On 9 February 2019, Ajax travelled east across the country to Almelo to play Heracles F.C. On paper, it looked like an easy match for Ajax – who’d just trounced VVV Venlo in the previous matchday 6-0. Their opponents this weekend sat eighth in the table – having lost all three of their previous matches. However, Heracles had proved a tough nut to crack in the reverse of this fixture, having drawn with Ajax. And as this match went on to prove, Heracles more than did themselves proud in this leg as well. Capitalising on a rare mistake by the Ajax goalkeeper André Onana, the hosts then went on to put on their best defensive performance to frustrate their Amsterdam counterparts.
“We only have a chance to score when the team is half the opponent. We normally do that well at home”, said Frank Wormuth, manager, Heracles
Heracles started the match with very high intensity. This resulted in their first serious attempt on goal within the first thirty seconds itself. Ajax tried to deal with this by playing over the first line of press. However, they were finding it difficult to cope with Heracles’ initial pressure. This was evident in the number of mistakes they were making right in their own half – including a penalty (which Brandley Kuwas failed to convert).
Heracles’ defensive set-up and pressing mechanism
During the initial phase of Ajax’s build-up, Heracles held a high line and used a 4-4-2 set-up (which sometimes morphed into a 4-3-1-2). In this risky system, the front two of Joey Konings and Jesper Drost would press the centre-backs – Daley Blind and Matthias de Ligt, while the two interior midfielders – Mohammed Osman and Alexander Merkel would stay touch-tight with Frenkie de Jong and Lasse Schöne.
The wide midfielders would stay on the outside with the Ajax fullbacks – Nicolás Tagliafico and Rasmus Kristensen. It was risky because it resulted in Donny van de Beek free between the lines (and indeed left a lot of space in between lines for the Ajax attacking midfielders); however, Ajax were seldom able to reach him.
Even in a medium block, Heracles would have the same formation but would only be conscious to maintain vertical and horizontal compactness. They’d try to protect the centre and shift play to the flanks.
Ajax’s left-sidedness has been both an interesting feature of their game plan this season and Wormuth had decided to play Ajax at their own game. They fashioned their press in a manner so as to force the ball to the left touchline where Ajax would be trapped between them and the by-line. The main pressers on this side were Breukers, Merkel, and Kuwas and they mostly able to intercept or tackle anything which came their way.
Heracles attempted to build-up during the initial phases of the game – they did so by splitting their centre-backs and having either Osman or Merkel drop in the centre. The wide men – Kristoffer Peterson and Kuwas would stay wide and Konings and Drost would stay in the centre. They didn’t try anything fancy in their own half; often just targeting long balls to the striker who’d lay it off to Drost. Drost would then play it into the path of Kuwas, who’d then look to cross in the box.
Another way they used to build up was by inviting Ajax to commit men forward using short passes in their box and then exploiting Ziyech’s inside positioning by releasing their left-back Lennart Czyborra in space.
The other fullback, Tim Breukers, wasn’t afraid to overlap either. He’d always look to push up and offer support to Kuwas or Konings to swing a cross in. Ajax attack a lot from their left but that’s another reason why that side is weak defensively as well and Tagliafico would often get overloaded by Heracles’ combination play on the flank.
Due to a combination of brave tactics, and midfield press, Heracles enjoyed almost 44% of the possession at the beginning of the match. However, in the second half, they eased off the press and fell into their medium block, relenting possession to their opponents.
Ajax’s build-up problems
During possession, Ajax would line up in a sort of 4-2-2-2 with high fullbacks. The midfielder line would position themselves on either side of the Heracles double pivot like they usually do. Dusan Tadić and Dirk Jan Huntelaar would pin the centre-backs and threaten to make runs in behind. Hakim Ziyech and de Beek would occupy the half spaces and receive in between lines to either turn or lay off to an incoming runner. The fullbacks would stretch the opposition defence.
Ajax found it very difficult to come back into the game after the goal conceded due to a mistake by Onana while playing out of the back. They’d attempt several build-up mechanisms but most of them failed to consistently allow them to retain possession and create chances(they recorded an xG of only 1.84 throughout their entire match). They’d also allow rotations, such as, between Ziyech and Tadić, but it didn’t offer much in terms of an opening.
When Blind had trouble progressing the ball, De Jong would drop to create a back three. This followed other dropping movements by Ziyech and De Beek as well.
Another way to get the ball into the final third was for Blind to play a quick wall pass to Tadić who’d release the ball into space for Tagliafico to run onto. This also pulled the centre-back – Rossmann out of his position and indeed this was one of the few times Ajax ended up taking a shot.
Ziyech allowed to drop more frequently in the second half gave Ajax some chances to come back. He’d pick up the ball in midfield and then dribble through the centre himself or link up with the other forwards with quick one-twos. Ziyech’s dropping (and Noussair Mazraoui’s introduction later on) also allowed Kristensen to move into the box to add another physical presence.
Ajax mostly look to cross from the wide areas and this match was no different. A total of 33 Ajax crosses were attempted during the entire match. Ajax are crossing a lot this season and they either need to improve their crosses or find some other way to create chances.
Ten Hag made three changes in the second half but none of them yielded results. Mazraoui came in for Schöne and went into the midfield position. Zakaria Labyad came in for De Beek, which was another like-for-like change. The final change was Kasper Dolberg for De Jong. This led to Ajax having two strikers on the pitch. Dolberg moved up to occupy the number nine role while Huntelaar moved below to operate as a number ten. Dolberg’s introduction didn’t have much effect as he could only take one shot before the final whistle had blown.
It was a frustrating defeat for Ajax and not the kind they’d want before their Champions League match against Real Madrid later this week. Ten Hag clearly has work to do with his side succumbing to a well-drilled pressing system. Heracles deserved this victory thoroughly and it was one their fans will talk about for a long time.
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