Manchester United and Ajax face off at Stockholm in an all-important Europa League final on 24th June in a game where plenty is at stakes for Jose Mourinho’s men but Peter Bosz’s high-intensity Ajax team may prove a tough nut to crack.
For Ajax, this is their first European final since they played one back in 1996 when they were defeated by Juventus in penalty shootouts. On the other hand, Manchester United featured in a 2011 Champions League final and were completely outplayed by Barcelona.
Since their respective glory days, both teams have had lean patches, especially the way Ajax has gone down financially to not being able to compete at the elite level. Manchester United have struggled on the pitch since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, but they have enough financial budget to compete with the best. With Jose Mourinho at the helm, we can expect them to get back to their best.
Now, let us discuss the tactical aspects of both teams and see how the final will pan out, which is in 5 days time:-
Ajax has been quite a success story in past few years domestically when they won the Eredivisie four times in six years under Frank De Boer. The stability was back in the club but they continue to struggle in European competitions for a while now, last year’s failure to win the title brought the end of De Boer’s era.
In came Peter Bosz, a risky choice by the board as it could have undone all the good work done by the previous manager. But on the contrary, Bosz has done a good job which has surprised many people, taking his team to a European final with a chance to enter Champions League group stage next season in his first season is a job well done.
Bosz has brought a breath of fresh air in Ajax ranks and to a certain extent in Dutch football by his style of play. The Dutch manager has focused on playing out from the back and emphasised on possession football which was once adopted by Louis Van Gaal here. He always wanted his team to play an attacking brand of football which Ajax once used to do in their glory days.
The philosophy is pretty straightforward, dominate the ball as much you can and outscore the opponents all the time as they leave spaces open on the counter with this system. They play a very high-line 4-3-3 having pace in wide areas and good passers in midfield. The good thing about this team is that they can mix it up when intricate football isn’t working, they can go long and direct with striker Dolberg holding the ball and using the pace of Traore and Younes to good effect.
One of the key ingredients to their play is the high press and the ability to win back possession in numbers once they lose it. Bosz has made it clear to the players that they shouldn’t be disappointed after losing the ball, just put all that disappointment behind and press as hard as they can to get the ball back. It is certainly a high-risk ploy but very attractive to the people and very conducive when the whole team is at it.
Manchester United, on the other hand, were a grand success until the 2012-13 season when the Ferguson era was nearing its end. Since then, they have failed to finish in top 3 of the league and haven’t won any major cup except the League and FA Cup.
In similarity to Bosz, this is also Mourinho’s first season in charge of the club and the Portuguese manager once labelled United as a ‘sad’ club when he first arrived. Well, in terms of the mood, his team hasn’t done much to bring back the happy faces in the stadium week in week out. In patches, they have done well but failing to finish off chances and low-level teams at home is the theme of their season which has certainly cost them at least 10 points in the league.
Mourinho’s style of play is rather opposite to that of Bosz’s. Maybe, this will make the final even more watchable, contrasting styles going for it. Jose basically has two formations in 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 to use, sometimes he goes 3 at the back but most of the time a conventional approach is adopted.
United pretty much stumbled over the line against Celta Vigo after playing well in the first leg but failing to kill the game off. Defensively, they have been good but recent chops and changes in the centre-back pairings have affected the team on the defensive front. Mourinho needs to sort this issue out very quickly just because he will be up against a pacy, attacking Ajax team.
United have been a ‘tough to beat’ kinda team throughout the season losing just 5 games in the Premier League and 2 in the Europa League so far. Mourinho’s tactics has always been defending first and then look to react on counter-attacking situations to score the goal. He probably will use the 4-3-3 formation in the final with three central midfielders narrow and half-forwards tracking back in wide areas to support fullbacks while defending.
The criticism of Manchester United this year has been the lack of football they have played just because they defend deep. They have lacked pace and expertise in counter-attacks which make Mourinho’s philosophy a questionable one.
The Final Verdict:-
Manchester United are no doubt favourites for this game just because they have an experienced squad with a very astute and experienced manager at the helm. For Ajax, it is exactly opposite but having a younger squad may just mean less pressure and expectation which might turn things in their favour. All in all, a cracking final is on the cards with United having big match players and the edge for sure but this is the competition they haven’t won in their illustrious career.