Classic TicTacTic – Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round 2001: Ajax 1-3 Celtic

Context

The 8th of August 2001 marked a very special day for modern Celtic. Having endured two decades of European exile, this was the call to arms that set the tone for the coming 5 years. A bold declaration to the European scene that the green and white giants were back. Amsterdam was a good place to start – the Dutch were something of a bane to Jock Stein’s Celtic, with Feyenoord ending the 1969-70 foray and Ajax the vanquishers in the Quarter Finals of 1970-71.

Ajax too had become fallen giants of Europe, progressively worsening since the famous triumph of 1995: the period from Morten Olsen’s ’99 sacking (having finished a disastrous 6th!) to Co Adriaanse’s appointment was one of transition. Sneaking into the Champions League 3rd Round qualifier against Celtic (having finished 3rd in the ’00-01 Eredivise), Adriaanse was looking to restore some pride to one of football’s most famous clubs, ravaged post-bosman.

Lineups

Looking over Martin O’Neill’s five seasons at Celtic, there is a distinct pattern in spending. Essentially, the vast majority of money was spent in the initial years up until the Summer of 2001. The squad against Ajax would change little from that point forth, with only perhaps Bobo Balde and John Hartson yet to make a proper impact (which of course would come with time). In the buildup to the game Co Adriaanse spoke of the flexibility of O’Neill’s archetypal 3-5-2 formation, and here was a classic incarnation:

A slightly reserved version of the O'Neill 3-5-2

Celtic legend Tom Boyd came back into the side in his final season at the club, replacing Oliver Tebily, who would also leave that year. The fact O’Neill turned to the 35 year old Boyd tells it’s own story. Alan Thompson was suspended, meaning Jackie McNamara could start.

The principle of this formation would change little until 2004, but note the positioning of the three central midfielders. It could arguably be described 3-3-2-2 or something similar, but essentially Neil Lennon has taken up the anchorman role, Paul Lambert ahead and McNamara subtly more advanced. O’Neill would be known to use someone more attacking in McNamara’s role, such as Lubo Moravcik, only more advanced in behind the two strikers. It’s this dynamic between the three central midfielders that set the tone of the formation.

Elsewhere requires little introduction, with Henrik Larsson and Chris Sutton resuming their terrific partnership, Joos Valgaeran and Johan Mjallby in defence either side of Boyd, and Bobby Petta and Didier Agathe storming down the flanks. Adriaanse was cagey: “Larsson is exceptional and we haven’t yet seen him with Sutton, but I fear that he will be even better then

Ajax Lineup

Ajax 4-2-4

It’s a striking starting eleven – if only for the intriguing range of footballing names. A mixture of rough diamonds who’d reach the very top of the game, youngsters with potential that wouldn’t really be fulfilled and a couple of more experienced players. The two main strikers were proven goal-scorers – Shota Arveladze now the UEFA Cup’s second highest ever scorer (behind one Henrik Larsson) and Nichos Machlas who, underappreciated in his stint in Amsterdam, once won the golden boot (which again Henrik Larsson went on to do).

The thought of lumbering Egyptian Mido being used on the left-wing is today quite puzzling, but back in 2001 he was a sprightly (if lanky) kid with pace, technique and an eye for goal. Pius Ikedia on the opposite flank was similarly rated as high-potential, with quick feet and unpredictable trickery. But like Mido, over time he was to tread a protracted path to mediocrity.

Perhaps in 2001 Adriaanse’s formation may have been considered a 4-4-2, but Mido and Ikedia were very much forwards with little time for defence making this a clear and bold 4-2-4. Continuing the extraordinarily young theme was 20 year old Daniel Cruz, doing the leg work for an 18 year old Rafael van der Vaart. 20 year old Christian Chivu, 19 year old Abubakari Yakubu, 20 year old Petri Pasanen and 24 year old Hatem Trabelsi made for an incredibly inexperienced back-line, with veteran Fred Grim at 35, somewhat dragging up the average age in his last season at Ajax.

The home side were missing a strong Dutch spine, with Richard Knopper, Cedric van der Gun, Tim de Cler and Andy van der Meyde all injured. This made for a young, inexperienced and mainly foreign team, which at the time was the source of some concern for the home fans.

Celtic Ruthless

As both teams settled into the match, it seemed like Ajax were ever so slightly gaining an upper hand. Celtic were being pressed aggressively and were unable to hold onto the ball. They were however defending with confidence and looking to start winning more possession. But Celtic grabbed a shock early lead after Chris Sutton’s weak cross was flimsily punched by Grim to the feet of Petta, who lifted the ball into the net. The worst possible opening for the young Ajax side.

The response was positive, with Ajax seeing most of the ball and probing for openings. Only there were two major problems – their attack was mostly outnumbered and their defence were terrified of, and bullied by two outstanding players in Larsson and Sutton. The below diagram demonstrates the deficiencies in Ajax’s strategy:

The central strikers are outnumbered either 3 to 2 or 4 to 2. The wide-forwards 2 to 1 and the young central midfielders 2 against 3. The question is, where is the equal and opposite deficiency working in Ajax’s favour? The answer is the full-backs, who strictly speaking were the freest players. But with Sutton and Larsson proving to have the better of Yakubu and Pasanen respectively, there was little room for the full-backs to commit forward.

