Being the top club in the Netherlands comes with the highest of expectations for Ajax, especially with home league matches. With the league title in their sights and arguably in their hands, any slip-up could be detrimental to their aspirations. Such a slip-up was produced during the visit of fourth-placed Willem II, who executed a tactically smart gameplan, masterminded by Adrie Koster. This tactical analysis will asses how the visitors claimed a monumental victory over the Dutch giants, and the tactics deployed by both sets of Eredivisie clubs.
Erik ten Hag applied a 4-2-3-1 formation for his side, a system which has provided much success in recent times. Veteran Klaas-Jan Huntelaar led the line for the league leaders, with wide support coming from Dušan Tadiç and Noa Lang. The technically gifted Hakim Ziyech operated in a central attacking midfield role, with Donny Van de Beek and Lisandro Martínez acting as deeper midfielders who would offer support to Ziyech as well as protecting the back four. In that back four were full-backs Nicolás Tagliafico and Sergiño Dest, who often found themselves offering substantial attacking support.
Koster sent his side out with a formation that foreshadowed their direct style of play, deploying a 4-4-1-1 system. Vangelis Pavlidis was the main man up top for the visiting side, with support coming from Mike Trésor Ndayishimiye who operated as a second striker for a large portion of the game. Wide support was offered by Mats Köhlert and Ché Nunnely. Willem’s solid defensive display was largely thanks to the back four of Bart Nieuwkpoop, Sebastian Holmén, Jorden peters and Freek Heerkens.
Attacking approaches of Ajax
Ajax started the game as expected; the dominant team who are chasing a league title, wanting to solidify their lead at the top of the division at home. In possession, they would alternate between three different methods of creating chances. This may have been pre-planned by ten Hag and co. or it could have been a change in approach due to the toughness of Willem’s performance.
An early strategy they attempted was one they regularly turn to for home league games; dominating possession with a high number of players in the opposition half, forcing Willem II to retreat and call for defensive support from the midfield unit. Such a high and wide presence from Ajax allowed them to exploit any gaps Willem II chose to ignore.
This is the type of scenario Ajax usually thrive in, hence their desire to create such opportunities. Another interesting feature of Ajax’s attacking is also present in the image above – they like to allow the full-backs, Tagliafico in this case, space down the flank. This is achieved by the winger on the same side, Noa Lang here, drifting inside and almost joining Huntelaar as another centre forward. This action gives the Willem full-back a choice, one that he seems to struggle with as Tagliafico often gets involved through this route.
This leads us on nicely to the second mainstay in Ajax’s attacking threat, and that is their fondness of creating chances from wide areas. With a striker in the middle who likes to feed off of crosses and passes from wide zones, as well as technically smart players who can produce passing combinations and individual skill to break through opposition defences, this method is well-suited to this Ajax side. Their relentlessness of wide attacking is underpinned by the number of crossed they attempted, but with just eight out of 27 crosses being accurate, it could be argued that a lot of these crosses were desperate after Ajax failed to open up the Willem II defence.
The image above shows Ajax making a move which is typical of them when attacking in wide areas. Blind starts the passage with a quick one-two pass (marked with the double-headed red arrow), before moving into the area shown by the yellow arrow leaving Blind. As this is taking place, Donny Van de Beek identifies and enters a dangerous space in the penalty area. As shown, once Blind has made his run to receive the returning pass of the one-two, he releases another pass into the space which is now occupied by Van de Beek. This move, as mentioned, is vintage Ajax, and is performed at pace, making it very difficult to stop but also causes unrest in the defensive shape of Willem II.
Willem II’s defensive strategies
Ajax wasn’t the only team with multiple methods to conquer the opposition. While the hosts had different attacking strategies, Willem had different options when it came to defending; one of which saw them soaking up pressure and taking a hammering from the Ajax attackers, and the other involved their attackers and wingers pressing highly and quickly to force mistakes from Ajax as well as allowing their own midfield and defending units to gain a few yards up the pitch.
This report has touched on Ajax forcing Willem into their own half and feeding off of scraps in terms of possession, especially in the early stages of the game. However, this isn’t a sign of any lack of ability and defensive know-how from Willem II; it appeared to be a huge part of their plan from the go. The team are clearly well drilled in their defensive responsibilities, especially when their backs are against the wall – they look to remain narrow and compact, not falling for Ajax’s offer of being drawn wide to open up space in the middle. This positioning combined with a high number of bodies back to help has proven to be successful this time around, as it helped keep Ajax from creating any real chances. Due to this, Ajax resorted to hopeless long-distance efforts more than ten Hag would’ve hoped for, with 13 efforts coming from outside of the box. Further evidence of Willem stifling Ajax’s final product is that the hosts had 72 attacks in total, almost twice that of Willem II, yet failed to produce a foal
As mentioned, Willem II didn’t just sit back and defend deep for the full 90. There are numerous periods in the game the visitors push higher up the field and chase down the opposition with intent and aggression This shows their confidence in their own ability as well as their sense of Ajax not being on their top game and that they could capitalize on that.
The image above demonstrates Willem II’s press brilliantly. The presence of six players in the opposition half indicates that they want to catch Ajax off-guard and force a mistake out of them to cause a turnover in possession. The image shows Pol Llonch applying pressure to Blind quickly, forcing the Dutchman to make a quick decision. Ché Nunnely shapes his body to cut off the pass to Tagliafico, while Ndayishimiye has the space around him (marked in blue) covered. Behind those players is Saddiki who patrols the area marked by the double-headed yellow arrow, preventing an Ajax pass into that zone.
Willem II’s attacking threat
While the visitors had spells of possession in the Ajax half, their most threatening and dangerous football occurred in counter-attacks and transitions. Both goals for Willem happened because of two well-executed and fast counter-attacks, catching Ajax with a low number of defenders at the back, causing panic.
As mentioned, Willem II’s attacking threat helped them grab two goals, and one of them came as a result of this break in the image above. with just three players breaking forward, including the players with the ball, Nunnely and Ndayishimiye stay far apart from each other to stretch the Ajax defenders and open up more space. Nunnely himself has a great amount of space in front of him and is quicker than the Ajax defenders. As Nunnely collects the ball after a through-pass, he is fouled in the area, winning a penalty which is dispatched to make it 1-0. Just 6% of Willem’s total possession ended in them reaching Ajax’s penalty area, and with the away side only managing 36% possession in the game, it shows how effective their attacks were when they attempted them.
Willem’s second goal came in similar circumstances – a counter-attack after Ajax lose possession with a lot of players in the Willem half, as seen above. However, the break isn’t performed at a high pace like the previous one. The ball is carried forward slowly and Willem looked content in keeping the ball; until space opened up on the far side for Dankerlui, who found himself unmarked and unchallenged even after receiving the pass. He proceeds to dribble towards the box and hit a low driven shot past Onana in the Ajax goal to seal the game for Willem II.
Ajax expect to win every game, especially when they’re at home in the Eredivisie, and this is shown in their attacking intent in the early stages of this match. However, Willem’s gameplan rocked Ajax, and their solid defensive shape was too difficult for Ajax to break down. Willem II played to their own strengths, especially in attack, as shown in their successful counter-attacks. While credit deservedly goes to the away side for an impressive performance, questions must be asked of Ajax, who struggled to create any dangerous chances and lacked creativity.
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