Napoli gave Liverpool football lessons earlier in the CL group and Klopp said: “We’ll have to go back to basics, to re-invent ourselves!” The Napoli traveling circus also visited Amsterdam and it seems Ajax too will need to re-invent themselves.
For starters, we need to be honest about where we believe this Ajax is, in their development. They impressed a couple of seasons ago, versus Real Madrid and Juventus and more, with the likes of Ziyech, Schone, De Ligt and Frenkie de Jong. Even more recent, they also got the people excited when Ten Hag was able to “re-invent” the team, adding Lisandro Martinez, Seb Haller and Antony.
Today’s Ajax is not the same. They let Martinez go, and got Bassey back. They let Antony go and use Tadic as his replacement. They had to let Mazraoui go, and are using Rensch in his place. And 38 year old new fave goalie of the month Remko Pasveer is the current goalie. But… is this Ajax capable of beating the best in Europe? With this team? Tadic is lacking form for months now. Berghuis is hot and cold. Blind is clearly getting older. It all starts by realising that the Europa League might be Ajax’s league at this point in time.
Ajax can only play one type of game. They do have a tall Italian Plan B striker on the bench, but they basically play the Ajax game, full stop. Which is: build up from the back, pass and move, lost of nifty little passes to get to the opponent’s box and then find the free man. Well, spoiler alert. Liverpool, AZ and now Napoli have shown the world that you can only play like this if you’re good enough. Meaning, if the players at the back (including the goalie) can play the forward pass inch-perfect under pressure. Blind and Timber can do this. Apparently, Bassey and Pasveer not so much. Furthermore, you need players from midfield who can drop deep and pick up the ball for a dribble, a passing move and win a physical battle. Like Frenkie, Gravenberch or Lasse Schone. Taylor and Berghuis are less capable to do this. Taylor is more of an 8, while Berghuis lacks the physical strength. Bassey is poor in the build up and although Timber is a superior talent, he would still need a Van Dijk or Martinez next to him to organise the backline.
When Napoli (or AZ or Liverpool) press ferociously and with more intensity than Ajax can use to play under out of it, the Sons of Gods resort to long balls (Pasveer and Bassey). But these long balls lack precision while Ajax doesn’t use the players up top to do something with these long balls. Which comes down to player selection. Bergwijn, Kudus and Tadic are exactly NOT the players to use in this way. Better to use Brobbey and Luca and even Ocampos for that type of game.
Typical for Ajax, they do what they always do even if it doesn’t work. Schreuder refused to sub his preferred players and has paid the price. When the stadium speaker announced at the start of the second half, that Ajax had not made any changes, the 10,000s in the JC Arena responded with a fierce whistle and booing concert. Schreuder was deaf to it. When Tadic got his first yellow, he should have been subbed. But no, he was allowed to stay and collect his second yellow.
As indicated above, Ajax has lost too much quality. Antony left, Ocampos came (a totally different type of player). Bergwijn came, which is good, but he played his best games with Wijndal making his overlaps, so Bergwijn can cut inside and become half a striker in the half spaces. Blind has less of the overlaps and Bergwijn played too much with his back to goal. Tadic is struggling and should have been subbed after his first yellow. Taylor is an exciting midfielder, but he lacks the quality on the ball of Gravenberch and Frenkie de Jong. They could drop down next to the central defenders and play themselves out of trouble. Taylor is less equipped for this (for now at least).
For me, the indication that Ajax was not looking forward to this match and were a bit nervous, was clear in the first 15 minutes. Some unnecessary fouls from Alvarez, Blind and Taylor could have resulted in early yellows. In the first minute, the defenders allowed a ball to bounce in the box and there was some confusion (Bassey rammed the ball forward, to no one) and Timber and Pasveer got themselves into trouble. Ajax rattled.
Ajax stuck to its principles and truth be told, when Ajax did play from under the press, they played ok. They found space and seemed to be in the match. But the % of personal duels won was quite low, which shows another problem. The Napoli defenders had a field day and the Ajax midfield struggled to control the game or even win second balls. The right flank of Ajax was a complete embarrassment. Non existent. With Rensch clearly lacking the confidence to support the attack and Tadic playing his worst game yet.
Remko Pasveer has demonstrated something that Van Gaal will have taken notes for: he panics when he is confronted with pressure while having the ball to his feet. He showed this versus AZ and now again. Although he is decent with both feet, he just hammers the ball forward when attacked and that resulted in constant loss of possession. In the first 15 mins, Pasveer and Timber had a miscommunication moment which almost resulted in the first Napoli goal.
Schreuder is not doing himself a lot of favors. Sometimes, it’s important to show the fans you realised you made a mistake and you do what you can to correct it. If there ever was a game to play Ocampos, it was now.
