A recent dip in form for Ajax resulted in a Champions League exit and a major reduction of their lead at the top of the Eredivisie. Three defeats on the bounce and not a goal to be found; Ajax needed to turn things around, and a home match against ADO provided an opportunity to do just that. In a game that finished 6-1, Ajax looked like themselves again – confident and clever in-possession with an ability to dictate the tempo of the game and defensively sound at the back. This tactical analysis will analyse how Erik ten Hag’s side dismantled relegation battlers ADO Den Haag; a focus on the tactics deployed to help the Dutch giants regain their form.
Ajax’s line-up had a few fresh faces in the way of 18-year-old Lassina Traore who lead the line from the start. Refreshing additions to the line-up also included 17-year-old Ryan Gravenberch and 19-year-old Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, all providing another example of the productivity of the Ajax youth set-up. Familiar faces like Hakim Ziyech, Donny Van de Beek, Dusan Tadic, Sergino Dest, Joel Veltman, Lisandro Martinez and Nicolas Tagliafico completed the Ajax outfit in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Visitors ADO Den Haag lined up in the same formation as Ajax – on paper anyway. They deployed a 4-2-3-1 which left their striker isolated in the event of a counter-attack, and their more attacking midfielders were forced to feed off of scraps in the middle due to Ajax’s dominance on the ball. Tomas Necid was ADO’s frontman, with Crysencio Summerville and Thom Haye providing operation from the wider areas. Lex Immers often found himself further back to make a midfield unit of three with Dion Malone and John Goossens. The back four which struggled greatly in this match included Danny Bakker, who found himself being sent off in the latter stages of the game.
Ajax’s attacking threats
Recent years of analysis has taught us that this Ajax side, under ten Haag, have many different attacking capabilities – a characteristic they demonstrated greatly in this match. Knowing ADO’s recent form has been poor and that they find themselves in a fight to stay in the division, Ten Hag instructed his men to play with intensity and aggression, with chances coming in many forms ranging from crosses from certain areas to work the space for a long-range effort.
In the image above, Hakim Ziyech utilises his wand of a left foot by delivering an inch-perfect cross which is met by Donny Van de Beek. However, this is more than Ajax just hitting a cross into the box and hoping – like this image demonstrates, crosses were delivered with an intended target: a runner bursting into space in the box. This instance in particular highlights Van de Beek’s anticipation and positional awareness as he starts his run from about 25 yards out, only to meet the cross a second later from about 12-15 yards out – all while avoiding any marking from an ADO defender.
As mentioned, this attacking approach wasn’t a fluke or a one-off for the hosts as they delivered many dangerous crosses throughout the match. Crosses would arrive from all areas – deep, in and around the edge of the box, from wide areas or from narrow areas. One element they all shared however was that the majority of crosses were aimed towards the back post for a runner to meet.
Crossing wasn’t the only attacking strength exhibited by Ajax on this day. Combination play which involves one-twos as well as quick and precise passing in a tight area with creative movement to support such activity has become a cornerstone of Ajax’s identity.
In the image above, there is a sizeable gap in the ADO defence, which youngster Gravenberch identified before opting for a pass into Tadic. Gravenberch uses his immense speed and power to burst past the ADO defenders and locate himself in a dangerous area to receive the return pass from Tadic after the Serbian performed a smart turn on his touch. Such quick combination play makes it very difficult for defensive units to keep their shape as they look to stop the attack which leads to things like gaps in the defence, defenders being drawn out of position towards the ball or man, or general errors like poor body positioning or a weak tackle attempt. This is an approach used very often by Ajax – the number of passes varies depending on the situation, but almost always occurs in locations similar to the image above; around the corners of the penalty area.
Ajax’s game plan off-the-ball
While Ajax displayed domination and sophistication to their attacking game, just as much credit is deserved for their defensive work. Particularly in recent weeks, Ajax have been guilty of showing a lack of know-how and confidence when it comes to defending upon transition. They put this to rest against ADO as they kept enough players back in defensive while the rest of the team attacked, which allowed them to mark the remaining ADO player(s) around the halfway line.
In the image above, Ajax had just conceded a turnover in possession and ADO sensed an opportunity for a counter-attack. The issue for away side lied with the positioning of Ajax – Ekkelenkamp is seen pressing the ADO player on the ball, using his body position to force their next pass down the flank into the channel. Veltman is on high alert though and is aware of Summerville’s presence behind him, allowing the defender to block the attacker and his run, leading to the ADO pass to fall to the feet of Veltman, who successfully keeps Summerville out. Ajax’s ability to force ADO’s hand to their own advantage was a huge part of the league leader’s game plan as it allowed for recovery of possession. This approach off the ball contributed hugely in allowing the visitors just six efforts on goal coming from their 34% of possession.
Another area which Ajax excelled in out-of-possession was leaving players high up the pitch and pressing in the ADO half, another tactic used frequently by Ten Hag. Ajax like to win the ball back high up the pitch to catch the opposition out and hit them with a fast and effective attack. As the game goes on, this approach sinks into the mindset of the opposition and forces them to rethink their approach as committing too many players forward against a side like Ajax is going to spell danger for them.
Ajax have six players in the ADO defensive third, which indicates their intentions. The front two players pressing are blocking off the passes to either defender from the goalkeeper, forcing him to play the ball long. The other four Ajax players in the image are marking the ADO players in close proximity, lowering the goalkeeper’s options even more drastically. Ajax have a habit of pushing the opposition back towards their own goal when in possession, allowing them to push their own players forward and win the ball back. In instances where there is turnover leading to a transition, Ajax are quick to sense the danger and act upon it, attacking quickly and often creating dangerous chances as a result.
In this game, Ajax looked like league leaders again, they looked like Ajax again. Showing supremacy on and off the ball, they dictated every part of the game and punished ADO’s weaknesses with six well-built goals. After recent dismay in the Champions League and the Eredivisie, a return of the classic Ajax tactics is a refreshing sight for the Amsterdam faithful. Their work defensively limited the visitors to very little in the way of chances and possession, and their ability on the struck fear into ADO, carrying out Ten Hag’s instructions in doing so.
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