With the 2020/21 UEFA Champions League group stage right around the corner, Ajax showed that they are sharp and ready with an emphatic 5-1 over Heerenveen. Following the recent international break, Ajax didn’t take long to find their attacking chemistry to blow their opponents away, giving Champions League opponents Liverpool a lot to think about, especially with Alisson and Virgil Van Dijk among the Anfield absentees.
As this tactical analysis will show, Ajax hit Heerenveen with all their firepower – constructing a high amount of attacks from a large portion of possession, while applying immense pressure to the visitors in their own half, making it hard for them to get through Ajax. This analysis will shine some light on Ajax’s attacking tactics, as well as their defensive set-up.
In terms of shape, 4-2-3-1 is a familiar one for Ajax, and is often the shape in which they produce their best football. The back four picks itself at the moment, with little changes being made to it all season. A mix of youth and experience seemed to work a treat in the midfield area, with youngster Ryan Gravenberch lining up alongside Davy Klaasen in the deeper midfield role – this being Klaasen’s first appearance since returning to Ajax. Mohammed Kudus continued his impressive start to the season, this time operating in a more advanced midfield role, showing he has great versatility to his game. David Neres and Dusan Tadic operated on the wings, with Lassina Traore up front.
Visitors Heerenveen, who were, in fact, unbeaten this campaign before facing Ajax, lined up with a five-man defence and a four-man midfield, highlighting their intentions to try and limit Ajax’s attack.
Ajax’s Attacking Dominance
So far this season, we’ve seen instances of Ajax struggling in attack throughout more than one fixture – a lack of creativity and attacking threat has been present in places. However, we saw the deadly side of Ajax in this match, with a flexibility in their approach. It was clear to Erik ten Hag that the visitors would try to shut Ajax out by packing out the midfield and defence. What they didn’t account for, is Ajax building attacks between the two areas, which is seen below.
This image shows that Ajax have worked on this method in training, and we can tell by the midfielders between the passer and the receiver. The three highlighted midfielders didn’t have to touch the ball in this phase of play, but their positioning alone lead Heerenveen bringing more players in to mark them and limit short passing options for Ajax. However, with a big, physical striker in Lassina Traore, Ajax have the option to simply bypass the busy midfield zone, and quickly get the ball into a more dangerous area, down by the right flank. Upon receiving the lofted pass and checking back, Traore’s subsequent pass lead to the attack that gave Ajax their first goal of the day. Below, we see that playing with a little more directness may become more of a regular feature for Ajax.
Certain elements in this phase of play of different to the previous image, but both involve a direct lofted ball into Traore – for him to control and lay off to a teammate, not to run in behind or click onwards. What is interesting in this example, is that Mazraoui had the option to play a simple short pass into the Ajax midfield, who could receive the ball on the half-turn and drive forward. The idea behind this method however was to launch the ball into Traore, with him then having three immediate short passing options – the support from the midfield. By the time this link up is complete, the midfield, after receiving the lay-off from Traore, then have more options to choose from to progress the attack in a more dangerous fashion. While Ajax often find success attacking and having possession in wide areas, a lot of the end product comes from a central point, as demonstrated below.
This diagram offers a perspective of where Ajax found the most success against Heerenveen. In terms of the xG ratio of each attack, Ajax had more success when attacking from central point than both wings combined. This shows a versatility in their game – no they aren’t the side to score from a lot of crosses, but they often combine a series of short passes in wide areas to break into the box. We are now seeing their system evolve as they develop the same ability in central areas.
We just mentioned Ajax developing a versatility to their attacking arsenal, and we see an extension of that above. As discussed, a defensive formation was deployed by the visitors as to reduce the space Ajax had to control possession. With that being said, their execution of such a system was not quite right, allowing Ajax the space in wide areas around the half way line, which allowed them to stretch the Heerenveen midfield, resulting in Ajax controlling possession however they wanted. This involved pushing a lot of players into advanced positions ready to receive the ball. In the image above, the home side have six players ahead of the ball supporting the attack. When you look at the position of the front four of Heerenveen in the central positon, we then see why Ajax found success in playing around and through their midfield to then create goal scoring chances.
