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Ajax vs. Barcelona: Tactical Preview of the 'Battle for Possession' in Amsterdam

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterNovember 5, 2014

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Ajax and Barcelona meet at the Amsterdam ArenA on Wednesday evening, with the latter in free fall after losing two La Liga matches in a row.

The home side have stopped drawing and started winning in the Eredivisie, in hope of closing the gap between themselves and PSV Eindhoven, so the two meet at different stages in terms of confidence and momentum.

Let's take a tactical look at how this game could play out.

Ajax

Ajax are not expected to change much—if anything at all—against Barcelona from the XI they used to beat Dordrecht this weekend in the Eredivisie.

Possible Ajax XI.
Possible Ajax XI.@stighefootball

That could see Thulani Serero remain on the bench alongside Ricardo Kishna, with Anwar El Ghazi currently enjoying a little run in the side once again. 

It will be an exceptionally young midfield three again, with Davy Klaassen, Jairo Riedewald and Lucas Andersen all gearing up to start.

Barcelona

It's not easy being Barcelona manager. Nowadays, unless you're Pep Guardiola, you're doubted at every turn. Gerardo Martino was fired in exceptionally harsh conditions—remember when he was slated for winning 4-0 against Rayo Vallecano?—and Luis Enrique is under the microscope, too.

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Per the Daily Mail's Pete Jenson, several players are already questioning his decisions and, in particular, Jeremy Mathieu was surprised to find himself at left-back for the Clasico. Enrique's response?

Possible Barca XI.

"If a player who played regularly as a left back when he was at Valencia is surprised at playing there, then we might as well all pack up and go home."

Mathieu appears unavailable for the game, per WhoScored.com, so we could see Gerard Pique come in to play, having previously been banished to the stands for the Celta Vigo match.

The troika of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez should continue up front.

Key Point 1: Swamping the Middle 

Barca's base 4-3-3 formation, these days, looks a lot like a 4-3-1-2 in possession due to Messi dropping in to receive the ball and both Suarez and Neymar playing fairly narrow as "wide" forwards.

They don't play a diamond, but it looks like it in this phase of play, and it's when Messi drops that the opposing team know they're in trouble. You have to swamp the middle—just as Celta Vigo did—and paralyse Messi on the ball.

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If you give him a split second too long, he'll do exactly what he did in the first match between these two: attract markers, pull them out of position and flick the ball wide into Neymar (or Suarez) to bear down on the goal.

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If you don't get to him quick enough, poor Ricardo van Rhijn will be tortured again from right-back. If you do, you stand a chance of holding them scoreless—an incredible feat given their star-studded XI.

Key Point 2: Not Built to Take Advantage?

As Rob Brown over at Barcablaugranes.com superbly illustrates, Barca went eight Liga games without conceding to start the season—but in part were perhaps lucky to do so.

The direct fashion of the Celta Vigo goal scored by Joaquin Larrivey is no stranger to Javier Mascherano and Co., and Brown points out the same "type" could have been conceded against Villarreal, Malaga and Levante.

It's always been said that Barca perhaps have a soft underbelly and that the overwhelming focus on attacking movement and possession leaves them a little short-handed at the back. Enrique, though, appears to be heightening the risks unnecessarily; leaving his side open at goal-kicks is causing problems.

Bravo: Won't play vs. Ajax, but he's the reason Barca kept eight clean sheets to begin the season.
Bravo: Won't play vs. Ajax, but he's the reason Barca kept eight clean sheets to begin the season.David Ramos/Getty Images

Against a team not married to possession principles (so, most of them) this is an issue, but are Ajax really built to take advantage of this flaw? They subscribe to the same game Barca do, and even two goals down in the first leg, they attempted to play football the "right" way.

There's a chance to attack Barca and yield a goal if you can pounce on a stray second ball from a goal-kick—or any clearance for that matter—and find your way to their 18-yard box within three passes. Would Ajax betray the philosophy to do it, though?

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