Cheuk Hei Ho writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Europa League final that finished Ajax 0-2 Manchester United
By beating Ajax to win the Europa League, Jose Mourinho believed that Manchester Untied had completed a treble this season. His supporters and critics have different opinions on his statement. But whether you agree with him or not, Europa League is the most important trophy for Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson has retired. Winning this title allows them to qualify for the Champions League next season and to compete with Europe’s elite football clubs.
The match itself was not beautiful, with neither team playing attractive offensive football. Mourinho’s teams only care about the result, and it is not surprising that Manchester United played as they did against Ajax. But beneath that ugliness on an eye level, Manchester United has gotten almost all of their strategies right. On a tactical level, Manchester United played brilliantly and deserved to win this trophy.
Ajax (4-3-3): 24. Onana // 4. Riedewald – 36. Ligt – 5. Sanchez – 3. Veltman // 22. Ziyech – 20. Schone – 10. Klaassen // 11. Younes – 25. Dolberg – 9. Traore
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): 20. Romero // 36. Darmian – 12. Smalling – 17. Blind – 25. Valencia // 21. Herrera – 6. Pogba // 22. Mkhitaryan – 27. Fellaini – 8. Mata // 19. Rashford
Mourinho’s strategy against Ajax’s aggressive pressing
Ajax’s primary strength is their ultra-aggressive pressing/counter-pressing. It allows them to prevent the opponents from entering the offensive phase and generate numerous transition opportunities:
In Europa League this season, Ajax ranks among the best in most of the figures that measure pressing/counter-pressing and transitional opportunities. For example, among 56 teams participating in the Europa League, Ajax won 72.9% of the tackles they attempted per game (7th). They also attempt one tackle per 15.2 opponent’s passes (4th) and generate one transition opportunity per 6.84 opponent’s pass (10th). With so many chances from the transitions, Ajax can create one shot opportunity every 34 passes (10th). All these show that Ajax is an excellent pressing/counter-pressing team.
Manchester United initially pressed Ajax very aggressively in the opening 10 minutes to hope to obtain an early lead. However, for most of the match, Mourinho used a very simple strategy to neutralize Ajax’s pressing, long passes:
When Manchester United’s players obtained the ball in their defensive third, they almost always sent a long and high ball upfield. They never attempted to enter the offensive phase through normal buildup. Manchester United’s keeper Sergio Romero attempted 23 passes in this match, all of them long passes. Moreover, Mourinho’s team completed 306 passes, and 71 (23.2%) of them are long passes. This number is higher than every team in the Premier League other than Burnley (and more than every team in the Europa League).
In theory, a team can bypass the opponent’s lines of defense using long passes. However, long passes are low percentage passes, and Mourinho did not just aim to circumvent Ajax’s defense. Most importantly, by playing so many long passes and eliminating any build-up from the back, Manchester United conceded possession (31.1% in this game). To press the other team and generate dangerous transition opportunities, one needs the opponent to have the ball and possession in their defensive half. Mourinho’s idea was to eliminate these opportunities altogether, and it played out brilliantly. Although Ajax attempted almost 40% more tackles per opponent’s passes in this game, they generated nearly 30% LESS transitional opportunities compared to their season average in this competition. Ajax was never able to play with their strength in this match because of Mourinho’s effective counter-measure.
Manchester United’s zonal defense
Mourinho used a zonal marking system with a very strong man-marking orientation against Ajax’s players within each zone. The 4-2-3-1 (and sometimes 4-1-4-1 depending on the positions of Ajax’s players) shape was tailored to Ajax’s 4-3-3 formation: the wingers (Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan) marked Joel Veltman and Jairo Riedewald, the full-backs (Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian) marked Amin Younes and Bertrand Traore. In the center of the midfield, the deeper midfielders, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera, marked Davy Klaassen and Hakim Ziyech while Marouane Fellaini (more advanced midfielder) marked Ajax deeper central defensive midfielder, Lasse Schone.
With Mourinho’s strategy, Ajax’s offensive phase was limited to building up from the back. Attacking through transitions is entirely different from that through build-up. Transitional offense functions without a lot of spatial constraints (because the opponent was not able to form a solid defensive shape) while build-up often works through overloads to break a defensive structure. By taking out Ajax’s transition opportunities, Manchester United’s primary concern was to shut out all the spaces and to prevent being overloaded. Indeed, Mourinho’s team sat very deep for most of the game, especially after taking the early lead, to cut out most of the space that Ajax’s players could operate in. However, Mourinho faced a dilemma during the defensive phase: To provide a covering defender in the back-four, Manchester United could not consistently mark Ajax’s two center backs. Because Mourinho’s team sat in a very withdrawn fashion, Matthijs de Ligt and Davinson Sanchez were often able to bring the ball forward all the way past the half-line. If unmarked, they could create overloads and dissolve Manchester United’s defensive structure.
While Marcus Rashford would mostly chase Sanchez, Fellaini was often tasked to deal with Ligt, who is a much bigger threat with his superb offensive skill:
When Ligt carried the ball forward, Fellaini aimed to close him down immediately. He was brilliant and often tried to eliminate the passing lanes towards Schone. Fellaini would not tackle Ligt. He just stayed in front of him and prevented him from advancing the ball forward nor passing to Schone. In this way, Mourinho’s men were able to avoid being overloaded and kept Ligt from participating in the attack.
While Fellaini took a very cautious approach to deal with Schone and Ligt, Mata and Mkhitaryan acted in an opposite manner:
They would press and tackle Veltman and Riedewald very aggressively when the ball was played through their zones. The idea was to prevent Ajax from operating through the flanks and avoid being stretched. If Ajax consistently built their offensive phase on the flanks, Manchester United had to shift significantly between the sides and risked being stretched. By pressing the full backs intensively, Mourinho’s men forced Ajax to operate through the congested central area, where they could not find any space and were physically out-muscled by Pogba and Fellaini.
Mourinho’s pragmatic approach completely nullified Ajax’s threats. Peter Bosz’s team tried to change things up in the half-time by having Traore and sometimes Younes to move in the middle to displace Manchester Untied’s defenders. However, they were not doing it consistently enough to create any genuine chances.
Manchester United’s tactics worked excellently. It might be dull and not attractive, but it was extremely efficient. Moreover, it is very hard for a team to play like that consistently. It requires a lot of discipline. Mourinho deserves credit for that. To him, good football is the one that brings a result, and his team did exactly that. The remaining question is whether this type of football would work against the elite opponents in the Champions League next year.
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Cheuk Hei is a freelance football tactics writer focuses on Serie A. He is a lifelong Juventus supporter. He also writes for the Juventus fans blog of the SB Nation.
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