Ajax currently top of the Eredivisie, welcomed Feyenoord to the Johan Cruyff Arena for the 193rd “Die Klassieker”. Ajax are unbeaten in the Eredivisie having had a great start to the season, seemingly not missing a beat despite the summer departures. Feyenoord have had a less than inspiring start to their season, currently sitting 10th while trying to find the balance between domestic and European competitions.
Ajax came out of the traps flying imposing their game on a Feyenoord side who were appeared to be in a daze. Thought of as one of the biggest games in Dutch football, there was only one side really in the game. Ajax were too much for the visitors, overwhelming them in attack and imposing in defence, the home side had their way with the visitors right from the start of the game. 2-0 up inside of seven minutes, Jaap Stam’s men showed none of the defensive steel that made their coach such a feared central defender.
Ajax lined up in their familiar 4-2-3-1, a formation that Erik ten Haag has deployed all season, yet that was only apparent during kick-off. The reality is that Ajax spent more time in a shape that resembles a 2-3-5.
Feyenoord show to be in a 4-3-3 on paper, however as a consequence of Ajax’s aggressive attack, that showed more to be a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1.
Ajax’s player movement/rotation in attack
Ajax were relentless in attack right from the first whistle. Ajax’s fluid and flexible style of play made it very difficult for Feyenoord, who struggled to come to grips with their defensive roles and responsibilities due to the constant movement of the Ajax attacking players.
On the lineup sheet, the front four players were listed as Neres (right-wing), Promes (left-wing), Ziyech (central attacking midfielder) and Tadic (centre-forward). On the field, however, it was very rare to find players playing in static positions. Throughout, Ajax players were never still and could be seen moving seamlessly from position to position creating never-ending confusion for the Feyenoord defenders. This movement allowed for Ajax to have constant numerical superiority in the area around the ball.
Yet it was the time and space afforded to the Ajax players as a result of this constant interchange that was really influential in the outcome of the game. As Feyenoord defended zonally in their own half and Ajax continually attacked in their fluid and flexible style, players were open as they switched from zone to zone and Feyenoord did not compensate for this. This lead to 78 attacking third entries.
Yet it was not just in the attacking third where Ajax used rotations to create attacking opportunities. They also used them in other areas of the field to disrupt Feyenoord’s compact defensive lines.
Here are two examples of rotations used by Ajax to disrupt the defensive unit of Feyenoord. When centre-back’s Veltman and Blind were in possession, the ball side full-back would push up taking his marking defender away. The closest central player would move into the space vacated challenging the defending central players: either stay and leave the central midfielder open or follow and leave the central space open. Ajax would consistently do this to pull Feyenoord central players out of position, disrupting their defensive structure and creating space or opportunities to penetrate through the lines.
Attacking flexibility = defensive flexibility
One of the challenges of attacking with such a fluid style is that in transition, there is no clear defensive organisation, which can lead to spaces available for an opponent to exploit in transition. To compensate for this, Ajax deployed a high-pressure defensive scheme based upon a whoever is closes, presses and covers, regardless of what position they play.
Immediate pressure on the ball is essential to deny the opponent space and time to build their attack. Because of Ajax’s fluid movement in attack, pressure on the ball is a must, especially in midfield. This often means that players are required to move out of position to give teammates time to get back and organised. In the above picture, Promes the left-wing is playing in a defensive midfield position to ensure that a 4+2 structure is maintained in defence.
It was clear that Ajax’s plan during transition moments was to aggressively press the ball using whichever players were closest to the ball in order to deny any positive progress. Often, this pressure would make the opponent play long or pass sideways out of the area of transition. This gives time for teammates to recover and shape to be regained.
One of the key players to allow this to happen is Lisandro Martinez. This season, Martinez has been deployed as a right centre-back, left centre-back and defensive midfielder, showing his versatility. This ability to perform in different defensive positions means that while Ajax has fluidity and flexibility in attack, they also have the players able to defend in a variety of positions.
Here, Blind is pushing up in the left-back zone while Martinez is dropping into the centre-back position in order to protect the central space.
Feyenoord’s poor defending
When encountering a team that uses positional rotations in attack, a team must be focused, defensively solid and work as one to limit space and opportunities. Feyenoord did none of the above and started the game exceptionally poorly. As previously mentioned, “Die Klassieker” is one of the biggest games in the Eredivisie. Yet Feyenoord started the game with a significant lack of focus and attention needed for such an occasion.
Feyenoord conceded a goal in the first two minutes due to bad defensive positioning on the backline. Feyenoord’s right-back, Karsdorp, allowed Promes in behind early. This was compounded by the fact that once the backline was broken, central midfielders did not recover goal side of their marks which allowed for Ziyech to score.
Another example of poor defensive line cohesion was shown in the lead up to the third goal. Feyenoord’s back four pushed up in a very inconsistent line with centre-back Botteghin pushing up too far allowing for Tadic to play on his blind side. When Tadic returned onside to receive a pass, Botteghin was poorly positioned to apply the correct pressure and Tadic was able to play a through ball to Neres to score. Instead, Botteghin should have stayed alongside his defensive partner keeping goalside of Tadic and being able to prepare for any defensive action.
This theme of poor defending continued throughout the game and was not limited to the backline. The lack of pressure applied to Ajax players especially during build-up was clear to see. Feyenoord’s centre-forward, Jorgensen had a thankless task in attack but his role in the defensive phase was more important in the outcome of this game. As previously mentioned, Ajax’s build-up in was through a 2-3-5 shape. Jorgensen had the role of giving pressure Ajax’s centre-back’s, one which he found difficult. Veltman and Blind had ample opportunity to play any pass they wanted.
While it is not typically a gold standard of defending intensity, there were no yellow cards awarded during this match. Given the fact that this was a ‘derby game’ and Feyenoord spent the majority of the match defending, it is a slamming indictment on Feyenoord’s defensive intensity and work rate.
To conclude, the game as a contest was over by half time. As analysis shows, Ajax’s player rotations, fluid movement and attacking intensity was just too much for Feyenoord to handle. Such was Ajax’s attacking dominance, Feyenoord failed to have a single attacking effort on target throughout the match. Both teams are competing on domestic and European fronts and will find it challenging to keep performance levels high deep into the season. Ajax displayed a terrific attacking style that will frighten Europe’s best while Feyenoord will need to improve their defensive structure and work rate if they are to stay in the Europa League and climb the Eredivisie.
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