The long-awaited return of domestic Dutch domestic football is finally upon us. The first wave of Eredivisie fixtures has already passed, and it saw Ajax kick off their campaign within a victory away at Sparta Rotterdam. Despite finishing the match with 10 men following the dismissal of Nicolas Tagliafico, the Amsterdam giants performed well enough to collect three points in the hunt for the Eredivisie title and Champions League qualification. Having lost a couple of key players to Premier League clubs, Ajax’s new signings and young stars rose to the occasion. This match report will provide a tactical analysis of Ajax’s approach on the ball, as well as an analysis of how they used tactics to deal with Sparta coming at them.
Ajax began the game with a familiar 4-2-3-1, which shaped up as a 4-3-3 in attack. The experienced Daly Blind paired up at the back next to exciting young prospect Perr Schuurs. Erik ten Hag opted to start Quincy Promes in the attacking midfield role, with Zakaria Labyad leading the line. Dusan Tadic and new singing Antony occupied the wings. Ten Hag had a strong bench at his disposal, with names like David Neres, Seringo Dest, Mohammed Kudus amongst others waiting as substitutes.
Hosts Sparta Rotterdam deployed a 4-4-2 system, with Lennart Thy and Mohamed Rayhi leading the attacks. Deroy Duarte and Abdou Harroui occupied the wide areas in midfield, with Bryan Smeets and Adil Aussar in the middle of the park. The back four consisted of Jeffrey Fortes, Mica Pinto, Michael Heylen and Bart Vriends.
Ajax – Off the ball
In the opening 20 minutes of this fixture, we didn’t see Ajax apply pressure to the opposition backline as frequently as usual. This was down to the system deployed by Sparta, where their defensive line was a lot higher up the field than we usually see against Ajax. However, on the occasions where Ajax were able to push the hosts back while they had the ball, the front unit of the visitors did not hesitate in pressing.
As we can see in the analysis above, Ajax haven’t committed as many players into the opposition half as usual, for the same reason mentioned previously. In this instance, Ajax’s quick action to push their own line higher as they forced the ball upfield caused the hosts to have possession a little deeper whilst also facing their own goal – the perfect pressing trigger for Ajax. While Tadic occupied the right-full-back, the front trio collectively applied pressure to force Sparta into playing a long and somewhat hopeless ball.
Quincy Promes, slightly deeper than the other two, stayed in proximity to Sparta’s present central midfielder, effectively eliminating him as a passing option. New signing Antony did a similar job, shutting off the free central defender, who signals for the man on the ball to quickly pass to their goalkeeper. This left Labyad, who closed the defender down as he faced away from the Ajax goal. The forward’s pressure forced a pass back to the keeper, with Antony quickly applying a maximum press to force a long ball, resulting in Ajax regaining possession.
A combination of the bravery in Sparta’s approach and the red card for Ajax meant the visitors had to be very alert in defence. As mentioned, we saw a difference in their pressing approach, but they also altered things in how they set up defensively; getting more bodies back to defend the lead.
This image lets us see how Ajax approached the second half when Sparta had the ball. As a result of their lack of pressing, Sparta were invited to come forward and try to play through Ajax. With the back four well organised and the midfield three compact and marking man-for-man, Ajax forced Sparta out-wide, where makeshift left back Dest was ready to press once that pass was played – a smart defensive set up from Ajax. This is something Dest faced a lot during the game as Sparta focused a lot of play down his side. This resulted in Dest competing in 12 defensive duels, impressively winning 75% of them.
Setting up in this way allowed Ajax to leave a striker on the last Sparta defender, and often the winger of the opposite side (as seen in the above image) slightly further forward than the rest of the midfield unit, enabling good transitions in counter-attack situations. Throughout the match, Ajax attempted four counter-attacks – making 92 recoveries collectively helped this approach.
