After a slow first half United, upped the tempo, moved their wingers further up the pitch and scored two goals to give themselves a great opportunity to move into the next round of the Europa League. Here are Sam Thompson’s observations…
Aissati is asked to sit
Ajax opted for their usual 4-3-3 formation but despite the size of the opposition, the two wingers remained high up the pitch and made the playing area as big as possible. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen formed a central defensive partnership with Dico Koppers filling in at left-back. Ismail Aissati was given the unfamiliar role of sitting in midfield with Siem de Jong and Christian Eriksen either side. Russian striker Dmitri Bulykin played the lone striker role with support from Aras Ozbiliz and Miralem Sulejmani out wide.
Ferguson plays a strong side
Sir Alex Ferguson set out his side with a strong line-up. Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand continued their familiar central partnership and Fabio da Silva played left back as a result of Patrice Evra not travelling. Michael Carrick was partnered by Tom Cleverly, starting his first game since injury, and Nani and Ashley Young provided width in midfield. Javier Hernadez was selected ahead of Danny Welbeck to partner Wayne Rooney.
Both sides applied little pressure to the other until the ball passed the half-way line and both sides’ deepest midfielders, Carrick and Aissati, enjoyed a lot of time and space early on as a result. A notable feature right from the start of the game was how attack-minded Phil Jones was, he seemed determined that the best way to limit Christian Eriksen on the left of the three in midfield was to keep running at him and forcing him back (another reason was Nani’s movement into central positions when United had possession – see diagram). Ajax’s three man midfield was incredibly wide when in possession but tucked in without the ball, forming more of a 4-5-1 – it also seemed that the left side of Ajax pressed slightly higher/earlier than the right.
Ajax stay composed and patient
With the three man midfield of Ajax playing against the two of United, Rooney came deeper than he played in his last match against Liverpool – also a result of United not playing ‘two passers’ in the middle and therefore increasing the likelihood of good ball retention. With Carrick sticking to his deeper role aimed at recycling possession, Cleverly was able to get forward and a feature of United’s attacks tonight was their willingness to get bodies into the box. However, Ajax had a good first 20 minutes to the game. Captain Vertonghen twice showed the composure and class to play the ball out of defence himself and Aissati made simple decisions that helped Ajax keep the ball and get a feel for the occasion.
The game opens up after half an hour
On 28 minutes the match opened up a bit after a bright Ajax move, culminating in a dangerous cross from the left hand side by Sulejmani was followed by a forceful run by Jones from right back, before sliding in a cross for Rooney to try and get on the end of. Ajax’s front three remained high up the pitch, even when out of possession, meaning that when Jones did get forward, there always the chance of a quicker counter attack by Ajax. After Rooney gave the ball away in his own half (when he lost possession both he and Hernandez were in United’s own third looking for the ball – perhaps a sign of frustration?) de Jong forced a good save from de Gea after a clever flick by Eriksen and this was followed up by a series of Ajax crosses into the box that put United under pressure. By the end of the first half Eriksen was starting to drift in more frequently from the left hand side into central areas in front of the United defence, where he is most dangerous, and was showing good understanding and link-up play with Sulejmani ahead of him.
United push on
In the second half, with the score still at 0-0, United moved the ball much quicker and started to open up the Ajax defence that had looked so solid in the first half. First, a Rooney through ball found Hernandez who turned with his first touch but the ball was smothered by the onrushing Kenneth Vermeer in goal. United continued their pressure with a series of free kick’s and corners and Phil Jones continued to look like a real attacking threat down the right-hand side against the inexperienced Koppers. At the other end of the pitch Bulykin was looking increasingly isolated. The striker has a good touch and the right build to be a target man but lacked the pace and work rate to cause Evans and Ferdinand too many problems throughout the game. Nani and Young out wide pushed on further and started to pin back the Ajax full backs making it hard for Ajax to keep the ball for long periods.
Ashley Young scores the first
Just before the hour mark Ashley Young put United ahead. The winger was given too much time and space to take a touch and compose himself in the 18 yard box before converting his shot after Ajax failed to clear, first a corner, and then a Nani cross that was deflected at the near post. Scholes replaced Cleverly straight after the goal to rekindle his successful partnership with Carrick, from the weekend against Liverpool, and the pair both sat in front of their defence in plenty of room (see diagram), spraying passes and making sure United remained patient and kept a hold of the ball. Koppers, who did okay against a rampant Jones for someone so inexperienced, was replaced by first-choice left back Boilesen.
United continued to move the ball with more urgency, with even Hernandez dropping deep to get on the ball. Eriksen continued to impress for Ajax. The winger looked a threat when running at goal from deep and has good technique, agility and pace. Antonio Valencia replaced Young meaning Nani moved to the left hand side. United now sat back and defended as a 4-5-1, not looking to close down unless necessary, although the two wingers were still willing to push forward when in possession, knowing that Scholes and Carrick were both sitting behind them.
Hernandez doubles the lead
On the 85th minute United scored a crucial second away goal. Valencia out-battled his opponent when breaking free through the middle and managed to find Hernandez in a 2v1 situation, with Rooney in support. After exchanging a one-two with his striker partner, Hernandez finished first time to make the full-time score 2-0 to United.
United may have won, but Ferguson knows his side were far from their best: “I’m delighted with the scoreline. It was an ordinary performance and didn’t reach any great height. We didn’t play well at all and didn’t have any rhythm. There wasn’t any tempo to our play in the first half, but in the second half we improved. It wasn’t a brilliant performance, but it’s good enough.” United got their tactics right in the second half, by pushing their wingers further forward and moving the ball with more urgency. As for Ajax, Vertonghen will not have done himself any harm after a solid and composed performance at the back and Christian Eriksen looked a real threat at times and will surely be playing European football for a bigger team in the future.