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Will Ajax suffer this season? Takeaways from the draw vs APOEL in Champions League playoffs

CONTRIBUTOR
Feature
22 Aug 2019, 11:11 IST

Dušan Tadić celebrating after Ajax beat PAOK in the 3rd qualifying round of the Champions League
Dušan Tadić celebrating after Ajax beat PAOK in the 3rd qualifying round of the Champions League

Ajax were very impressive last season. The Dutch side won their 34th Eredivisie title and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. They have started in the same fashion this season, scoring 11 goals and sitting at the top of the table after three games.

However, they seem to be struggling in the Champions League qualifiers. After edging past Greek side PAOK 5-4 on aggregate a week ago, they were held to a goalless draw by Cypriot champions APOEL in the first leg of the Champions League playoffs. The Dutch champions were unable to score despite having 72% possession and registering 19 shots on goal. There were issues in many areas on the pitch, especially in the defence and midfield.


Ajax could have used Frenkie de Jong
Ajax could have used Frenkie de Jong's technical abilities

In the summer, Ajax lost several key players. Frenkie de Jong secured a dream move to Barcelona, their captain Matthijs de Ligt moved to Italian champions Juventus and the veteran Lasse Schöne unexpectedly went to Genoa. As a result, their midfield and defence suddenly lacked experience, leadership and discipline.

This was evident in the game against APOEL. Summer signing Răzvan Marin made several sloppy passes in midfield and was unable to hold onto the ball after pressure from the opposition. The calmer heads of Schöne and de Jong would have been ideal in controlling the tempo of the game and breaking down the opposition’s counterattacks.

The issue in midfield had a ripple effect on the attack, which included David Neres, Dušan Tadić, Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek. While there were some signs of silky link-up play between these four in the match against APOEL, they were often snuffed out by the Cypriot side’s defenders, again due to sloppy passing.


Although Ziyech played well against APOEL, he needed more support
Although Ziyech played well against APOEL, he needed more support

Daley Blind was one of Ajax’s main centre-backs last season, partnering with de Ligt. The composure and experience of Blind coupled with the youthful tenacity of de Ligt made this partnership ideal. However, Ajax manager Erik ten Hag was forced to move Blind further up the pitch into midfield due to Schöne’s departure.

This left a huge gap in defence and as a result, ten Hag created a new pairing with new signing Lisandro Martinez and youth graduate Joël Veltman, who was injured for the majority of last season. In the game against APOEL, they seemed shaky at times. They often came out second in aerial and physical duels, while their clearances were ineffective. This allowed APOEL to create several goal-scoring opportunities on the counterattack.

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Matthijs de Ligt, now at Juventus, will be sorely missed by Ajax
Matthijs de Ligt, now at Juventus, will be sorely missed by Ajax

All of the back four received yellow cards for sloppy challenges in the match. The right back Noussair Mazraoui was given a second yellow card and subsequent red card for a late sliding tackle on Uroš Matić in the 80th minute. This could have put Ajax in serious danger of losing the first leg with just over 10 minutes remaining. Matthijs de Ligt, if he was retained for this season, could have organised the defence and guided them under his leadership.

The event of Ajax’s loss of de Jong, de Ligt and Schone harks back to the summer of 2017, when Monaco sold many of their key players after winning Ligue 1 and reaching the Champions League (CL) semi-finals, just like Ajax. In subsequent seasons, they lost more important players. They were knocked out of CL group stages two years in a row and finished 17th in Ligue 1 last season, one place above the relegation zone.

Hopefully, Ajax will not suffer the same fate as Monaco. Players such as Ziyech and van de Beek, who were linked with moves away in the summer, will be crucial for the Dutch side this season, both domestically and in Europe. Everyone, including myself, will be keeping their fingers crossed for the season ahead.

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