Ajax Amsterdam hosted VVV Venlo on Matchday 20 of the Eredivisie, resulting in a thoroughly one-sided match, if there ever was any. Ajax are second place in the league now, behind PSV Eindhoven. The defeat in De Klassiker last weekend caused them to drop points – valuable ones, considering their title aspirations. VVV Venlo had lost their last match as well – to Emmen, a team almost in the relegation zone. They’d been blowing hot and cold recently, having won two, lost two, and drawing one in their previous five games. Ajax, however, had a point to prove after the humiliation last weekend.
Ajax made two changes to their side from last weekend – Nicolás Tagliafico returned from his knee injury to take his place as the left-back. Daley Blind moved to his centre-back position taking Lisandro Magallán’s place while Rasmus Kristensen took up the right-back role as Noussair Mazraoui left the line-up following a minor hamstring injury.
VVV Venlo only made one change from their starting XI against Emmen – the Ghanian winger Johnatan Opoku made way for Jay-Roy Grot.
Ajax’s offensive mechanism
Ajax set up in a 4-2-3-1 with Lasse Schöne and Frenkie de Jong as the double pivot (Frenkie on the left). Donny van de Beek was playing slightly higher up as a #10 with Dušan Tadić played on the left wing, Hakim Ziyech on the right, and Kasper Dolberg as the striker. They held a very high line in an attempt to compress the playing area and making counter-pressing easier.
In possession, it is well-documented how Ajax use one of two build-up mechanisms depending upon the press faced by them – the key to both is de Jong’s positioning. Against Venlo, they had a side who were content with allowing them to have the ball. Due to this, De Jong would usually slot himself to the left of the centre-back pairing.
The singular presence of Mlapa as the only obstacle in their own third made it all too easy for Ajax to achieve the overload in the first phase. From there, de Jong would either drive forwards himself or play short passes with Tagliafico. Once in the final third, Tadić would drop to combine with both of them and using shrewd positional rotations and triangular passes, they’d look to release the full-back into space to drive crosses inside. The crosses were meant for Dolberg but Ajax increased their chances by sending in multiple runners into the Venlo box – Van de Beek, Tadić, and the far-sided winger – Ziyech.
The crossing didn’t bore much in terms of goals despite creating a number of chances – partly because Dolberg’s hold-up play needed some upgrade and also because the Venlo centrebacks – Jerold Promes and Nils Röseler were more-or-less successful in heading out the danger.
If this didn’t work out, they’d quickly switch the ball to the other side or recycle possession via the midfielders until an opportunity presented itself.
In the transition phase, Ajax employed a very intense ball-oriented counter-press. They’d fight for every second ball in the midfield and this almost always resulted in immediate ball-recovery. Ajax had a PPDA of 4.78 – a number signifying heavy press. This was further helped by Venlo’s defensive tactics(explained below).
Movements to break down the low block
Ten Hag’s Ajax are a very enthralling side and part of that is because of the players’ intelligent movements off-the-ball and synergistic effort of all of them. This was on full display against Steijn’s Venlo.
Though the team had set up in an identical fashion across the pitch, they often used asymmetrical movement depending on the strength of the individuals. On the left-hand-side, Tagliafico could afford to position himself higher as de Jong acted as the link between the centre-back and the full-back. On the right side, however, the left-footed Ziyech would often move to the by-line to pick up the ball and would prefer to cut inside from that area. When this happened, Kristensen would move to a more inside position. Ziyech had a freer role compared to his other teammates and sometimes would drop on the right side of the centre-backs to use his excellent passing ability to send long diagonal balls to the left.
Van de Beek also used Ronaldo-esque ghosting movements to get rid of Post and would move into an inside-left position in the box – from where he scored one goal and assisted another.
Dolberg’s movements also looked very sharp; he’s a naturally mobile striker and he’d often make diagonal runs off the back of Promes to pull him away.
