Ajax 0 Aston Villa 0: Emery trusts squad, Henderson blunts midfield, impact of Konsa red

Aston Villa drew 0-0 with Ajax in the first leg of their Europa Conference League last-16 tie in Amsterdam.

Unai Emery made five changes to his starting XI and in a closely fought game, with few clear-cut chances, Ezri Konsa was sent off for two yellow cards with eight minutes remaining, before Tristan Gooijer followed him down the tunnel after his second booking.

The teams play the second leg next Thursday at Villa Park with a place in the quarter-finals at stake.

Jacob Tanswell breaks down the talking points of the match.

Emery’s selection shows trust in squad

Unai Emery has long said he’ll depend on his squad in big games. So it proved away to Ajax (of all places), as he made five changes from Villa’s 3-2 recent victory against Luton Town. Pertinently, among these alterations included captain John McGinn and in-form attacker Leon Bailey, who dropped to the bench while 20-year-old Tim Iroegbunam made his second full start, his first coming under Steven Gerrard against Norwich City in 2022.

Morgan Rogers, a year older than Iroegbunam but having similarly spent most of their footballing development in the lower leagues and both friends from their time in West Brom’s academy, replaced the injured Jacob Ramsey.

In short, it was a big decision from Emery but an illustration that his repeated emphasis on squad depth was not lip service. He has been a backer of Iroegbunam for some time, allowing Leander Dendoncker to leave in January and keeping the England youth international to provide cover and, in some ways, encouraging this exact circumstance. Rogers, signed in January, has only recently garnered Emery’s admiration but the Spaniard regarded his underlying attributes — ball-carrying ability, balance and power centrally — to make him a stylistic replica for Ramsey.

Rogers got the game underway but understandably struggled to settle early on. Ajax’s aggressive man-marking in midfield gave little time for either Rogers or Iroegbunam. Emery’s body language remained upbeat, though, clapping encouragement whenever the pair received the ball.

Villa’s cagey first-half performance was a tentative, making 100 fewer passes than the Eredivisie side with the midfield struggling to exert its influence going forward. By the hour mark, Emery reverted back to his favoured front four with McGinn and Bailey introduced, which gave Villa a greater attacking intensity. 

Henderson hampers Villa’s midfield progress

From the first time Emiliano Martinez received the ball and both teams’ respective shapes became easier to discern, it was evident Ajax were determined to stop Villa playing into central areas.

The Dutch team were also playing a box midfield with a double pivot and two No 10s flanking a lone forward. When Martinez had possession, the midfield four would lock onto Villa’s, encouraging the goalkeeper and the central defenders to play out-wide but not through them.

Jordan Henderson, already captain, was the one tasked with setting the moment of when to jump and press Villa’s central defenders, with each Ajax midfielder shifting forward and onto the next closest opponent. This left Rogers, behind Henderson’s shoulder, as the spare Villa player, but the visitors struggled to create passing lanes.

Henderson and Luiz battle for the ball (NESimages/Raymond Smit/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

It meant Douglas Luiz and Iroegbunam had little space and few touches in the first half, having to wait for the game to become stretched after the break to try and play quickly on the counter. With Villa struggling to retain possession and create patterns of play going forward, they became pinned back, with Rogers and Moussa Diaby having to slot into deep areas at times to track Ajax’s wing-backs.

As a consequence, Villa would be left in a back six, struggling to have enough bodies further forward to counter and be squeezed in their own half. This continued after the break, as Ajax’s organisation and Henderson’s rallies grew in confidence.

Diaby and Rogers pushed back by Ajax wing-backs

What will Konsa red card mean and how happy will Emery be?

Overall, it was a tame affair, with little quality and both teams registering just three shots on target between them. It was comparable to the opening rounds of a boxing contest; both teams timid and reluctant to overcommit in the fear of being countered.

As it turned out, both suffered body blows, with Konsa sent off after picking up two yellow cards in either half and referee Enea Jorjl buying Chuba Akpom’s clever tug and releasing of the arms to win the foul. Matty Cash or Diego Carlos will likely deputise for him next week. Fortunately for Emery’s side, just over a minute later, Ajax were also reduced to ten men after Gooijer recieved his second yellow for a clumsy foul on Nicolo Zaniolo.

Within the grander context of the tie, Ajax appeared to be playing closer to their limits than Villa which should, in some ways, provide a sense of optimism for Emery, who knows his side are often more punishing back at home. Villa’s build-up was equally passive, circulating the ball around the back but without the incision or accuracy to play through the lines or sustain attacks.

But considering Emery changed exactly half of his outfield players for the trip to Amsterdam and were under enormous tension due to the home atmosphere a draw can be built upon in the return leg.

What did Emery say?

We will bring you this after the press conference.

What next for Aston Villa?

Sunday, March 10: Tottenham (H), Premier League, 1pm GMT, 8am ET

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(Top photo: Xxxxxx)

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