On the surface, this match would usually have all the heavyweight football culture that comes typical of the illustrious histories of both Ajax Amsterdam and Manchester United. But the final of UEFA’s second tier competition in 2016/17 isn’t just about history. It’s about a team that’s rediscovered its ideology, compared to one struggling to recapture it. A team of humble riches with big shoes to fill facing up to the richest club on the planet. Ajax, filled with attacking flair and tactical charm, epitomised by its youthful stars, contrasted against a Manchester United industrious in its approach, unattractive in recent football reputation but with pockets of wealth in experience.
Ajax vs Manchester United Preview
Below we preview the final of the Europa League 2016/17.
Ajax: Total Football is young again
It’s been over 20 years since Ajax last tasted any sort of final in European competition, and the team’s current composition, despite its potential, still has many yards to cover before it can hold a candle to the class of 1996. There may be no van der Sar, de Boer twins, Davids or Litmanen, but the current Ajax group, fresh off fielding the youngest starting XI in Eredivisie history in their final league game vs Willem II, have shown fruits of the changes behind the scenes that have manifested in recent years. Despite the gulf in resource distribution that plagues some of the powers of old across Europe (especially in a league like the Netherlands), Ajax have punched largely above their weight. Their 2nd place finish in their league campaign took a far different polish due to the manner in which it was delivered. A team of young starlets, groomed through the club’s youth structures, with the DNA of “totaal voetbal” seeded in many of them once again.
Coach Peter Bosz may have appeared an unfancied choice initially when hired, but one thing is clear; unlike the previous 2nd placed finishes in recent years, and alongside their most progressive European campaign since 2002/03, Ajax appears to have successfully reclaimed their footballing identity; the only question is whether they can grow to the next critical step.
Manchester United: Combatively unfamiliar
2016/17 has been a peculiar one for Manchester United. The richest club on the planet has already added 2 trophies (albeit minor) to their illustrious cabinet this season, and their presence in the Europa League final gives them a chance to join Juventus, Bayern, Ajax and Chelsea as the only sides who have managed to hold aloft the trophies of all 3 of UEFA’s core European competitions (Champions League, UEFA Cup / Europa League and Cup Winners Cup).
Their campaign however, has been characterised by a less than convincing footballing display on the pitch. Already, United are out of the race for a top 4 placing, making this the 3rd time in the past four seasons since Alex Ferguson’s departure that they’ve failed to qualify for the Champions League in the conventional manner. Coach Jose Mourinho may have presided over a 26 game unbeaten run, but the streak was undermined by its efficacy, given that the team has shown an inability to combine its solid defensive displays with effective attacking maneuvers. Mourinho has lamented the injuries in his expensive squad, but United are no ordinary club, and their lavish squad spending has posed a thin cushion against which to judge the team’s sometimes dull, robust displays and heavily rotated personnel. Noises from Old Trafford suggest the Special One is safe to proceed into 2017/18, but if United fail to beat Ajax and spend yet another season outside of the riches of Europe’s flagship competition, the anchor around Mourinho’s neck will only collapse faster.
Tactical Focus and Players of Interest
Tactically, Manchester United have been difficult to predict, even with the small staff complement available due to various injury constraints. Mourinho’s entire lineup has been highly sensitive to change, be it in formation where defences can sometimes be crafted off a back 3 instead of a back 4, to the interchanging roles of Martial, Rashford, Mkhitaryan and Lingard in the frontline.
Not so much Ajax, whose attacking, possession based style has been easy on the eye, and largely consistent in configuration. The formation rarely changes its core structure, and certain actors in the Ajax production remain constants with others dropping in and out as the tactical needs adapt from game domination to game management.
While many United pundits are unhappy with it, the Mourinho setup does in fact, have an identity – it’s just simply not one typical of the assertive, dominant, attack minded United of old. United are a combative team, capable of choking attack-minded sides, particularly those who throw players forward without any tactical ingenuity. Even though United should be considerably superior aerially, it’s somewhat unlikely that one should expect a high press against Ajax, even though that could be an effective way to rush the Dutch side into less considerate short passing and more direct approaches which would suit the English side.
A key issue for United, apart from the various injuries they’re nursing, is the absence of Eric Bailly, whose red card in the semi-final sees him suspended for the game vs Ajax. This makes for an intriguing situation; whether it’s a back 3, or a back 4, Mourinho’s defence will be less than his ideal setup. Only Antonio Valencia can arguably claim some model of consistently adequate defensive output in the Europa League; it remains to be seen if some combination of Smalling, Jones, Blind and Darmian somehow configures itself to nullify the Ajax attack. Given the Dutch side’s preference for left sided attacking approaches, Valencia in particular stands out as a key tactical cog to observe.
