At the core of Ajax’s recent success lies a satisfying albeit unique blend of youth and experience. While this concept itself is far from unique, Ajax’s execution of it is just that – a rarity. While their young stars of tomorrow are honing their craft while impressing with their immense potential, there is a group of experienced players who have previously plied their trade around the world, but most recently have added a great level of stability to the Ajax set up. Some of these players include the likes of Daly Blind, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ryan Babel, who enjoyed successful days with Ajax early in their respective careers, have recently aided the Dutch side in both in the Eredivisie and the Champions League. One player who has previous Eredivisie experience is striker Dušan Tadić, who also has Premier League experience under his belt. Since arrival in Amsterdam, the Serbian has been in scintillating form – he has seemingly discovered another level to his game, a level that suits the Ajax system perfectly.
Position and Role
Immediately, we get a strong idea of Tadić’s work rate and versatility. The 31-year-old is predominantly left-footed but has demonstrated over the years that he is capable of using his right foot when necessary. Over the last two seasons, he has been a staple of the Ajax starting 11, mostly playing as the central striker and occasionally playing on either wing, or even in an attacking midfield role. As the heatmap suggests, even when he is playing as a striker, he likes to drift out wide to involve himself in passing combinations and build-up play, very much an important part of the Ajax philosophy.
Furthermore, Tadić has been the Ajax captain for the most part of 2019/20 – a demonstration of Erik ten Hag’s confidence and trust in the veteran. His characteristics combine nicely with his work rate and determination to set the standard for those around him. The Serbia international can be seen being a leader in a verbal sense too – trying to morally lift or motivate teammates, displaying good communication skills.
Off the Ball Movement
Dušan Tadić is not blessed with natural pace, so he applies himself smartly off the ball where his lack of speed will not hinder him. Often in attacks, he will look to occupy open space, which may sound like an obvious move as an attacker, but he has an ability to pick pockets of space that defenders don’t pick up on.
The image above is an example of Tadić making a sly movement to work himself into a pocket of space virtually unnoticed. He drifted in from a wide right position, to the zone he finds himself in above. The highlighted defenders close to him are too focused on other players to realise that nobody has picked the Ajax skipper up, leaving him free in a dangerous area. This move shows great game knowledge and understanding, as well as timing and innovation. Notice his body position too, he knows he is in a dangerous position and about to receive the pass, and he is stood side-on with an open body shape, ready to receive the ball on the back foot before driving forward.
This part of his game plays an integral role in the Ajax system. Most strikers are either quick individuals who look to get in behind the back line, or strong and physical presences who will look to hold the ball up. Tadic is almost a combination of both in some ways.
Above, we have a different example of Tadić’s off the ball movement. In this scenario, Ajax found themselves attacking following a turnover near the halfway line, giving them chance to execute a counter attack. Because of this, Valencia found themselves outnumbered, but couldn’t remain narrow due to the Ajax player darting forward on the far side. To increase their attacking options, Tadić, along with Ziyech on the ball, opted to perform a crossover move which saw the Serbian make a run towards the right in a wider area, with the Moroccan carrying the ball inside. This caused a huge problem for the highlighted Valencia defender, as he was outnumbered two-to-one. Tadić’s quick movement into a wider area made this attack even more dangerous than it already was, again highlighting his football IQ. Moves like this also support the Ajax philosophy of attacking fluidity – the idea of having players making movements that you wouldn’t expect but help keep the move flowing to create a chance.
When you think of Tadić, you would be forgiven for not placing him in the same bracket as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Sadio Mane when it comes to dribbling. He isn’t renowned for his ability beat defenders – but that doesn’t mean he can’t do it. His impeccable footwork and control allows him to execute manoeuvres in the tightest and unlikeliest of angles, as seen below.
His natural ability on the ball is on display above. He finds himself in a 1v1 in a tight angle with very little support, with the defender looking to shepherd him away from the area. Tadić uses his skill to keep the ball close to him while carrying it close to the by-line. From there he finds a smart pass in a small gap to find Donny Van de Beek, who then provides an assist to put Ajax 2-0 up. In a position where most players would either lose the duel to the defender or just play the ball off the defender to win the corner, or even go down looking for a penalty, Tadić utilised his impressive close-control to create a goal-scoring opportunity.
