The challenge between Josè Mourinho’s pragmatism and Peter Bosz’s offensive idealism followed a basic script to the letter: Mourinho gave the ball to Ajax (31% total possession, the lowest percentage in a European final along with Simeone’s Atletico in 2012 and his own Inter in 2010), leaving Bosz’s team dealing with the question of what to do with it.

Destroying Ajax’s first build-up

How to build-up was a true enigma for Bosz’s team. Manchester UTD left Rashford outnumbered, one against the two at the center of the defense, leaving Sanchez all the freedom to move forward with the ball. However, they implemented man marking to almost all their counterparts, exploiting their numerical superiority in the centre zone.
Below we can see Sanchez moving up to the midfield line, but with little idea of what to do with the ball: Fellaini is on Schone; Pogba marks Klaassen; Ziyech is too far away and in any case loosely covered by Mata and Herrera.
Mkhitarian, on the other hand, maintained a hybrid position with two objectives: taking away the space for a vertical line for Traoré – fundamental in the match against Lyon – and instead inviting the pass for the right back Veltman, who was then pressed as we can see from the second image.

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Without a direct pass from Sanchez to Traoré, Ajax was left without any points of reference. They’ve passed the ball too slowly between players, who moved too little and couldn’t shake Manchester UTD’s man marking. Dolberg was so isolated that he touched his first ball of the match only for the kick-off after Pogba’s goal.

Winning the physical duels

The strategy of Mourinho’s players was to minimize risks even with the ball, trying, however, to maximize profits thanks to their rivals’ mistakes. With Bailly disqualified, Mourinho decided to play Daley Blind at the centre of the defence: a choice that was not without consequences.

Blind was the secret weapon of Mourinho’s strategy. Although touching the ball only 24 times (in other words, 84 times less than Sanchez), he attempted no less than 13 long passes, completing 7. Blind was the first source of essential game play that Manchester UTD put on the pitch: a long ball to Fellaini’s head and aggression of the second balls.
A strategy that Mourinho used to seek to maximize the advantage of his physical supremacy over Ajax.
In the images below, we can see Blind making a high pass without a second thought to Fellaini who then passes to Rashford who goes wide on Mata. At that point, Fellaini moves immediately forward to attack the penalty area.

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By the end of the match, Manchester UTD had attempted 73 long passes, compared with 37 by Ajax.
Fellaini finished with 15 aerial duels won: 3 than the entire Ajax squad put together. This is a brutal equation that sums up a match which was essentially brutal.
Once again we have appreciateed Josè Mourinho’s cynical intelligence. His greatest quality is the one of the greatest strategists: to create a context where his players can play simple football against rivals forced to play complicated football.

Emanuele Atturo

Editor in Chief at L’Ultimo Uomo