Dead Ball Situations
Most of you will have noticed that Ajax concedes goals (and chances) from set pieces and corners. It happened against Benfica, it happened against Liverpool (last minute of the game) and it happened versus Napoli, several times. There are ways to deal with this, as it is all a matter of focus and organisation. But, either Ajax is too arrogant to work on this (and hire a specialist dead ball coach for instance) or they are too amateur to realise this. I believe it’s the first.
the biggest problem: build up (avoiding the pressure). Ajax did this well at times and created space.
Van Gaal was purring
It seems Van Gaal is getting some great feedback from games like this. I would not be surprised if Pasveer just dropped a couple of spots on the goal keeper list. I don’t see much of Flekken but Cillesen is more impressive I think. It would make sense for Ajax to go to a 3-4-3, like Van Gaal did. Use Blind – who is still excellent on the ball (he actually was pretty good in the first half, apart from the Napoli equaliser) – Bassey and Timber and use Wijndal as wide left full back. This will go at the expense of Tadic, of course.
It’s easy to try and blame one player for a goal conceded. For the layman, it’s usually the last defender or goalie who gets it. \
The 1-1 equaliser of Napoli starts with a senseless long ball, easily won by a Napoli defender (duel #1). Then Napoli combines past Alvarez, Tadic and Rensch as if they don’t exist. They are constantly a second or two too late. When the left winger runs deep, Bassey and Blind are covering their opponents on the proper side. But Bassey completely leaves his man behind. Blind goes with his man, but when he crosses over to the left of the box, Bassey forces Blind away by taking over the #11 while Blind now has to cover the penetrating run of goal scorer #81 Raspadori who was on his bike, while Blind stood on his heels. 1-1, not much for Pasveer to do here.
The 1-2 was embarrassing. A short corner with two Napoli players (obviously) only marked by one Ajax player (Berghuis) who is wildly gesticulating to his team mates for support. Timber is ball watching and the Napoli skipper has an easy header. Again, Pasveer couldn’t do much.
By then, Ajax is still in the game but in the 39th minute another huge chance , for Zielinsky this time. Pasveer stops the ball which was shot right to him. In the 44th minute, Ajax is pushing up to score the equaliser and have 5 players in front of the ball (Blind, Berghuis, Tadic, Kudus, Bergwijn). Alvarez loses the second ball duel, Timber decides to press forward on the striker but doesn’t get the ball. The bounce is played behind Timber, where there is a huge gap as Bassey and Rensch are also too high. One fast runner and a weak attempt from Pasveer and it’s 1-3, when Ajax was hoping for the 2-2.
Alvarez taking a huge gamble
Not a lot of trouble you’d say. Ajax can score two goals in 45 minutes and get back to 3-3, right?
But then in the first minutes of the first half, while the audience whistles due to no subs and the Bob Marley song “3 little birds” blasts from the speakers in the Arena, something terrible happens. Bergwijn is squeezed off the ball by two Napolitans (?). A long spell of Napoli possession ensues. Alvarez wins the ball in his own box and wants to play out with some nonchalance, engaging Pasveer in the short passing, who plays the ball to Bassey, but the pass doesn’t get there, It’s an 8 yard pass and it goes awfully wrong. The ball ends at the feet of Raspadori who gets his second. Pasveer bows his head.
Pressure on Pasveer
Now we’re 60 minutes into the game. Ndombele powers forward, 4 Italians vs 5 Ajax defenders. A little one – two combination (not unlike the Taylor – Bergwijn one for the 1-0) and Karanskhelia just passes the ball passed Pasveer 1-5. Simeone comes in as a sub and around the 80st minute, the situation becomes even worse . Ajax wants to build up from the back. It’s a sluggish so Pasveer hooves the ball forward. The aerial duel is won by Napoli (of course). Napoli finds space in between the lines, and a simple little flick plays the ball behind Bassey who doesn’t see the runner behind him 1-6.
Pasveer simply gives possession away all the time. This was the case versus Liverpool and it is happening again versus Napoli. Playing high long balls to Tadic and Kudus really doesn’t work against Rrahmani and Min-Jae. Raspadori was clearly instructed to constantly put pressure on the 38 year old. In the past, Ajax had players like Martinez, Mazraoui and Gravenberch to avoid the press. Today, only Blind and Timber can do this. It is not enough.
Again, pressure on Pasveer
Ajax doesn’t take dead ball moments seriously. The second goal comes from a corner, where Berghuis has to wake up Tadic to come and put pressure on the ball. Pasveer is still organising when the corner is taken. Bassey and Alvarez are also not paying attention while Berghuis waits for Tadic to put pressure, instead of doing it himself as he is closest.
Too many Ajax players are betting on their mates winning the ball and moving forward when it’s actually not possible yet. Too many players think too offensive. Take this situation, as described earlier. Too many player in front of the ball and Alvarez taking a big risk going for a loose ball, exposing his defence.
Focus is also a problem. Here you can see Taylor mourning a missed pass, while the opponent is heading towards the Ajax goal.
In a match that isn’t going your way, you need to keep the focus, stick to your tasks and stick to your position.
A bad Ajax playing a top Napoli will therefore result in a massive hammering. Work to be done!