Ajax emerged victorious from the first leg, with a convincing 3-1 victory over Dynamo Kiev at the Johan Cruyff Arena – going into the second leg in Ukraine knowing victory or keeping Dynamo Kiev out would result in them making the Champions League group stages for the first time in 4 years.
Ajax made just one change from the team that ran out 3-1 winners in the first leg, with Maximilian Wober coming in at left-back for Nicolas Tagliafico
Dynamo Kiev made 2 changes from the first leg, with 18-year-old Vladyslav Supriaha replacing Artem Besedin up front for his first start for the senior Kiev team and Volodymyr Shepelev replacing Denis Harmash in midfield.
Kiev Defending Narrow
One thing that I noticed that interested me was how narrow Kiev defended when Ajax had the ball in wide areas. Often when the Ajax full-backs/wingers had the ball in wide areas the Kiev full-back would retreat, letting Ajax cross the ball with freedom.
By defending this narrow and encouraging the cross – it helped serve a triple purpose for Kiev’s defence. Firstly it helped create a numerical advantage in the box, Ajax would often have Huntelaar and Van de Beek in the penalty area along with either Tadic or Ziyech close by – if the full-back went across to try to intercept the cross then Kiev are either a man down in the area, or instead of crossing the ball, Ajax could retain possession and try to exploit the gap left by the full-back.
It also helped create a height advantage in the area. Kiev’s full-backs are 183cm (6 foot) and 176cm (5”7) tall, with their centre-backs both being 187cm (6”1) tall. Huntelaar is 186cm (6”1) with Van de Beek (181cm – 5”9) often making runs into the area when crosses were played in. Against 2 centre-backs a similar height, it’s possible that Huntelaar could get lucky and win a dangerous header, but when you add in the full-backs and a defensive mid into the mix, then it’s unlikely that Huntelaar will win that particular battle.
The last reason why defending narrowly helped benefit Kiev, was it gave more freedom to the midfield to attack as shown below.
Kiev In Attack
With Kiev needing to score at least 2 goals to keep their Champions League dream alive, the impetus was on them to attack. With Kiev defending narrowly, the midfield didn’t have to drop back to help defend crosses as much, allowing them to have greater numbers up the pitch, poised for a counter-attack. This was noticeable on a number of occasions with Kiev committing a large number of players high up the pitch whenever possible.
As you can see from the examples, however, the positioning of the players looks rather desperate and not at all conducive to solid build-up play, which would, in turn, generate chances. Therefore it’s not at all surprising that Kiev only managed to generate 6 shots all game, with 3 of those shots coming from outside the area. All in all one shot on target in 90 minutes for a team needing to score at least 2 goals is a very poor result.
Much has been made of Hakim Ziyech on the Twitter football analytics community and how, whilst undoubtedly talented, he is incredibly wasteful – in particular with his shot locations. Having only watched a couple of Ajax games each season it wasn’t something that particularly stuck out to me, however it was definitely noticeable in the 2nd leg, with Ziyech taking the joint highest amount of shots in the Ajax team and pretty much all of them coming from poor angles or distance as you can see from the picture below (courtesy of vi.nl)
But it wasn’t just Ziyech’s shooting that was wasteful, on too many occasions he tried to do too much rather than potentially creating a dangerous chance for a team-mate.
In the above picture, we see Ziyech on the ball, having won it on the touchline and dribbling it to the position we see above. With 2 Kiev players hot on his feels and the centre-back in front of him set for the tackle (with his back to Huntelaar), the option was perfectly set-up to try and slip a pass through to Huntelaar – instead Ziyech attempts to dribble past another player, before inevitably getting tackled and outnumbered.
Early in the second half, we see Ziyech bring the ball down in the area with his back to goal, with 2 defenders right behind him. Van de Beek is perfectly placed and ready for a first time shot from the Ziyech lay-off…but it never comes as instead Ziyech tries to turn and is easily dispossessed. Either of these chances could have potentially put the tie to bed, but instead go down as chances squandered due to selfishness.
Whilst a tactically interesting game, there wasn’t much to shout home about in terms of entertainment (other than Tadic’s missed penalty) – although Ajax will certainly be happy with the result which sees them make a welcome return to the Champions League group stages for the first time in 4 years.