Still cannot believe what happened? You’re quite certainly not the only one. Ajax pulled off what looked like the impossible, overcoming Schalke in extra time during the second leg of their Europa League quarter-final clash. This is the first time Ajax have reached the semi-finals of a European competition since 1997. A statistic that makes the achievement against Schalke even sweeter. Ajax turned from rags to riches with just 1 goal. And what a beauty (in terms of moment, not the way it went in) it was.
From the opening minute it seemed like Schalke were going to dominate the game and to a certain extent they did just that. Schalke applied a lot of pressure from the start of the game and they knew they had to fight to be within a chance of progressing further. This showed in their game, as they had 7 interceptions in the opening half alone and blocked 2 shots by Ajax. In the opening minutes of the game, Schalke had a number of goalscoring chances from their 6 shots, with 2 of them actually being on Onana’s goal. Goretzka had an attempt glimpse past the post, whilst Meyer had an attempt hit the post. This was all in the space of a couple of minutes. Ajax were on the back foot and couldn’t find a way to get back into the game for quite some time, mainly due to Schalke retaining the ball well with a passing accuracy of 75% and a 52.6% accuracy on their passes in the final third. The Amsterdammers slowly grew back into the game and made sure to fend off the threatening attacks from Schalke when going into halftime, albeit with help of lady luck.
The first 45 minutes contained a lot of negatives on Ajax’ side, as they held the minority of possession (just 45.7%) and lost most of their tackles as they only won 40% of the duels. It seemed that nothing was going Ajax’ way. The right side of Ajax’ formation looked rather weak and Schalke made sure to exploit that, with several attacks taking place in that area via a running fullback. The impact of Kolasinac was clear, as he proved to be a crucial player for the team from Gelsenkirchen once more; the heatmaps and positional charts below clearly show his role in Schalke’s side. All in all, the halftime statistics tell a disappointing story, with the only silver lining being Ajax’ ability to withstand the Schalke attack. Schalke outperformed Ajax with 230 passes, completed more dribbles (77.8% versus 63.6%), had more ball recoveries with their 37 versus Ajax’ 27 and had less to do defensively, as the clearance numbers clearly display (6 versus 16). Bosz had a tough task ahead in the dressing room, as he needed to get the team motivated and fired up for the second half. Putting the first half performance behind them was crucial in moving forward. However, this proved not be the case for Ajax in the second half.
Schalke kept applying the pressure in the second half, turning the game in an old-fashioned fight. 8 minutes into the second half they had their breakthrough. Goretzka, who had been looking dangerous all game, was able to put Schalke into the lead from a deadly counter-attack after Ajax’ corner kick was fended off. 3 minutes later, Austrian striker Burgstaller made it 2-0. Things weren’t looking good for Ajax as it was now 2-2 on aggregate. Chances for Ajax to hold on were limited even further when Veltman was shown a second yellow card in the 79th minute, leaving the side from Amsterdam with a one-men deficit. Everything was over. Yet it wasn’t. Despite the scoreline and being down to ten men, there were signs of promise and hope for Ajax. They were showing the grit and determination that’s needed to fight yourself back into a game and so they did. Their interception number shot up to 22 at the end of the game and by the time the referee blew the final whistle, they had sough the goal more than Schalke did (16 shots versus 14 shots) and hat hit the target as much (5 on goal each).
The game went into extra time and for many it seemed like it was over there and then. It definitely felt like it when Caligiuri scored a tie-breaking 3-0. Surely that was it. But as we all know by know, it ain’t over till the fat German lady sings. 10 minutes after Schalke scored, Nick Viergever saved the day. Getting that crucial away goal changed everything. The dream was kept alive. Younes sealed it in the 110th minute. Ajax did what seemed like the impossible.
Looking at the statistics and figures coming from the game, it helps explain the inconsistent performance from Schalke. Comparisons in heat maps shows how Schalke overran the midfield, leaving Ajax disjointed and unable to compete for periods of the game. Adding to this, they also show how both fullbacks and wingers worked on the sides to work past Ajax’ defence. 37% of Schalke’s attacks were played on the left, 37% on the right, and 26% through the middle. The majority of the game was played out in midfield. 47% of the time the ball was in midfield, 29% of the game it was in Schalke’s half and 25% of the time in Ajax’ half. Player positioning during the game also provides important insight into how the game unfolded. Many of those at AjaxDaily couldn’t help but notice how the right side of Ajax’ line-up looked weak and vulnerable. Attack after attack, especially in the first half, flew by past Kluivert and Veltman. As can be seen in the figure provided, Veltman played in a way that allowed for Schalke to exploit the space down the wingat he tucked in slightly more centrally rather than further out wide as expected. As a result, as Schalke went forward, Sánchez had to cover while Veltman was trying to limit the Schalke’s play from midfield rather than occupying the wing.
One of the strong points from the Ajax’ perspective has to be the left side of the squad. Viergever and Younes, whom both scored, proved pivotal in keeping Ajax in the game. The positions and passing lines provided by 11tegen11 show the strong link Viergever and Younes had during the game. This is further emphasised by the fact that 44% of Ajax’ attacks were done by the left side. Just 26% of all moves went down the right and 30% took place down the middle. Viergever proved to have a crucial man of the match performance. A man of the match performance that kept the dream alive. According to Opta, no other Ajax player had more shots (3), touches (109) or interceptions (9) against Schalke than Viergever. He was truly the saviour. The performance from Ajax was far from perfect and it will need working on if they want to reach the final, but there will be a massive sigh of relief from Ajax fans around the globe to come back from such a position. Ajax will have to carry on now and continue to show that they can compete in Europe.
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) April 20, 2017
Enjoy the highlights.
— AjaxDaily (@ajaxdailydotcom) April 21, 2017