Left-back Chivu was at fault for the second goal, but it wasn’t through eagerness to get forward. It was a combined dereliction of the left-flank (perhaps underlining the inexperience of the side) with left-winger Mido tucked into an almost centre-forward position (his preferred area) and Chivu on the right-hand side of the pitch. Bearing in mind the move began from a Valgaeran throw deep on the right hand side of the pitch.

Left-back Chivu realises he's criminally out of position as last man

He was not coaxed out of position due to a Celtic overload on the right side – he was simply sucked in without paying attention to his opposite number Didier Agathe. Mido’s tardiness in tracking Agathe too, should probably not be underestimated. Also Larsson’s volleyed toe-poke assist (shortly after the above moment) has to be mentioned as it was inch-perfect – fantastic technique.

Ajax’s resolve was now severely battered and with Celtic’s numerical advantage in the centre, Petta and Agathe were increasing in influence. Celtic’s three centre-backs and three central-midfielders had been solid and it was the less congested flanks that were the best outlets. Van der Vaart was clearly frustrated with the flow of the game, with his rage boiling over – lunging at McNamara to pick up a deserved booking. But Ajax were not finished. Mido squandered a decent chance, but a goal was somewhat fortuitously clawed back after Douglas fumbled a close range Machlas shot, and Arveladze stole in to score.

Despite the possession and goal conceded, it was a dominating first half from Celtic, with Larsson hitting the bar from a header and on the stroke of half-time, the best chance of all – Larsson’s cross was thumped towards goal point blank from Sutton, but Grim was in the right place to deflect the volley away. Celtic were taking huge advantage on the counter-attack, exposing Adriaanse’s unbalanced and hollow 4-2-4.

Second Half – Adriaanse change

A 1-2 deficit was gladly accepted by Adriaanse given the events of the first-half and despite pulling one back, a change had to be made. The ineffectual Ikedia was withdrawn and replaced by a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With no recognised right (or left!) winger, the formation was now a slightly different brand of 4-2-4.

Ibrahimovic demanded a very central role, requiring Arveladze to drop deeper in search of the ball. Cruz meanwhile had to perform as a shuttler, getting out wide to assist Trabelsi and close down Petta. It was almost a half-hearted attempt to match Celtic in the middle, but only served to free up Petta  – an easy out-ball in most circumstances taking pressure away from the centre.

Before the change was even apparent, Celtic had almost made it three. Sutton could not be contained by Yakubu, flicking on a header for the onrushing Larsson. The Swede’s shot skimmed agonisingly wide and despite the superb performance, it seemed destined to be a rare night where his name would not grace the score-sheet.

Seeing out the match

Celtic were comfortable and able to sit back and defend – with Petta and Agathe dropping deeper, it was almost a 5-3-2. Having scored three goals away from home, there was now no urgency to get forward. With the assured Lambert and Lennon in particular bossing the midfield, Ajax looked out of sorts even in possession and their full-backs were unable to make any headway down the flanks.

In a desperate attempt to acquire some attacking impetus, winger Andy van der Meyde was fit enough to see out the final twenty minutes coming on for Yakubu. Trabelsi moved in to man-mark Larsson, and so van der Meyde played effectively as an attacking wing-back, an attempt to make better use of the time and space that Trabelsi failed to utilise.

The size and technique of Ibrahimovic caused concern in a sign of things to come from the big Swede. But the damage had been done, and Ajax were unable to really come close to a second.

Post-match

In typical Adriaanse fashion, no prisoners were taken in his post-match comments. He claimed that the system was only to blame for the second goal (where he correctly blamed Chivu for being caught out of position). He also pointed blame at Grim for the weak punch conceding the first goal, and the two centre-backs for allowing Sutton to overpower them. It’s a fairly blinkered view-point that refused to consider the broader themes discussed above.

The flimsy two man central midfield should be seen as the most compelling flaw to the plan. Especially given the 18 and 20 year old kids would be up against war-horses Paul Lambert and Neil Lennon. With experienced battlers Jan Van Halst, Richard Witschge and Aaron Winter all on the Ajax payroll (albeit not in the Champions League squad, or in the latter two’s case, even at the club) the failing in hindsight is even more apparent.

The flippant and brash post-match remarks went on to undermine his spell as manager at Ajax. He was criticised for dropping the 4-3-3 system and ruffled feathers by doubting Marco Van Basten’s coaching credentials (“a good horse doesn’t make a good rider“) Adriaanse would go on to be dismissed for poor league performance, albeit crashing out to Celtic didn’t help.

Louis Van Gaal would turn Ajax into a domestic force again and this was one of the most lucrative times for the club in terms of generating income from player sales, with the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Johnny Heitinga and van der Vaart in development. A footballing and business philosophy now followed by similar “big fish in small ponds”, such as Porto, Benfica and in some ways, Celtic.

Meanwhile O’Neill’s Celtic went from strength to strength – the 2001-02 campaign in particular restoring pride and belief, that season culminating in two heroic performances against Italian giants Juventus. But the greatest moment of all came with the same group of players in the 2002-03 season – The road to Seville. This away victory over Ajax can be seen as the first step towards that famous final.

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About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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