Over a week has passed since Ajax felled their second giant in Europe’s most prestigious tournament. As the firework smoke cleared and the celebration drinks dried up, Ajax continued in their pursuit of the Eredivisie title, showing no signs of a European hangover. In this tactical analysis we look at the tactics Ajax implemented to score freely against a tough Vitesse side.
The home side came into the game in strong form, winning five of their previous five league matches, including a victory over title rivals PSV. Vitesse travelled to the nation’s capital in fine fettle themselves, having not lost in five league games. The away side also have a European playoff spot in sight, a position they are keen to consolidate.
The game started as expected, with Ajax dictating play. The home side dominated possession using their low tempo build-up and short passing game to fluidly play through each phase of the pitch in order to create attacks. The visitors sat in, occupying a robust 5-4-1 formation, which despite their dominance, frustrated Ajax. A goal eventually came just before the break from a long ball and tidy finish from Hakim Ziyech, who took his tally to 16 for the season.
The second half continued in the same fashion until a quick-fire double from a Tadić penalty and de Ligt header put the game out of sight for Ajax. Vitesse responded after adjusting from their defensive shape. Navarone Foor made it 3-1 after heading in a guided back post cross. A second Tadić penalty in the latter stages confirmed the victory despite a consolation second for Vitesse, scored by Oussama Daralou.
Erik ten Hag continued in his favoured 4-2-3-1, a shape in which Ajax achieve an xG of 2.26 per match in this season. Personnel remained familiar too; the only noticeable change was a start for youngster Kasper Dolberg who replaced David Neres up front.
The away side opted for an unfamiliar 5-4-1 formation, out of respect for their free-scoring opponents. This defensive shape offered a start for Danilho Doekhi to occupy the vacant third centre back spot. Vitesse introduced Dauda Mohammed to the starting 11, replacing the suspended Alexander Büttner. Top-scorer Bryan Linssen began the match on the bench to make way for Buitink.
A challenge presented
Out to frustrate
The experienced Leonid Slutsky came to the Johan Cruyff Arena with a gameplan, which for 41 minutes worked perfectly. The Russian set his side in a rigid 5-4-1 system in an attempt to nullify Ajax’s ability in the final third.
The away side dropped deeper when Ajax had possession, allowing play to continue in front of their shape. Instead of implementing an aggressive press, Vitesse operated a passive system, using their superior numbers in defence to cover spaces. Vitesse refused to engage high up the pitch at risk of being exploited by Ajax’s fluid passing. Instead, they dropped into their structure and engaged once the ball entered their defensive third. The additional central defender prevented midfielder runners being untracked in their movements into the half spaces. The spare man also acted as an obstacle in Ajax’s attempts to overload the wide areas in their ball rotations.
The midfield four remained narrow to block the passing lanes into Van De Beek who occupied the space in-between the lines. This funnelled the ball into the lateral spaces, where Vitesse used their structure to stifle Ajax in their attempts to create penetrative passing combinations. Despite their dominance on the ball, Vitesse’s system reduced Ajax to an average pass streak of just six passes.
Once the game settled into its natural rhythm Ajax were able to create chances using accurate passing combined with systematic overloads. One noticeable tactic implemented by the league leaders was their desire to attack down the left flank. There are two reasons for this tactic. Firstly, Daley Blind played as LCB, and being the better passer, attacks naturally formed from his ability to pass penetratively from deep.
Blind made 75 accurate passes in the match, achieving a success rate of 88.2%. This is impressive considering many of his links were with attacking players such as Tadić, who Blind found 20 times in the match.
To the left
Secondly, Ajax identified a weakness in the Vitesse structure, Matúš Bero. The midfielder turned right wing back had a torrid time in his defensive duties. Ajax exploited spaces vacated by the midfielder, who eventually got himself sent off after being caught out of position for the last time.
Blind used his time in possession effectively, using his impressive range to find De Jong and Taglifico who ventured left. This provided the opportunity to overload the left flank and deliver crosses into the box. In this movement, Vitesse’s narrow midfield four were outnumbered making it impossible to block every passing lane into the attackers.
Vitesse won’t be too disheartened with an away defeat to the division’s top scorers. A passive 5-4-1 shape exposed an area of vulnerability in a system I don’t see Vitesse operating in their remaining fixtures. They are still in the fight for a European playoff spot with everything to play for in the upcoming weeks.
Ajax will celebrate a well-deserved 3 points from this impressive attacking display against a tricky Vitesse outfit. Their attention, however, will quickly turn to their remaining fixtures, not to mention a Champions League semi-final clash with Tottenham. This young side continues to impress with their high energy, fluid movement and attacking creativity. Making them a team worthy of their first Eredivisie title since 2013/14 and maybe something even bigger.