Going into matchday four of the Champions League group stage, Ajax had accumulated four points from three games, matching the record of fellow group members Atalanta, with both sides trailing group leaders Liverpool by five points. With Atalanta’s win over the current Premier League champions and Ajax’s comfortable win against Danish side Midtjylland, the Eredivisie side will now feel confident about their hopes of progressing to the knockout stages of the competition. This tactical analysis will provide an insight into the tactics and methods deployed by Ajax, and how Midtjylland attempted to combat them.
Match favourites Ajax deployed a 4-3-3 formation – one of their favourites alongside the 4-2-3-1. The back four almost picks itself as of late. Davy Klaassen is right at home in the anchorman role in midfield, with Ryan Gravenberch and Zakaria Labyad providing attacking support from the central area. The front three of David Neres, Dusan Tadic, and Lassina Traore caused havoc for the opposition, who deployed a 4-2-3-1 shape in an attempt to limit Ajax’s central threat with the use of two central defensive midfielders.
Midtjylland’s intensity off-the-ball
It is well known that Ajax like to control large portions of possession and dictate the tempo of the match, with a lot of their opponents opting to sit back, soak up the pressure, and deal with the attacks in their own defensive third – all allowing Ajax to progress through the first two thirds with some ease. And while Ajax did register 59% possession throughout the match, Midtjylland instead deployed an “in your face” approach to Ajax’s possession, applying intense pressure in the early stages of the game.
As the analysis above shows, the intensity of this press from the Danish side was well-thought-out and well-executed. Perr Schuurs is the man on the ball for Ajax – after Midtjylland had already forced Ajax’s possession further back thanks to this press. With one player applying immediate pressure to the ball, two players occupying empty space to pick up any loose balls, and several players marking passing options, Ajax were forced into a long ball into the central midfield zone, which resulted in a turnover in possession.
Midtjylland knew that any success they would squeeze out of this game would be a result of Ajax not being able to comfortably control their game, and we saw several variants of the above press throughout the game.
As the game progressed, and Midtjylland legs grew fatigued, an intense press was both dangerous and unrealistic. However, instead of retreating entirely and sitting deep, they still deployed the attacking midfielders and striker to apply minimal pressure to Ajax when the home side had possession in their own half. This was by no means a lazy press by the visitors, but a smart one. All of the close passing options for Ajax were loosely marked, allowing those applying pressure to watch both their man and the space around them. This often forced Ajax into trying a lofted pass into midfield – both centrally and wide. While a courageous and clever move, it held less threat and brought less success than the press they activated in the early stages of the game. Ajax started to pick up on their counterparts’ method in this area, and would have players drift into gaps in midfield, making themselves available for the pass.
Ajax’s central threat
It is no secret that Ajax have a tendency and ability to construct dangerous attacks from the middle, using a mixture of clever passing combinations and individual skill to bypass the opposition midfield and get into threatening areas. The two-part analysis below shows how they used creativity and precision to score from a central area.
Tadic, highlighted on the left of the three arrow-highlighted players, had just received a pass from Daly Blind, and found himself, along with teammate Labyad in a mini two-on-one situation. The pair exchanged a quick one-two pass manoeuvre before Tadic drove forward with the ball, as Noussair Mazraoui surged forward to join the attack. This was possible by the lack of defensive presence and support in the Midtjylland midfield, something Ajax are very good at taking advantage of.
In this second part, we see further evidence of Ajax’s deadly ability from these areas. Mazraoui continued his run, and was very poorly marked and tracked by the highlighted centre-back of Midtjylland, who allowed Ajax full-back to find enough space in the box to meet Tadic’s inch-perfect pass, before firing the ball across the keeper to double Ajax’s lead. Situations like this is where Dusan Tadic really shines and proves why he is essential to this Ajax team. His vision, paired with his immense technical ability, allow him to carve chances out of tight spaces.
Ajax’s central play is not just impressive in the final third – they are also very efficient when it comes to quickly playing through the opposition midfield, especially when the presence is low. Above, Tagliafico’s lofted header meets Labyad, who is fully aware of the opponent coming in from behind. Labyad uses that opponent, pinning the defender and flicking the ball around the corner for the forward-running Gravenberch, who proceeds to travel with the ball before drawing a foul in the opposition half. Being able to confidently piece together possession in these areas has the potential to bring Ajax great success, both in domestic and European competition.
Lassina Traore – the focal point of attack
At the age of 19, striker Lassina Traore will improve no-end over the course of the next 10 years or so, but he is already showing signs of a top-class striker. With 8 goals in 15 games this season in all competitions, he is making incredible strides in showing Ajax that he can be a long-term solution to having an ‘out-and-out’ centre forward, with the club bouncing from Tadic, Labyad, and Huntelaar in the role in recent years. His combination of several physical and technical traits are what make him a nightmare for opponents to handle.
One of those physical traits is his strength, and he is capable of utilising it in various ways, one of which can be seen above. With the ball rolling towards Traore, and only one Midtjylland defender close enough to attempt a challenge, Traore gets his body between the ball and defender, holding him off until the right moment to unleash a pass into the path of Labyad, who makes a promising run in a gap in the Midtjylland defence. Not only does this sort of move demonstrate Traore’s great strength, but also his awareness and game understanding, as he was able to quickly identify the potential of the situation and how to access it.
Despite his size, Traore does possess fairly good pace, and the ability to hang on the last defender before making a darting run into space to collect the ball, before holding play up as teammates arrive, an essential element of Ajax’s game. Being able to provide this for his team also makes him (and by extension, Ajax) quite unpredictable and difficult to defend – will he run un behind and collect a through pass? Or will he drop off a little deeper to collect a ball to bring other teammates into play? Being able to actually perform both moves is a priceless asset to a team, especially in the Champions League.
The analysis above is another example of his strength, and an example of another way in which he is able to apply it. With a high ball dropping over both himself and the close-by Midtjylland defender, Traore uses a strong shoulder barge to ease his counterpart off the ball, leaving him on the ground in doing so. As Traore collects the ball, David Neres made an underlapping run, resulting in the Brazilian being located more centrally. Traore, realising the nature of the situation, see Neres and shows no hesitation in passing to his teammate, who sets the ball up and strikes it home from range. This show of strength is a warning to any Ajax opponent, that no matter where the ball lies, Traore can turn it into a dangerous attack.
As mentioned, Ajax were the favourites heading into this tie, with a victory keeping them very much in the mix for qualification to the knockout stages. As it turns out, they are now also in the mix to win the whole group. A professional performance that dealt with the Midtjylland threat for the most part, both on and off the ball. Their attacking play was very intense and promising, and their ability to dictate the tempo of the game, even with the pressure of the Danish side shows the quality in this Ajax team. Credit must also go to the visitors, Midtjylland, who showed heart and hunger, not sitting back waiting for Ajax to come to them.