Ajax travelled to the Dutch-German border to face a VVV Venlo side yet to win since the opening day. Ajax came into the game following a narrow defeat to Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League. VVV Venlo on the other hand will have been hoping to make the most of their extra recovery time to snatch some points from the Amsterdammers.
The match that ensued was the most emphatic victory seen in the history of the Eredivisie. Ajax put 13 (yes, thirteen) goals past VVV without reply, to see them write themselves into the history books. Naturally, with the biggest Eredivisie defeat of all time comes widespread questioning of Hans de Koning’s side. This tactical analysis seeks to examine just how Ajax’s tactics were able to score 13 goals. The analysis also reveals what exactly went so wrong for VVV.
Hans de Koning set VVV up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, reverting back from the 4-2-3-1 formation he had deployed in their two previous matches. They were missing wingers Joshua John and Guus Hupperts so they started Napoli loanee Zinedine Machach on the right, with recent addition Torino Hunte on the left. Evert Linthorst and Vito van Crooij started as central midfield partners with Danny Post sat behind to offer additional defensive precaution.
Ajax made five changes to the side that lost against Liverpool in midweek. They’ve predominantly set up in a 4-2-3-1 in the league this season, an alteration to the 4-3-3 seen in the Champions League. This meant Ryan Gravenberch and Davy Klaassen dropped into deeper midfield positions, while Daley Blind played in the centre of defence. Dušan Tadić, Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, and Antony made up Ajax’s attacking midfielders and Lassina Traoré completed a lineup with an average age of just 23.9.
Ajax’s dismantlement of VVV’s defence
Ajax’s main attacking threat came from exploiting space wide areas. Eight of the 13 goals originated in wide areas, with most following a similar pattern.
VVV were compact defensively. They knew Ajax could threaten through the middle with 32.7% of their through passes coming in the centre of the final third. Compactness centrally can crowd this area, making it harder to play through. As a consequence, more space becomes available in the wide channels.
This space was initially exploited by Ajax’s full-backs with ease. Wingers Antony and Tadić would tuck in and be man-marked by VVV’s defenders. Post, who was sat between the lines, would try to put pressure on the ball centrally. VVV were unable to maintain this pressure from midfielders when the ball went further wide and this left a huge amount of space for the full-backs to occupy and cross.
VVV’s man-marking in relatively small numbers (few defensive overloads) meant that positional changes from Ajax could pose problems. The above example shows Ekkelenkamp moving inside while Sean Klaiber moves outside. Lukas Schmitz incorrectly assumes he has a centre-back behind him who will cover. This lack of awareness from Schmitz allows Klaiber to easily get in behind the defensive line practically unchallenged.
Ajax also used the attacking capabilities of centre-backs Daley Blind and Perr Schuurs. As is typical of Ajax centre-backs, they were both able to carry the ball into the middle third as well as play long balls through and over the thirds. This was useful as it drew midfield players towards the progressing centre-back. They left behind space that could be occupied by midfield options, or create passing lanes for through balls to wingers.
VVV “parking the bus”
After being exploited out wide, VVV started putting more and more men behind the ball.
At times this would be as many as seven players attempting to contain the Ajax attackers. Their average formation line was just 40.1m from their own goal (compared to 63.5m from Ajax). As was the case for most of the game, VVV relied on small numbers of midfielders to try and win the ball back in front of the defensive line. This meant that it was more difficult for Ajax to find space in these wide areas while reducing the chance of gaps in the middle.
This was one (extreme) solution to the dilemma of how to defend centrally and out wide at the same time. Despite the severity of their defensive approach, as the scoreline suggests it had little impact. This was, in part, due to VVV’s lack of success in 1 v 1 situations against attackers. The depth of the defensive line meant they couldn’t show wide players outside and so Ajax were free to execute shots and inswinging crosses.
This did mean that there was only one way for VVV to try and attack which was on the counter. This was still largely unsuccessful because it was usually only one attacker supported by another trying to take on any Ajax players uninvolved offensively.
Countering would be a viable tactic due to the number of players that Ajax could bring forward to attack. However, VVV only ended up managing to form one counter-attack and didn’t manage to complete a single pass within 20 metres of Ajax’s goal line (Ajax managed 59).
VVV’s attempts to adapt with 10 men
For the second time this season, VVV found themselves down to 10 men after the sending off of Christian Kum just after half time.
While formally VVV adopted a 4-4-1 shape when defending (which they were for most of the game), in reality, they took up more of a 5-3-1 or even 6-2-1 shape. It’s difficult to break down a team’s defensive tactics when in practice the plan seemed to be to get as many players behind the ball as possible and then hope for the best.
Having players behind the ball is one thing, but actually winning the ball back is another. VVV made little effort to win the ball back and with so many players positioned in deep areas, they invited Ajax onto them. Ajax were able to get into the final third without much trouble at all and could shoot from range or play simple passes through to score.
Scoreline aside, VVV have been in this situation before this season. When down to 10 men against Heerenveen, they ensured they had two lines. The first was their defensive line that would attempt to track attackers and prevent them from getting in behind. The second was a midfield line led by Danny Post where they attempted to pressure the players on the ball and prevent them from advancing any further up the pitch.
While Ajax are qualitatively superior opposition to Heerenveen, there’s no reason VVV couldn’t have attempted to shut players down higher up the pitch as they did against Heerenveen. This is one of many things that point towards the 13-goal deficit coming from a lack of willingness to carry on playing after conceding rather than simply being outplayed. Bear in mind that against Heerenveen, VVV finished the game with 9 men and still only lost by one goal to nil.
Ajax take advantage of 10-man VVV
Ajax were able to exploit their quantitative advantage by pinning defenders in position and then attacking spaces that opened up as a result of their extra man.
Once VVV’s defenders were pinned back far enough, it was easy for Ajax to get shots off. Pinning these defenders was also an advantage for Ajax as they were easily able to retain and recycle possession. The lack of attacking intent from VVV meant that even if Ajax misplaced a pass or had a shot blocked, it would usually end up falling back to one of their players.
Another advantage Ajax had was from crosses. They had already shown that they could threaten from wide areas and Nicolás Tagliafico and Klaiber were capable of delivering effective balls into the box. Now they were able to outnumber men marking in the box.
The above example shows Ekkelenkamp and Traoré in the box near Arjen Swinkels. Both men run in different directions meaning that Swinkels is forced to either track one and allow the other into space or position himself in between both and hope to reduce space.
Their success from these situations can be supported by the fact that they continued to attempt crosses. They attempted 26 crosses (13 successful) with 15 high crosses going some way towards showing how little challenge they had in the air.
There were similarities in the way that Ajax played against 10-man RKC Waalwijk. Their third goal came from players invading the available space after Traoré pinned defenders with a run towards goal.
No amount of tactical domination will be able to justify a top division side conceding 13 goals at home in any league. Ajax deservedly came away with three points and a huge boost to their goal difference and should be admired for their ruthlessness even into the dying moments of the game.
VVV though should be embarrassed. Teams do get dominated and heavy defeats are part of football. However, to see an elite team perform so poorly in 1 v 1 situations and duels and at times seem so unaware positionally was shocking. To sit back and capitulate in the manner that they did has threatened to damage the reputation of the Eredivisie itself. This match may be used as evidence to support the creation of a BeNe league, with supporters of the project already citing lack of competitiveness as justification.