Tonight brought a comfortable (and fairly predictable) 2-0 win for Real Madrid over Ajax at the Santiago Bernabéu, but it could have been a much wider margin of victory had it not been for some errant finishing and a superb performance from Maarten Stekelenburg.
José Mourinho set his team out in his usual 4-2-3-1 shape, Alvaro Arbeloa replacing the injured Sergio Ramos at right back and Angel Di Maria came in for Karim Benzema in the only changes from last Saturday’s 1-0 defeat of Osasuna.
Martin Jol’s Ajax, meanwhile, played in a 4-4-2 diamond, something for which they should be credited as they arrived in Madrid looking to cause their hosts problems rather than simply “parking the bus”. However, with Luis Suarez – arguably the team’s most important player – and Jan Vertonghen both missing through suspension, the Dutch side’s task was always going to be a difficult one.
The most interesting feature of Madrid’s tactical approach was the interchangeable nature of the players that constituted the attacking band of three, namely Di Maria, Mesut Özil and Cristiano Ronaldo.
With the trio switching positions with a dizzying regularity, the Ajax defence was occasionally pulled out of position, something which allowed Mourinho’s players to pepper Stekelenburg’s goal. Indeed, the sharp movement and running from deep of Özil and Di Maria in particular caused significant problems.
In combination with the over-lapping runs of Arbeloa and Marcelo, Madrid’s offensive play kept the the attacking instincts of Gregory van der Wiel and Vurnon Anita in check and, therefore, the Ajax back four well and truly pinned back.
Although the Dutch side defended relatively stoutly throughout (Toby Alderweireld was particularly impressive), their cause was not helped by the large gap Jol’s formation caused in front of the back line.
With defensive midfielder Eyong Enoh deployed extremely deep, there was a significant amount of space between him and the rest of the Ajax midfield for the likes of Ronaldo to run into.
The sheer amount of shots Madrid had (33 to their opponents’ 8) bears witness to the relentless attacking pressure they were able to exert, Ajax only threatening intermittently on the break.
On the occasions that Jol’s team were able to get forward they were more often than not thwarted by the seemingly well-balanced centre-back partnership of Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho, both of whom enjoyed good games.
Such was the technical proficiency of Madrid’s play it was somewhat surprising to see the opening goal come courtesy of a messy own goal from Anita. However, the second was a goal more worthy of the team’s intelligent brand of creativity as Di Maria and Özil combined to put it on a plate for Gonzalo Higuain (video below).
This wasn’t a perfect performance from Madrid – their finishing was generally poor – but it was certainly a huge improvement on their early showings in the league and gave tantalising hints of what this group of players might be capable of under Mourinho. Ajax, however, will have their work cut out if they are to progress from an extremely competitive Group G.