Keizer announcing before the match he would play for a result. But no one on the pitch seems to be able to read the game and instruct players to drop back to select some more security.
This is typical for the thin tightrope Ajax is currently balancing on. This current squad oozes quality and entertainment but is also quite vulnerable. If Keizer is unable to address this and improve on it, Ajax will keep on having desastrous and unnecessary deceptions.
When Keizer was announced, it was said that he would build on the foundation laid by Peter Bosz. Not sure whether the Ajax coach is still so convinced of this now.