Even though Ajax ultimately fell short at the final hurdle in their quest for Europa League glory, losing 2-0 to Manchester United in the final, Peter Bosz’s young side have every reason to be proud of their efforts.
Overcoming the likes of Celta Vigo, Schalke and Lyon were fine accomplishments in their own right on the way to Stockholm, but their performance in the showpiece with the Red Devils was no disappointment, however, instead serving as another testament to their undeniable quality.
Although they often struggled to breakdown Jose Mourinho’s well organised and deep sitting defensive structure, there were still many elements of their attacking play that deserved praise and bore fruit. Moreover, the way they outplayed their expensively assembled opponents with some sublime possession football was a joy to watch.
When building out from the back, Bosz typically instructed his two centre-backs to split to the edge of the 18-yard-box, which gave them good width and created a 2v1 numerical superiority vs Marcus Rashford, United’s only first line defensive presence. They duly made the most of this advantage by playing around any pressure, allowing Davinson Sanchez or Matthijs de Ligt to dribble forward unimpeded. Upon reaching midfield, where Man Utd man marked Ajax, with Marouane Fellaini on Lasse Schone, Ander Herrera on Hakim Ziyech and Paul Pogba on Davy Klaassen, one of the central defenders looked to provoke a press and free up one of their midfielders.
On many occasions, this tactic worked nicely, as Ajax’s mids would cleverly move out of their opponents’ cover shadow when they pressed to become a terrific option to create a viable passing option.
Interestingly, the historic Amsterdam club would also look to exploit United’s man marking by instructing their two most advanced central midfielders, Ziyech and Klaasen, to split wide into their respective half space. By doing so, they were able to drag their man with them to create space for Kasper Dolberg to exploit in vital central attacking areas.
Other methods Ajax deployed to attempt to breach Mourinho’s organised rearguard came by manufacturing overloads on the flanks, using Dolberg’s runs in behind to increase the gaps between lines and when the wingers came infield to populate the 10 spaces, which also provided the fullbacks with oceans of space to motor forward into.
Despite enjoying 69% of possession and creating many decent chances, it just wasn’t to be their night, as Pogba’s deflected strike and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s opportunistic finish following a set piece were enough for the Mancunians to run out victors.
A clearly frustrated Bosz, while obviously dejected, still made a point of praising his side, who were the youngest ever team to compete in a European final – with their average age being just 22 years and 282 days.
“You know it is going to be difficult after conceding such an unlucky goal. We were unlucky to concede that early goal, because that allowed United to sit even deeper. And it got very difficult after their second goal,” Bosz explained.
“They had everyone behind the ball and it was hard to create something. Neither team created any chances. It was not like United totally outplayed us and created chance after chance. We did not have to lose to this United.
“We are very disappointed. We all wanted to win. But we can leave with our heads held high. We have done well this Europa League campaign and brought joy to the fans. We have learned a lot from this experience. We have a lot of big talents and we hope to be able to hold on to them.”
Keeping hold of their wildly gifted prospects will prove a challenging battle in itself, but if they can manage to do so and keep the tactically brilliant Bosz, there’s no reason to suggest they can’t enjoy another captivating push for European glory next term.
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