Ajax have been in emphatic form in the Eredivisie lately, which is why they are the league leaders after seven games, scoring 29 goals and conceding just five following their unbelievable 13-0 win recently against VVV, they netted another five in their most recent game, in a 5-2 win at home against Fortuna Sittard. Most of the goal-action came in the latter stages, with the score being 2-1 until the 74th minute. This was a welcome victory after drawing 2-2 at Serie A side Atalanta in the Champions League after leading 2-0. This tactical analysis will take a look at the tactics applied as Ajax picked up their sixth league win of the season.
Erik ten Hag now has a squad with the luxury of squad depth, particularly in midfield, which is why they are able to rest certain players on occasion, just as they did with Dusan Tadic this week, for example. They set up in a 4-2-3-1 with the back four looking familiar, aside from Lisandro Martinez who replaced the injured Nicolas Tagliafico. In the midfield, experience and youth mixed again as Ryan Gravenberch lined up next to Davy Klaasen, with Jurgen Ekkelenkamp playing as an attacking midfielder. David Neres and Antony provided attacks from the flanks, with Lassina Traore leading the line. During parts of the game, Ajax would switch between this shape and a 4-1-4-1 shape with Gravenberch playing the deeper role in midfield.
Visitors Fortuna came looking for a damage limitation approach with a five-man defence, a narrow three-man midfield, and two up-top.
Ajax’s defensive performance
Ajax’s defensive worries extend back to last season, and it is something that they have not been able to shake off so far this season. While most games see a pattern of Ajax dominating large portions of possession, they leave themselves open to the danger on the break, and it is a problem they have not entirely eradicated.
The analysis above is an example of Ajax’s lack of ability to deal with being hit on the break, as well as their struggles with 1 v 1 situations. The man on the ball for Fortuna is Zian Flemming, who found himself in a dangerous position after managing to shrug off the challenges from all three highlighted Ajax men, one-by-one. After single-handedly bypassing Ajax’s midfield, a gap opened up between Perr Schuurs and Noussair Mazraoui. George Cox made a run in plenty of space behind Mazraoui and finished it nicely to give his side an early unexpected lead against Ajax.
This gameplan may have been intentional from Fortuna. They executed four counter-attacks all game, finding success on this occasion in particular.
Both the midfield unit and the two remaining defenders for Ajax are at question in this example. Firstly, the midfield unit reacted far too slowly with poor positional work, allowing the Fortuna man to break past them fairly easily. From there, Gravenberch and Daley Blind were positioned too far apart from each other, giving the Fortuna man a great gap to make a run into. Once the pass was played, he was able to exploit Blind’s lack of pace to get into a shooting position at the edge of the box – which was held well by the keeper. Once again, though, this highlights Ajax’s struggles with dealing with counterattacks. This would have been avoided if Gravenberch was a few yards deeper to begin with, and closer to Blind.
Despite this, we saw some vintage Ajax pressing, especially in the second half, which paired nicely with their intense attacking attitude. The pressure they applied played a huge role in allowing them to dominate the ball for large portions of the game.
The analysis above shows something we see very regularly from Ajax. In the second half mainly, they will commit three or four players to the opposition backline to apply maximum pressure. This allows the rest of the team to push further up the pitch, closing the gaps left by those applying the pressure. The primary aim of a method like this is to force the opponent into making a mistake that will cause a turnover in possession. Ajax made 75 recoveries in this game, with an impressive 37 occurring in Fortuna’s half.
Ajax’s possession domination
Despite going 1-0 down in the opening eight minutes of the game, Ajax didn’t alter their approach, if anything they intensified their possessional focus. Attacking centrally has been a staple of Ajax’s offensive arsenal for some time, and when a team visits and plays such a defensive formation, it gives Ajax a chance to commit more players in areas they went.
Including the man on the ball for Ajax in the example above, the home side have eight players in frame for this attack. Six of those eight are positioned centrally, as this is where Ajax are most confident in their abilities to break through. This method can provide Ajax with a number of options based on the reaction of Fortuna. If the visitors look to remain compact and limit the availability of any central options, Ajax still have players on either flank which gives them the option to explore other avenues of attack, or to work the Fortuna defenders to create space to exploit centrally. Throughout the game, 26 of their total 68 attacks occurred centrally, with an xG of 4.22 – the flank attacks had a combined xG of just 0.63, highlighting Ajax’s capabilities when playing through the middle.
Between the 31-45 minute period of the game, Ajax found one of their most dominant parts of the match, with 79%, possession; scoring twice to go in front before half time. Coming back out in the second half, they adopted a similar approach, dominating 66% of possession for the first 15 minutes of the second period, only for the score to remain 2-1. After a brief slowing down of the tempo until the 75th minute, Ajax hit Fortuna with all they had, dominating 81% of the ball until the game’s end – they scored three more goals in this period.
Even in the final minutes of the game, Ajax did not relax their intensity, on and off the ball. It is firstly worth noting that they only got into the position they’re in above because of some brilliant counterpressing work close to the halfway line. After winning that duel, they sprung into action, almost queueing up to receive the ball from Promes at the edge of the box. Having six players in and around the box in an attack in the 93rd minute of a game when you’re already 4-1 shows the lethal side to Ajax.
Decision-making is also key in the situation above. With a number of passing options and the tempo at which the attack was taking place, Promes could have easily taken the first pass he saw. But he remained composed, controlled the ball, and laid it off nicely to Dusan Tadic. This attack is another impressive one that resulted in a penalty which was coolly dispatched for Ajax’s fifth and final goal.
Ajax’s direct approach
A regular feature we are seeing now from Ajax is the use of more direct play to completely bypass the midfield and create dangerous situations in and around the box. Lassina Traore, who is getting more game time this season, adds some value to his method with his good movement and physicality.
The full-backs of Ajax, Mazraoui in particular, are looking for these types of passes more than opponents expect too. But the timing of these moves is rarely random. For example, in the analysis above, Mazraoui notices, aside from the run of Traore, that there is just one Fortuna midfielder who could get anywhere near an interception a ground pass. With good pace and direction on the ball, Mazraoui was able to pick out Traore, who dribbled into the box before winning a penalty. Being able to turn possession into a threatening attack so quickly is one reason why Ajax score so many goals. Ajax made 14 through balls, similar to this one, through this game. While not all of them came from such a deep area, being able to threat a pass into a dangerous area makes the attack much harder to defend.
Ajax seem to be finding their feet in the Eredivisie now, and will once again fancy themselves as the favourites for the title. Their attacking power is simply too much for most teams to handle, thanks to their versatility and creativity. The one big problem remains at the back, and Erik ten Hag will be desperate to rectify this, especially for their Champions League fixtures.