After the Dutch FA gave Ajax the weekend off prior to their miraculous Champions League comeback, the Dutch side had a game to catch up on. This match saw the title challengers take on PEC Zwolle as they came out 2-1 victors in a match Erik ten Hag described as “ugly.” Daley Blind’s late winner was enough to push Ajax within 2 points of the league leaders with 9 games left to go.
Star-man Frenkie de Jong missed the game through injury, so it would be interesting to see how Ten Hag would go about replacing the Dutchman. Frenkie regularly is the player who orchestrates Ajax’s actions midgame, with his positioning being a key trigger to the rotations further up the pitch. Ten Hag was therefore faced not only with replacing de Jong’s raw technical abilities, but also his tactical importance. Perhaps surprisingly, up stepped Daley Blind to take the mantle of the controller for the majority of the game, despite playing at centre-back.
As already stated, Ajax was without Frenkie de Jong for this game as he was dropped to the bench due to injury. Forward Hakim Ziyech was also missing from the lineup, the two were replaced by David Neres and Zakaria Labyad.
Jaap Stam’s Zwolle lined up largely as expected, with Flemming and Van Crooj replacing Eibers and Thy. Goalkeeper Van der Hart had to make an early exit due to a likely dislocated finger midway through the first half.
Zwolle’s defensive structure
With just 40% of the possession, Zwolle spent the majority of the game camped inside their own half. The visitors deployed a heavily structured deep block to mitigate the number of chances created by the Champions League quarter-finalists.
A common theme of their defensive plan was to force Ajax to the wings. Having set up in a 4-2-3-1 structure, they would look to remove the space centrally by tucking both wide forwards in. It is possible Stam was blindsided by Frenkie’s absence. He asked his 10 to stick to the deepest Ajax midfielder at all times. Had this been Frenkie, it is likely that Ajax would have pursued to play through him for the majority of the match. Instead, the position was filled by Lasse Schone.
Schone’s positioning was a trigger for Stam’s changes in defensive structure. When the Dane was ahead of his defensive teammates in Blind and De Ligt, Zwolle would stick to their narrow 4-2-3-1. While this allowed space for Mazraoui and Tagliafico to roam the wings, it was preferable to allowing the likes of Tadic and Donny van de Beek space centrally.
But once Schone dropped between the centre-backs, Zwolle would switch to a more traditional 4-4-2 shape. Perhaps this was a feature of their game, as they thought that because Schone was in a deeper position they would be covered in central areas with just 2 interiors. Unfortunately for the former Reading manager, this switch simply opened up spaces for Ajax’s main controller in this game, Daley Blind, to operate.
Daley Blind’s impact on Ajax’s buildup
It was clear that taking Frenkie out of this Ajax team would have a huge effect. Quite how Ten Hag would go about dealing with his absence was yet to be seen. As we have detailed in previous match analysis reports, Frenkie is often the director of the many positional rotations that take place in Ajax’s buildup. Replacing the future Barcelona man will not be easy in the long term but we perhaps got a glimpse into a possible solution from Ten Hag within this game.
The vast majority of Ajax’s possession flowed through Blind. He was positioned as the left centre-back and occupied the left halfspace near the halfway line for the majority of the match. When he received the ball in circulation, it would trigger a run from Donny van de Beek. Van De Beek would vacate his central positioning and make a run between the opposition right-back and centre-back.
This run would more often than not drag the closest Zwolle central midfielder out of his central position. In turn, a passing lane into Kasper Dolberg’s feet would naturally open up due to Labyad’s high positioning. Ajax could then look for quick interplay with their forwards in advanced positions.
Alternatively, if Schone had dropped between the CB’s triggering the switch in opposition structure, Blind could look to drive through the centre himself. As this switch meant the wider positioning of Zwolle’s RAM to occupy Tagliafico, Blind would then have plenty of space in which to operate after Van De Beek’s vacating of the central area.
Zwolle look to draw out the Amsterdam press
One of the key features of Ajax’s play is their high press. The team looks to win the ball back high up the pitch to create dangerous situations. Their fast pace has aided them in many games this year, including against Real Madrid in the Champions League. Zwolle took a brave approach to counteract this aspect of their play.
The relegation contenders looked to play their first phase of possession very deep in their own half. By doing this, Stam’s men were looking to draw the Ajax players as high up the pitch as they possibly could. They would then look to one of two options. One of the deepest players would look to clip the ball over the Ajax press, to the forwards, if the CBs were split wide. This is likely because the wide positioning of the CB’s forced Ajax to spread their press wider, thus, it opened more space centrally for a knockdown and quick attack.
Alternatively, if the CB’s were placed narrowly, creating a packed centre of the pitch, they would look to their wings for support. Through the narrow positioning of their CB’s, Ajax’s wide forwards would be drawn centrally. This would allow space on either wing for Zwolle to exploit.
Ten Hag’s men overcame a stubborn PEC Zwolle in what could be an important 3 points come May. While next weekend’s opponents AZ Alkmaar will likely cause more threat to Ajax’s defence, overcoming such a well drilled opposition without regular starters de Jong and Ziyech should not be understated. This match was a good insight into how Erik ten Hag intends to replace Frenkie past this summer, with more responsibility being placed in the hands of Blind. While this will likely be a perfectly fine tactic against the lesser clubs of the division, it’s entirely possible that the lack of a controller in midfield itself will hurt Ajax in the bigger matches.
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