Dominating the ball is a staple of the Ajax system, and today they displayed that convincingly. With 69% possession over the course of the game, they allowed Heerenveen very little rest in terms of slowing the game down – 56 attacks came from Ajax, with a total of 24 different ones reaching the penalty area.
This graph above represents the xG dynamics of both sides throughout the game. When analysing Ajax’s progress on the graph, we see that they start both halves at a steadier pace in terms of creating chances and looking like scoring – they instead look to hold the ball to dominate possession and control the tempo of the game. Despite scoring five goals, their xG rating came in at 3.36, indicating that despite all their possession and attacking, they did well (or had a slice of luck) to score more than three times. Their biggest surge in xG came from the 70th minute onwards, where they climbed from around 2 xG all the way up to their end rating within 20 minutes – a sign of how clinical they can be in attack.
Ajax’s Defensive System
Despite being able to control the game in large portions, Ajax were well aware of the work they had to do defensively, and did not take it lightly. Heerenveen’s shape meant their attacks would often come from wide areas, and that is where they found the most success, statistically speaking. But Ajax set up in a way that made it very difficult for their opponent’s to create any kind of chance, which is why they resorted to taking their chances with long shots – 6 of their total 10 shots came from outside of the box.
This narrow defensive set up may look, at first, unorganised. But when you take a closer look at each player in relation to the zone they’re in, and whether or not there’s an opponent near them, this shape makes sense. Ajax had one player closing down the Heerenveen man in possession, one man blocking the passing line to player at the edge of the D, with the remaining players in attack for the visitors all marked up. This left a few Ajax players free to mark space and cut any potential passing lines, giving Heerenveen next to nothing to work with. This attack ended with the opposition dinking in a hopeful cross which safely bounced through for Andre Onana to collect. What is also important here, the narrow shape from Ajax meant that if they had blocked/intercepted a short/low ball into box, they had a number of players in close proximity ready to launch a counter attack.
We’ve spoken how Ajax set up in their own half under a Heerenveen attack, but their set up when the visitors had the ball in their own half is equally as important. We’ve seen this type of system from Ajax many times before – having their front three and one midfielder apply pressure and mark up passing options to force the goalkeeper into attempting a long pass, which is exactly what happened in this (and many other) occasions. The lines on the image indicate which player(s) they were responsible for marking, meaning that if the keeper had attempted a short pass to any of them, there would be immediate pressure on them while they were facing their own goal. This example ended in the keeper’s long ball being easily collected by an Ajax player – allowing the home side to attack once more.
The image above represents a rare moment of a defensive collapse for Ajax. It is almost as if their defence and midfield units were operating under different systems. Having just lost the ball, Ajax’s full backs were high up the pitch – in line with some of their midfield teammates, leaving centre backs Daly Blind and Perr Schuurs in a two-on-two situation at the back. This usually would be a situation that Ajax can handle, but two major events meant that this time around, they crumbled and allowed Heerenveen in. Firstly, we see the three Ajax midfielders indicated, all closer to their own goal than the Heerenveen man on the ball, yet not one of them took the decision to close him down and stop him progressing his attack. This allowed him to take a couple of extra touches as he awaited the run of his teammate in behind Daly Blind, which brings us to event number two. For whatever reason, Blind loses track of his runner and shuffles to his right slightly, into a more central position, just as his runner made a darting run to the left of him. This makes that two-on-two very dangerous, as Blind was very quickly eliminated from the equation. After carrying the ball into the box, the Heerenveen man only had to square the ball past Schuurs to Joey Veerman, who nets Heerenveen’s first and only goal of the day. Despite the goal not impacting Ajax’s overall performance or the outcome of the match, it is certainly something they will look to eradicate if they are to find success in both the Eredivisie and Champions League this season.
On the whole, Ajax should be pleased with their performance in this fixture. As this analysis has highlighted, they seem to have rediscovered their flair and confidence in attack, as well as their ability to control the game and its tempo. There is an array of versatility in this Ajax squad, from the style of play they execute, to players who can play in several positions. Although they will be concerned about the goal they conceded, this was somewhat out of character and should be able to rectify the mistakes in training.