Tadić being dangerous in the area isn’t a one-off event. Through 2019/20 he would average 8.75 touches in the penalty area per 90. Considering he featured in almost every game of the season for Ajax, this shows a true consistency in his game. He also had an average of 4.55 dribbles per 90, with a success rate of 53.45, showing that while he isn’t a world beater or a top-class dribbler, he certainly has the skill set to cause panic for the opposition when he’s on the ball.
Although we previously mentioned Tadić’s lack of lightning pace, by no means does this mean he is slow. He is a nimble and agile player, capable to quick and sudden movements in a short space. However, he also occasionally capable of carrying the ball over a 30-yard stretch with enough speed to drag two opposition players in to try and tackle him, only to foul the Ajax man. This is exactly the scenario we have above. Tadić picked up the ball around the deepest area of the centre circle in his own half, before driving on with power to strike panic into the Valencia defence. Despite the home team’s central midfielder sprinting back alongside Tadić, the left-back opts to be drawn in centrally and consequently give away a free kick to Ajax in a dangerous area. This is an example of Tadić’s ability to turn steady possession into something promising in the blink of an eye.
This type of move, while unpredictable, falls right into the style that Ajax have in play, as they almost always have at least two players in attacking support ready to burst forward in a unit shape that gives the opposition a lot to think about and fix.
We mentioned at the start that Tadić has been in spellbinding form in the last couple of seasons for Ajax: in 2018/19, he recorded a staggering 38 goals and 24 assists in all competitions, a highlight of both the success of Ajax’s system in attack as well as individual brilliance from Tadić. A slight change in form and system approach from Ajax, as well as the curtailing of the 19/20 season saw Tadić register a lower goal contribution this time around, with 16 goals and 21 assists in total. Although this is considerably less than the previous campaign, that goal and assist haul itself is outstanding. Below, we will analyse two separate attacking phases which will shed some light onto how he manages to grab so many goals and assists.
This analysis, which results in Tadić finding the back of the net, starts with him finding another pocket of space in a dangerous area, without a defender anywhere near him. He initially found himself closer to the cluster of the defenders near the six-yard box, but drifted to the position above, knowing he would be in a better position to support and receive the ball. His first touch killed the ball almost entirely, allowing him to unleash a powerful shot past the goalkeeper – a vintage example of his clinical left-footed finishing.
During the 2019/20 Eredivisie campaign, he registered 42.9% of his shots on target, scoring 15 times from 84 total efforts. Alongside this, he averaged 2.29 shots per 90 minutes, which displays a consistency in getting himself into positive areas for his team, enabling him to collect the goals tally he has.
It is not just his eye for goal, but his vision to create good chances that makes Tadić so vital for the Ajax set up. His role sees him almost play as a false nine who has the licence, in line with Ajax’s fondness to play with fluidity, to drift into wide areas to create new space and opportunities. This makes it hard for the opposing team to stay consistently organised and alert to who needs to mark who. Tadić’s varied skill set lets him execute a range of passes, including the one above. Having seen van de Beek’s bursting run into the corner of the penalty area, Tadić plays a perfectly weighted pass into the Dutchman’s path, who ultimately should have scored. Playing this sort of pass may look very simple at first, but there are few important steps to it. Firstly, Tadić collects the ball in a wide area, under no immediate pressure but also very little close support. With Tadić being the attacking player that he is, his instinctive reaction is to keep the attack going rather than play safe possession. Donny van de Beek, who possesses great qualities of an attacking midfielder, combines well with Tadić to pull of a simple but effective move.
As mentioned, Tadić racked up a healthy number of assists over the last two seasons, showcasing his passing capabilities. He averages 9.83 forward passes per 90, which is a stat that is not considerably high on the face of it, but when you consider his position and role, and consider that he is usually the most attacking player in the Ajax team, he has a good ability to sometimes drop a little deeper to collect the ball before playing a pass into a more advanced area.
His previous experience in the Eredivisie and the Premier League have helped shape Dušan Tadić into the important and talented player he is today. He doesn’t get the attention of plaudits like Donny van de Beek or Hakim Ziyech, but his role in this Ajax side is undeniably one of the most important due to his unique playing style and skillset. While Tadić is not a player in the world-class bracket, he is a very talented leader with a very wide skillset who is leading Ajax seemingly back to their glory days.