The entire chemistry of the Ajax team was on point. For instance, Dolberg would suddenly make a darting run, and Van de Beek would immediately run into the space and Tadić would play a perfectly weighted ball into his path. The whole thing happened in a second – making it extremely hard for Venlo to deal with such movements throughout the match.
In addition to this, the players also didn’t shy away from dropping into midfield, following spells of unproductive Ajax possession to manipulate the opposition shape into yielding.
Venlo’s set-up out of possession
In defensive phases (which is what Venlo were in for most of the match), VVV Venlo would form a 4-1-4-1 (sometimes shifting to a 4-5-1 or even a 6-3-1). The formations usually depended upon the positioning of the Ajax fullbacks – Tagliafico/Sinkgraven and Kristensen. Already prepared to stay for long periods without having the ball, Maurice Steijn had instructed his forwards – Grot and Joosten to stay tight with the overlapping full-backs. The wide midfielders – Seuntjens and Susic loosely man-marked the Ajax midfielders – De Jong and Schöne. Post would stay with Van de Beek which resulted in both of the centre-backs responsible for Dolberg.
Venlo mostly defended in a low block, strictly refusing to press Ajax during the first phase of build-up. The block was compact – horizontally and vertically, minimizing spaces in-between lines in the centre.
In many ways, however, they played right into the hands of their Amsterdam counterparts. For example, the strict man-marking duties of their wide forwards – Grot and Joosten meant they could never provide the support to Mlapa after he had successfully held up the ball. This resulted in him being too isolated up ahead.
Furthermore, they found it very difficult to deal with the counter-press of Ajax. The lack of nearby passing options meant that the ball-winner couldn’t find anybody to pass to and was either dispossessed or had to hit a long hopeful ball upfield (this is a problem faced by many defensive teams – even elite ones such as Juventus or Atletico Madrid take a while for their compact shape to take up positions before they can release the ball and a press-resistant midfielder can do wonders for such a system).
The defence of their own box, however, remained in disarray and was revealed by Ajax’s positional play and rotations within the structure.
For instance, Seuntjens would be confused by Blind’s runs into midfield and often times would be caught in two minds between marking De Jong or pressing Blind (further explained below). Similarly, Ziyech’s dropping movements into midfield often pulled Janssen out of position, opening up space for Kristensen to attack.
As the goals piled up, the backline became more and more shambolic and the final introduction of David Neres for Tadić opened up the floodgates with three goals coming in the last ten minutes itself.
Ajax’s extreme left-sidedness – a double-edged sword
With Blind as the left centre-back, Tagliafico as the left-back, De Jong, and Tadić on the left side as well, it was all but apparent where the majority of the threat for Venlo lied. While De Jong was paramount to this approach, Tagliafico’s return to the squad, and Blind to his natural position were also significant for the success of this approach. This was evident in how the strongest passing links in the team were Blind and De Jong (48 passes), Schöne and De Jong (38), Schöne and Blind (27), and De Jong and Tadic (26). Almost all were left-sided players (except Schöne).
The way both sides had set up meant that Venlo and Ajax were almost man-to-man in midfield. Hence, the ability of Blind to carry the ball forward was crucial to the principle of numerical superiority in ten Hag’s positional play. This created overloads on the flanks which then helped to either open up space in other places for other teammates or to create crossing chances.
However, this system was not without its own risks. Ajax have suffered against counter-attacks this season and essentially Blind venturing forward on his own meant having to leave De Ligt on his own with Mlapa. To his credit, he defended well, but there are genuine questions regarding the sustainability of such a high-risk-high-reward policy at the back.
Venlo started the match with a decent defensive structure (even staying only 1-0 till the 50th minute). However, they were undone by Ajax as the match progressed and the negative tactics of Steijn backfired. It was clear that they had gone to the Johan Cruijff Arena with some defensive preparation but their lack of a coherent counter-attacking plan hurt them the most, never allowing them to get in the game.
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