Vitesse’s euphoria at an opening day victory over ADO Den Haag was short-lived, Ajax – admittedly uncomfortably – returning to winning ways.
Despite Luis Suárez’s suspension and cover in the midfield conspicuous by its absence, Martin Jol was still able to construct a strong ‘2-3’ as he restored his side to 4-2-3-1.
The 4-3-2-1 deployed against Groningen was shelved because another negative mob of wave-breakers lay in wait for this clash. Yet it wasn’t the formation that cost Ajax in Round One – rather, defensive lapses at set-pieces proved their undoing.
Fortunately for the Fulham-lusting tactician, his rearguard was at full-strength; Jan Vertonghen returning in place of Oleguer. Their opponents from Arnhem were also virile in the personnel department. Well, sort of….
Theo Bos has a minuscule squad, and this *strong* XI had a midfield with an average of <20. Stalwarts Piet Velthuizen (GK) and Dalibor Stevanovič (left-sided attacking midfielder) were excluded, both on the verge of book-balancing departures.
Proceedings began as expected, Vitesse giving the ball away from kick-off, and Ajax taking it on to give everyone a touch. However, this laissez-faire attitude became entrenched, and the home side couldn’t escape first gear during their build-up play for quite a while.
Although Toby Alderweireld looked accomplished when bringing the ball out, Jol’s insistence that his side begin via short-pass goal-kicks allowed Theo Bos to haul his banks into angle-erasing walls.
Resultantly, the young Belgian’s insatiable desire to carry into the opponent’s half led to successive long-range diagonals to the left-side of Eloy Room’s area.
Each time, a deep defence guarded the peeling duo of Siem de Jong and Mounir El Hamdaoui. Now serenaded by the sound of a booing, baying crowd, the visitors from the Gelderland province grew in confidence.
While this increased the intensity and success of the away side’s pressing, the transferral of it into build-up play wasn’t so deadly. Lasse Nilsson put two past ADO last week, but no such reward was forthcoming here for the isolated forward’s clever darts.
Wiljan Pluim’s job was supposedly two-fold – a third centre-midfielder-cum-support-striker. Alas, such was the ball-retention of an Ajax side who’ve now played six times in 14 days, Pluim was permanently stuck in the defensive phase.
With no link between defence and attack (Alexander Büttner was more left-sided centre-midfielder-cum-left-winger, while the nominal winger Genaro Snijders couldn’t escape his tucking and mucking duties), Vitesse’s sole territory came via hoofs cleared for throw-ins.
Here, Marco van Ginkel came into his own. Despite the lanky 17-year-old being a classy central-midfielder, his main use in the Vitesse attack was that extraordinary – and effortless – loopy long-throw of his.
Finally, Nilsson could hold the ball in danger-zones, complete with options behind and ahead of him. In the 14th minute he created the game’s best chance, but Pluim and Büttner each took turns in squandering the opening.
Vitesse stuck to their duck, duck, goose approach to sitting and surging, but they opened the scoring after 26 minutes, an unpressurised Snijders delivering from the left for 18-year-old Davy Pröpper to head home.
The next ten minutes were far more open. Demy de Zeeuw and de Jong hurried and pressed Vitesse’s short goal-kicks, meaning gaps appeared in the centre for the away side.
In these, van Ginkel looked for give-and-go moves with Nilsson, finally involving the Swedish striker with regularity, while Snijders was always available on the left strip of chalk.
Ajax continued to pepper the final-third too, and although the deep-lurking El Hamdaoui and de Jong operated on the same wavelength, the home-side’s XI incorporated too many right-footers.
This problem even afflicted debuting defensive-screen Roly Bonevacia. Although the box-to-box de Zeeuw left Bonevacia to mop up alone, the 18-year-old’s occasional bursts resulted in greedily snatched scuffs.
Also culpable were de Jong, El Hamdaoui, de Zeeuw, Gregory van der Wiel, Christian Eriksen, and Vurnon Anita: trapping or trying with just one foot was so limiting, hindering Ajax as much as their lack of vision and speed.
Part of the problem was that the only space Vitesse provided came behind the gung-ho Civard Sprockel. Bursts into the left-side of the box therefore allowed little time for Ajax’s player to make a right-footed adjustment.
After an anonymous Urby Emanuelson – not helped by van der Wiel’s involvement – relinquished possession, the chorus of boos was soon silenced after a silly foul in the D by on-loan Inter man Luca Caldirola.
Initially, the Italian looked imperious – composed, strong, and well-positioned. However, as Ajax found their final-third feet, this composure went out of the window, passing by immaturity and rashness on its way.
From the resultant free-kick, Jan Vertonghen sent a left-footed thunderbolt into Room’s stomach. Alas, the goalkeeper spilt it into the net, and three minutes later, stood rooted as van der Wiel darted through and poked in underneath him.
The goalkeeper wasn’t helped by Pluim’s poor blockage of the El Hamdaoui through-ball, or Jeroen Drost’s decision to let van der Wiel skip by him.
Yet just moments later, Vitesse were level again. Despite their own headless-chicken brand of defending allowing Ajax to take the lead, the home side resorted back to the sleepiness that cost them the points against Groningen last week.
Nilsson won a throw, quickly took it himself, and van der Struijk curled the ball in towards Snijders. Alderweireld covered, but inadequately so – his clearance falling for van Ginkel, who did his best to decapitate Maarten Stekelenburg.
Emanuelson paid for his lethargy at the interval, Jol turning to right-winger Florian Jozefzoon in his place. And just 17 seconds into his debut, the 18-year-old made an impact, crossing for de Jong to knock the ball in via an unfortunate van der Struijk.
The goal came courtesy of a good advantage from referee Bjorn Kuipers – Büttner and Snijders were frequently brutal in their retreating tackles, and the former’s lunge at van der Wiel paradoxically let Jozefzoon fly free.
Things remained quite open, as both sides continued to press the ball high. The away side also sought to triangularly straitjacket Bonevacia, the youngster’s Michael Carrick-esque short bridges allowing others to launch, but meaning he constantly stayed deep and alone.
However, save for the ball-caressing touches of van Ginkel, Vitesse were too heavy-footed when counter-attacking. Snijders, still high up on the left in a bid to exploit van der Wiel, was the guiltiest party.
Inexplicably, it was the game’s quietest defender, Anita, who made it 4-2. After some aimless stroking of the ball in the opponent’s half couldn’t penetrate the banks, the left-back took matters into his own hands.
Receiving infield, Anita cleverly shoulder-dropped the easily duped van Ginkel, carried towards the box prior to more canny dummying, and an eventual right-footed scoop over the erroneously positioned Room.
Somewhat inevitably, the affair petered out despite more than 30 minutes remaining. Ajax now face a daunting Champions League trip to Kiev in the week, while Vitesse go to Twente next weekend.