Ajax – In possession
In recent years, anyone who has watched Ajax will know that they like to dominate possession, quickly moving the ball from their defensive players to more attacking zones, often via combination plays in wide areas. However, the defensive set-up of Sparta made this very difficult.
In the image above, we see a typical example of Sparta’s defensive shape when Ajax had the ball and were looking to execute their regular offensive approach. While Ajax were often comfortable having possession in areas like the image above – around the half-way line, the responsibilities carried out by the different Sparta units made it very difficult for Ajax to make that all-important transition into a dangerous attacking area. The high line of the home side is something Ajax are not used to playing against in the Eredivisie, and its narrow shape left very little space to be exploited. The 4-4-2 shape allowed the wide midfielders to mark Ajax’s wide threats, and with the two forwards pressing the Ajax backline, we are left with a 2v2 in the midfield area, a risk Ajax did not fancy taking.
Ajax remained patient and persistent for the most part, trying to shift the ball from one side of the defence to the other in hopes of finding the wide forward in some space. However, we saw a lot of uncharacteristic long and wasteful passes to try and penetrate the Sparta defence. Overall, this led to Ajax having less possession and less shots throughout the match, a rarity for Ajax.
After 27 minutes, Ajax were forced into making some changes thanks to a red card being awarded to left-back Tagliafico. This meant they deployed a 4-4-1, impacting their approach both in defence and attack. Due to having an advantage in numbers, Sparta committed more men forward, giving Ajax the chance to counter-attack from time-to-time.
The analysis above shows Ajax entering the attacking third after an impressive and smooth transition out of defence, while many of the opposition players were still fighting to get back into a stable defensive position. On the ball in the middle is Tadic, the captain. This is where we start to get an idea of the possible instructions Ajax were playing under with 10 men, as the Serbian opts to float a pass over to Antony on the right-wing, instead of driving forward into the space in front of him. This action showed a desire to move the ball quickly to fully capitalise on the lack of positioning from Sparta – and it is an action that resulted in the only goal of the match.
Antony took his first touch well, and when faced with the Sparta full-back, he beats him all ends up; dropping his shoulder and cutting in on his left foot before unleashing a shot which, with some fortune, finds the back of the net. Ajax managed just nine shots during the match, a fairly low number by their standards, with five of those coming from outside the box, highlighting the difficulty they had in breaking through the Sparta defence.
Ajax’s focus on protecting the 1-0 lead with 10 men is the reason behind their lack of attacking threat and possession. They were fully aware of the threat posed to them by the hosts, and defending the 1-0 lead and only counter-attacking when the chance truly presents itself seemed the best way to see the game out.
Above is an example of Ajax having possession in Sparta’s half – note the lack of attacking presence from Ajax, especially ahead of the ball. Tadic is the man receiving the ball on the left, shielding the ball from the oncoming Sparta defender. Sergino Dest recognises Tadic’s intentions and makes a darting overlapping run down the wing, where he is met by a good pass from his captain. The final phase of this attack tells us everything about how Ajax were feeling about the game at this time – instead of holding the ball up and waiting for support from Tadic or elsewhere, Dest quickly whips in a low cross towards Promes, the lone striker. The cross was stopped and that was the end of the attack for Ajax.
While this type of play is unconventional for Ajax, within the context of the game it was both a smart and sensible approach as it gave them chances to break forward while ensuring defensive stability, which played a bit part in them holding on for a 1-0 win.
Despite not playing eye-catching football, and often struggling to penetrate Sparta’s defence, picking up an away victory with 10 men against brave opponents, all while keeping a clean sheet, shows grit and determination from Ajax. People often say that winning even after putting on a poor performance with undesirable circumstances is the sign of a champion and being able to win games like this is promising for Ajax. On paper, they have a squad with talent, versatility, and depth, which will become vital as the season progresses. Credit should be given to Sparta Rotterdam – this game will arguably be the toughest home game they’ll have all season, but they approached it with passion and confidence, not allowing Ajax to play their usual game.