The United right back can expect to be kept fairly busy; be it Hakim Ziyech or Amin Younes, or even young Justin Kluivert, Ajax’s left hand side is rich in creativity and attacking confidence. The right hand channel lacks for little either, with Bertrand Traore or recent discovery David Neres both capable of creating threats through individual skill or team combinations. The key focus is striker Kasper Dolberg; most of Ajax’s attacking play is engineered to drive opportunities to the 19 year old, making him critical not only in the threat he poses to United, but in the way that the other Ajax players around him construct play to best find him on the pitch. United seldom allow teams to easily enter their box; Dolberg will be reliant on his teammates solving that particular puzzle since all 6 of his European goals have come inside the box.
In midfield, United can expect to be far more comfortable. The likes of Pogba, Herrera, Carrick and Fellaini are all highly proficient at being disruptive and while Ziyech, Klaasen and Schone are rich in attacking mentality and efficacy, they’re hardly a trio to win games through out-muscling opponents. Paul Pogba in particular is of interest, given that he may be able to both stifle Ziyech / Klaasen with physicality and presence and occupy Schone in equal measure with his power and directness. That being said, Ziyech in particular is of interest; the Moroccan arguably, along with Younes, represents the best chance for Ajax’s attacking philosophy to shine. Ziyech poses a dribbling threat, a good shot from distance, a danger at set pieces and a keen eye for a through ball – stopping him will be a priority for Mourinho’s troops.
The United frontline in the absence of Ibrahimovic has typically flexed to enable a trio of young starlets Lingard and Rashford alongside talisman Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but there’s also a chance that Anthony Martial is given an opportunity to effect his talent on this more significant stage. Our bet is on the Armenian though, especially given that his contributions for United in the Europa League in particular have been important and incisive in equal measure. Ajax have options to respond to this; they could further pressure the defensive approach of United with attack minded fullbacks in Tete and Riedewald; given the likely absences of Viergever (suspension) and Sinkgraven (injury), this seems the most likely, though the more defensive Veltman will likely start at right back to handle the danger on United’s left hand side. The player of most interest in defence will likely be Davinson Sanchez; the Colombian has had a superb campaign and his dominance in defensive play combined with a comfort on the ball has made him a transfer topic of many a club. Spare a thought for his likely centre back partner Matthijs de Ligt, who could line up versus United at the tender age of just 17 years old!
- Ajax 31/10
- Machester United 1/1
Place your soccer bet
In attempting to predict the resulting team to lift the Europa League trophy into the air on the 24th May, some caveats remain. For Manchester United, the match holds more significance. The richest, arguably most marketable club on the planet surely can’t afford to be left out of the Champions League table once again. United are guaranteed to finish with the Community Shield and the League Cup in their arms, but these may not compensate for a tepid effort at a title challenge, and a league placing unbecoming of the legacy that even Jose Mourinho typically brings.
The Europa League isn’t just a trophy, but is also a route directly to the Champions League group stage, and for that, United have substantial incentive and pressure to want it a little more than the youthful upstarts of Ajax. The Dutch side, despite losing out to Feyenoord in the Eredivisie title race, have qualified for the Champions League already albeit that they will enter via the the preliminary qualifying rounds.
There is also the experience that Mourinho brings to the table in this respect. Only on two occasions has he tasted defeat in a cup final, winning 11 times of his 13 last hurdles in his career. It’s a record that confirms for all the lack of aesthetic his sides display, he is highly proficient at finding a way to win when it counts. His squad still possesses players who’ve are familiar with such pressures, too.
It’s hard not be taken in by the football romance of an Ajax resurgence though. It’s not just because their revival is predicated off the back of key decisions harkening back to the philosophies supported in particular by the late great Johan Cruyff; it’s because the Europa League, unlike its richer alternative, lends itself far more to allowing the narrative of victory of unfancied underdogs (eg Sevilla, arguably) or the restoration of the less wealthy, but historically significant (eg Atletico Madrid). Ajax ticks both boxes, and their tactical flexibility, alongside their youthful exuberance could be enough to counter the threat of United. Ajax are certainly capable of teasing United’s midfield out of defensive structure, exposing pockets of space, and moving defenders into compromising positions. They don’t attack predictably, and their free-sprited flair could be the right antidote to United’s blunt, expensive instruments.
But football is seldom romantic when we’d like it to be. Hence it’s hard to see past Manchester United to win, likely unattractively, but with an efficacy typical of a Mourinho led football team.