Manchester United comfortably defeated Ajax 2-0 in the Europa League final at Stockholm to add another trophy to their cabinet and grab a place in the group stage of UEFA Champions League next season.
A final with one team dominating the whole narrative be it with or mostly without the ball is a bit of a mismatch. This is what Ajax vs Manchester United final felt like throughout. Jose Mourinho’s tactics of stopping his opponents playing their passing football worked out very well, so well that the final had a winner once the second United goal went in early in the second half.
A young Ajax team had no answer, the Dutch team showed their naivety while defending the two goals United scored, failed to increase the rate of their passing and increasing use of central areas while attacking made it ever so easy for their opponents to lineup defensively.
The game began with United pressing in higher blocks trying to force Ajax to play long. The Dutch team struggled to cope with it initially as they continued to play out from the back and were in danger of getting caught out any moment soon. Midfield of Fellaini, Pogba and Herrera did well to press the central play of their opponents which nullified most of their threats.
The only thing Mourinho and his team needed was an early goal which would settle his team down and then they can station themselves behind the ball to defend whatever Ajax throw at them. This is exactly what happened when Ajax were caught on their throw-in and United were quick to steal possession and get Pogba in space at the edge of the box, his shot was then deflected in by defender Sanchez. A good break for United who had been dominant until then and now had the chance to close this game out with lower block defending.
As clearly shown in the image above, there were three Ajax players (encircled) in a wrong position to receive the ball of the throw-in. It is good work from Mata the way he stationed himself ahead of those three players and forced Ajax left-back Riederwald to take a risky throw-in. Truth be told, it was more of a naivety from Ajax rather than an intelligent ploy from their opponents.
After the goal, United got back into their shape to defend what Ajax threw at them and play on the break with the pace of Rashford supported by Mata and Mkhitaryan. Throughout the match, the use of central areas from Ajax made it easy to defend, even the fullbacks weren’t hogging the touchline to stretch the defence.
The other thing which was alarming was the lack of shoot at sight thing from the Dutch side when they desperately needed a goal to get back into the game. They always tried to thread through the United defence but were unable to do. Mixing up play wouldn’t have been a bad option but a young side showed their inexperience and lack of plan B.
The above image shows us what we were exactly talking about. The rectangles marked shows the amount of pitch which could have been used to stretch the United defence. Traore and Younes usually cut inside which should be enough to allure fullbacks going beyond them in wide areas but that wasn’t the case.
They preferred to play their way and made it easier for their opponents. Credit goes to Mourinho for the way he set up his side to play a game of football which was not pleasing to the eye but was enough to win an important football match. United are in the Champions League now and the Jose gamble of picking this route to qualify for the continental competition paid off.