Europa League Final Preview: Ajax vs Manchester United
The Infogol Analyst uses statistical data to come up with the best bets for the Europa League final between Ajax and Manchester United.
The Europa League final takes place in Stockholm at the Friends Arena on Wednesday (KO: 19:45 BST), with two of Europe’s most esteemed and trophy-laden clubs battling it out for glory. This game not only carries with it a European trophy, but also the chance to go straight into the pot for next season’s Champions League, with some saying that this is more important than the trophy itself.
If that is the case, then this is a much bigger night for Manchester United, as failure to win the trophy would see them spend another season in Europe’s second-tier club competition. Ajax are guaranteed at least a place in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League after finishing second in the Eredivise, but will want to end a European trophy drought stretching back to 1995.
Ajax has a world-renowned youth set-up that consistently churns out some of Europe’s finest prospects. This is the model of the Amsterdam giants, and it is paying dividends, as this current crop of youthful and exuberant players have shown in reaching this stage of one of Europe’s top competitions.
The graphic above shows how young the Ajax first team is compared to Manchester United (who have also produced plenty of youth products of their own in recent years), with the main spike in the Ajax team coming around the age of 20-21. This exciting young Ajax team have shown they have a fearless and ruthless streak throughout this competition, but may lack the experience of the big occasion which could have a big effect on the outcome of this match.
Ajax progressed through the group stage with ease, despite struggling to find their stride in attack. The knock-out rounds were a different story, though, and when the competition got tougher they performed better, creating a lot of chances in their games against Lyon, Schalke and Kobenhavn.
This was partly down to the adjustment of the system and personnel, as a few young players began staking their claim for a place in the first team. Kasper Dolberg, a 19 year-old Dane, soon became a first-team regular after starting the season on the fringes. In the Europa League, he has racked up five goals and one assist, with an expected goal involvement per 90 (xGI/90) of 0.43. Between him, Bertrand Traore (on-loan from Chelsea) and Amin Younes, Ajax possess a lot of qualities and have the tools to cause Manchester United plenty of problems.
Another player to watch out for tonight is Hakim Ziyech. This winger turned central midfielder has been instrumental in Ajax’s success in this competition, netting twice and making four assists in the Europa League. He has the highest xGI/90 of any player in the Ajax team.
The pressure appears to be on Manchester United for this match, as winning this competition is the only way for United to get back into the Champions League after a three year absence, so there is a lot riding on this game.
Manchester United’s route to the final has been far from routine, qualifying from their group in second place after defeats to Feyenoord and Fenerbache. A trip to France saw them dominate St Etienne, generating plenty of chances across both legs, before heading to Russia and squeezing past Rostov thanks to a narrow win at Old Trafford. Extra-time was needed against Anderlecht after two wasteful displays in which they amounted 5.66 xG but scored just three, before another narrow victory against Celta Vigo where they were clinging on at the end of the second leg.
It has been a turbulent campaign, but they have deserved to get as far as they have, with some great performances and an expected goal difference xGD of 14.81, comfortably better than Ajax’s 9.53.
United Manager Jose Mourinho has a huge squad at his disposal for this game, plenty with experience of European finals, but will be missing key man Ibrahimović. Zlatan has been a standout performer for Manchester United this season, especially in the Europa League, where he is comfortably clear of every other player when it comes to xGI/90 – averaging a staggering 0.95
Zlatan will be a huge miss, but in Marcus Rashford they have a player ready for the big occasion. A goal and an assist in their 2-1 aggregate win over Celta Vigo meant he was key to making it this far and, since playing as an out-and-out striker, he has definitely thrived. Rashford had mainly been used as a substitute until recently, but has still managed to achieve a relatively high xGI/90 of 0.48, so expect him to be a key player.
Another player that has thrived in the Europa League this season is Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian international has scored five goals, most of which have been important and, with an xGI/90 of 0.73, the highest behind Zlatan, his inputs could prove decisive.
Infogol gives Manchester United a 45% chance of winning in 90 minutes, but the Analyst Verdict on the match is that there will be Under 2.5 goals (for more probabilities, Verdicts and in-play shot-maps, download the app on Android or IOS.)
This is sure to be an interesting match between two good teams that have shown plenty of attacking prowess throughout this competition so far, but it is Manchester United that are thought to have a slight edge due to their experience and their defensive solidity (conceding just 8 goals in 14 Europa League matches), and also their coach – with Mourinho having a 100% record as a manger in European finals.
Under 2.5 goals @ 7/10
Manchester United win @ 21/20
Rashford first goal-scorer @ 9/2