Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Ajax was just what Luis Enrique needed: a good performance after a defeat in the last Champions League game and before a vitally important Clásico. From a tactical point of view, Ajax were the perfect opposition here: a side as wedded to an offensive strategy as Barça but one that cannot really compete in terms of physical, mental or technical quality.
Although Frank De Boer’s team did their best to contain Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Neymar, it simply wasn’t their natural game and they collapsed very quickly. To Barça’s credit, they aggressively exploited Ajax’s many weaknesses from the first whistle. The first forty-five minutes were probably the best of Luis Enrique’s tenure so far.
Barça’s 4-3-3/4-3-1-2 was the same in terms of tactics and personnel as we have become used to under Lucho. For the most part there wasn’t much pressing: they instead stayed relatively deep and focused on remaining defensively solid, generally dropping off to keep a good shape rather than harrying to win the ball high up the pitch. This was presumably an indicator of things to come at the Bernabéu.
Ajax played their traditional 4-3-3 when in possession and reverted to a flatter 4-4-2 shape without the ball. They kept a higher line and pressed slightly more aggressively than Barça, a strategy that presumably stemmed from the fact that they don’t have the kind of physical power that would allow them to sit very deep, win the ball and cover the full length of the pitch to score in a matter of seconds.
Predictably, this high defensive line and semi-aggressive pressing was highly unsuccessful. There was never enough pressure on the man in possession, their adherence to a rigid shape gave Barça’s front six plenty of space to move around in and their high line meant that the defenders were forced into risky situations high up the pitch far too early far any side with aspirations of frustrating Barça.
The opening minutes of the game saw Barça simply keeping the ball against the 4-4-2, giving the attackers time to work out where the spaces were and how they would exploit them. Gerard Piqué tried a few long passes over the top, as he did against Rayo Vallecano, but with little effect.
Lots of opportunities developed down the left flank for Jordi Alba due to extremely poor tracking from Lasse Schöne, who repeatedly let the Barça wing-back motor past him and create two-versus-one situations against Ricardo van Rhijn. Quite why De Boer didn’t correct this problem until half-time is a mystery – it was a constant source of joy for Barça and van Rhijn was totally overrun.
The Barça pressure quickly became insurmountable. Neymar opened the scoring at the end of a brilliant passing move that exploited the weakness at transitions of Ajax’s rigid and half-baked system.
It was all very simple: Ivan Rakitić drifted inside and played a first-time backwards pass to Messi, who played a one-two with Pedro, dribbled through the midfield and assisted Neymar. The alarm bells should have been ringing for Ajax’s midfielders as soon as Rakitić received the ball, but instead they remained in advanced positions, totally passive, and left their defence to deal with an impossible situation.
It continued like this for half an hour or so. Whenever Barça approached the area from any angle, usually down the left or through the middle, they found lots of space to play with. Ajax’s back four panicked, reflexively dropping off and becoming very narrow, leaving even more space for Messi, Neymar and Pedro in front and on either side. As well as the Neymar goal, Barça made three or four good opportunities to score and it could quite easily have been a similar rout to Bayern’s thumping win over Roma.
After the second goal, which came as a result of brilliant midfield play by Javier Mascherano and Iniesta, Barça slowed the tempo and looked to manage the match and conserve energy instead of attacking intensely as they did beforehand.
Rakitić and Iniesta reverted to holding back to cover the full-backs’ advances and the second half became something of a non-event. Ajax committed men forward and forced Barça into some uncomfortable situations, but generally speaking the home side was always in control, passing to run the clock down and making sure enough men were back at all times to cover any possible counters.
This slowing down did lead to Barça switching off somewhat and allowed Ajax to gain their first foothold of the match. Some smart passing moves put the Barça back four under significant pressure but the visitors’ goal, bundled in by Anwar El Ghazi, came too late and meant that they then had to commit everyone forward in the hope of an equaliser, leaving them wide open on the counter – an excellent break by Munir, Rakitić, Pedro and Rafinha led to Sandro’s goal, which put the result beyond doubt.
The only negative from Barça’s point of view was the performance of Gerard Piqué. So far this season his partnership with Marc Bartra has been extremely solid, but this game contained a few big errors and positional mistakes that will give Luis Enrique plenty to think about before the Real Madrid game.
As well as the errors that the two made in the build-up to Ajax’s late goal, there was a spectacular almost-own goal from Piqué and the visitors also had some success pressing him into mistakes in the first half. In the second, too many situations arose like the one in the below still, which shows Barça’s defence to be a total mess in terms of positioning, organisation and concentration, with Piqué miles out of position.
Other than that, it was a night of positives. Mascherano was peerless in midfield – as he was against Eibar – extremely proactive when winning the ball as always, but the more encouraging aspect of his performance was his technical excellence.
Whereas he couldn’t be trusted to play in the pivot role under Pep Guardiola due to his occasional positional confusion and tendency to dwell on the ball, both were shown to be things of the past here. Messi’s goal, for an example, came as a result of Mascherano intercepting a pass in Ajax’s half and making an incisive pass to Iniesta, all with a sprint and a single touch.
Additionally, the first half saw Rakitić and Iniesta spending more time in central positions and linking more with attack, rather than focusing so exclusively on covering the advances made by Alves and Alba. Iniesta even ran beyond the forwards a couple of times to overload and make clear chances, something we have only really seen Xavi do enough of in the league this season.
On the whole, Luis Enrique will be very pleased with the performance. It was important to put in a good showing to boost morale pre-Clásico and to avert potential Champions League disaster.