Four rounds of fixtures have now taken place in the 2020/21 Eredivisie campaign and it already looks set to be a close and entertaining season, with no teams still holding a 100% win record. After winning their opening three matches, title favourites and Champions League competitors Ajax slipped to a frustrating 1-0 defeat away at Groningen. As this tactical analysis report will show, they lacked creativity and composure in the final third, traits often brought last season by Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech, who both left for the Premier League. This tactical analysis will put a scope on where Ajax struggled in this fixture, as well as any elements of the game where they showed promise.
In terms of shape, Ajax returned to their primary formation of 4-2-3-1 – the side still on the search for their most effective shape and system this season. Zakaria Labyad continues to lead the line, with a familiar attacking midfield trio of Dusan Tadic, Quincy Promes and Antony – Ryan Gravenberch and Edson Alvarez providing defensive protection. The back four consisted of Nicolas Tagliafico and Noussair Mazraoui at full back, with Daly Blind partnering up with youngster Jurrien Timber, who is just 19 years of age. The home side deployed a defensively sound shape in a 5-3-2, allowing them to defend in numbers while remaining organised and compact, shutting Ajax out.
Ajax: On the ball struggles
Something that we are seeing more often so far this season is the courage that teams play with against Ajax. In previous years, we might have seen a more defensive approach that allows Ajax to play their way up to the final third with some ease – Groningen didn’t fancy that strategy.
In this first analysis, we see an example of how Groningen acted when Ajax had possession. The hosts left four players deep in Ajax territory, with one pressing Andre Onana and the remaining three ready to pounce if an Ajax defender in frame received the ball. The pressing on Onana, however, limited Ajax’s ability to play out from the back and progress attacks in their preferred way. Many times, including this one, Ajax were forced into going long, often resulting in a turnover in possession. Defending this way stopped Ajax from gaining momentum and left them struggling to build any consistent attacking pressure on Groningen. But why couldn’t Ajax just float a ball over the pressing forwards and play from midfield? Groningen’s five-man defence and narrow midfield left very little space or opportunity for Ajax to successfully execute that move.
This pressing system wasn’t used by the hosts for the full 90 – applying pressure with such intensity will have resulted in their players growing tired, allowing Ajax to pick them off with ease and progress up the pitch. In some instances, Groningen opted to retreat in numbers and set themselves up in a strong and compact defensive shape, as seen below.
To maintain defensive structure and give themselves the best chance of consistently stopping Ajax attacks, Groningen deployed the smart strategy of packing the edge of the box out with defensive bodies, leaving little space for passes or off-the-ball runs for Ajax players to make. They would also leave a couple of players up front to occupy the Ajax defenders, also limiting the number of players able to join the Ajax attack. Upon analysis, however, as good as the defensive set-up was from Groningen, Ajax will look at their own performance in the final third with great disappointment. A lack of creativity and pace in the attacks allowed for the hosts to organise and leave no gaps, meaning most Ajax attacks in these scenarios would go from a series of short passes (similar to area in the image above), before a hopeful pass into the box, or a long shot. Looking at the stats of the game, it would be easy upon first glance to assume Ajax dominated the game, and therefore were just unlucky. But of the 66% possession they registered, only 17% of their times on the ball resulted in them reaching the Groningen penalty area, suggesting a severe difficulty in breaking this defensive approach down. Furthermore, of the 53 attacks they attempted, just 11 of them resulted in a shot – Ajax registered 18 shots in total: just 2 on target. When considering all of these stats, we get a clearer understanding that Ajax had no plan B to fall back on when it came to penetrating the Groningen defence and creating goalscoring opportunities.
Above, we have further proof that this defeat was not just a result of the impressive defending by Groningen. After playing their way out of defence, they had a really promising chance of building a fluid attack, the kind we are used to seeing from Ajax. Youngster Ryan Gravenberch is the man in possession under no real pressure. Understandably, the Dutchman wants to continue the attack for his side, rather than slow the move down to retain possession. What is not so understandable is the decision he made in how to progress the attack. With two Ajax forwards positioned on the defenders of Groningen, and the hosts’ midfielders dragged out of position slightly, Quincy Promes found himself in a wealth of free space in a central area. Being free in this position with no immediate pressure and good numbers in support, Ajax would’ve had the chance to get at the back line and create a chance in the penalty area. However, a bad decision from Gravenberch stopped the attack entirely as he attempted a difficult lofted through ball to David Neres which only trickled through to the goalkeeper.
While Gravenberch was the player at fault for this move, he wasn’t the only Ajax body guilty of making poor decisions or executing bad passess in attack motions. Ajax attempted 83 passes to the final third, with an accuracy rate of just 70%, showing a lack of consistency on the ball from a multitude of players.
Ajax: Off the ball approach
Ajax also struggled to operate as efficiently off the ball too, which made life a lot easier for the home side. A hint of frustration and lack of focus in their overall game showed through which resulted in a less effective and less aggressive press, as seen in the analysis below.
Initially, things might not look bad for Ajax in this first image of their defending. But context here is vital. The central defender on the ball had just got the ball back from his teammate at right back, meaning Groningen had comfortable possession for a moment. This was because Ajax’s attacking and midfield unit were slow in executing any sort of press. There was even a moment where Tadic looked set to press but quickly realised he was the only one, so he held his position to preserve the unit shape and await the arrival of reinforcements from midfield. After allowing the Groningen defence to pass the ball around for a few seconds, two Ajax midfielders finally joined the attackers, meaning the front three in frame were able to press the back line without the risk of leaving space behind them. As the image shows, once this was in motion, Ajax’s shape in the press was actually very effective as they marked any passing options, forcing Groningen to go back to the goalkeeper, who then went long. However, Ajax could’ve forced a result that was more beneficial to them if they unleashed the press sooner.
This image is the first part of a two-part breakdown of Groningen’s goal – the match winner. We mentioned previously that the home side had packed out the midfield area, giving them a good chance of winning possession through duels in that area. Combined with some clumsy and rushed possession from Ajax in the middle, a quick counterpress involving four Groningen players allowed them to take the ball back and launch an attack on an Ajax team that was not organised for such a moment. After winning the ball back from Gravenberch, the Groningen man immediately looked for the run of the striker highlighted at the bottom of the image, who was peeling in behind the remaining Ajax players. A crisp, accurate pass was met by a good first touch, allowing Groningen to drive forward with some intent. The second part of this analysis shows where Ajax went wrong in defending the end of this quick counter attack.
Despite having traveled with the ball all the way up to the edge of the Ajax box, the visitors still weren’t in any way organised defensively, leaving gaps in multiple areas. Groningen knew the importance and the potential of this attack, but still only committed three players to attack. From an Ajax perspective, even aside from the poor organisation, they should not concede from this position – the Groningen striker defends the ball from two Ajax defenders, neither of which attempt a real challenge, allowing a shot on goal. Although Onana pushes this first effort away, the young defender Timber loses track of Remco Balk, who reacts quickly to the parried shot and smashes it home for 1-0. Ajax had a number of chances to put a stop to this goal, yet failed in every way. However, credit must be given to the work done off the ball by Groningen, and the swift manner of how they attacked after winning the ball back.
An Ajax performance where they have plenty of shots and possession is a common event. But, as proven by Groningen, these are not the only two elements in a winning formula. Despite having just 34% possession, the hosts managed 10 shots on goal, showing that this victory was not just a result of one lucky attack and heroic defending. They welcomed Ajax into their stadium with a gameplan and it worked. Ajax will look back at this game with disappointment in how they looked to attack – giving the ball away after rushing possession in a variety of cases, while lacking innovation and adaptability to beat this resolute defence.