The race for the Eredivisie title has been closely contested in recent months. Since their defeat to AZ Alkmaar, currently Ajax’s closest rivals in the league table, the league leaders have picked up two crucial victories out of two games, whereas Alkmaar had lost back-to-back matches. This round of games gave Ajax a good chance to strengthen their lead at the to – which is exactly what they did; not only did they conquer Sparta Rotterdam, which will be analysed in this report, but AZ lost for a third time in as many games. With former fans’ favourite and somewhat of a journeyman Ryan Babel being resigned on loan for Ajax, there is now a healthier balance in the squad, especially in the attacking units. This tactical analysis will is an analysis that focuses on the tactics and strategies deployed by Ajax and Sparta Rotterdam at vital stages of the game.
Erik ten Hag sent his side out in a 4-2-3-1 shape – their regular formation. Nicolás Tagliafico and Noussair Mazraoui occupied the full-back positions and would operate high and wide when the opportunity was present. While Donny van de Beek and Ryan Gravenberch are used to being situated behind Hakim Ziyech, this game saw an alternation between the three; while Ziyech ultimately offered more attacking threat throughout the game, he would often find himself dropping deeper than one or both of his central midfield partners. Quincy Promes and the returning Ryan Babel ran the wings while Dušan Tadić lead the line, although this would often alternate between Babel and himself.
Sparta Rotterdam manager Henk Fraser opted for a 4-4-2 with a clear game plan in mind. As most teams do in the Eredivisie when visiting Ajax, Sparta deployed a strategy with favoured a deeper defensive line and a counter-attack style when seeking a goal. However, the inclusion of two strikers is a rarity when Ajax are the hosts, but it allowed for a higher and more effective press when the visitors wished. Dirk Abels and Lassana Faye were given the task as full-backs for the afternoon, with the defensive backline being completed by Bart Vriends and Jurgen Mattheij. Adil Auassar worked the left hand-side of midfield, with Abdou Harroui on the right. Ragnar Ache and Patrick Joosten lead the line for the visitors.
Ajax’s attacking shape
Ajax know their own strengths and play to them every week: one of them is creating chances with a high number of players around the opposition’s defensive zones. Such a strategy achieves two major goals – offers the player in-possession more options to pass to, as well as stretching and disturbing the opposition defensive shape which can create new spaces for Ajax to exploit.
In the analysis above, we can see eight Ajax players, including defender Joël Veltman, in the Sparta half. Not only are they deploying themselves high up the pitch, they maintain a wide shape too, leaving the Sparta defensive and midfield either unsure or stretched. The three midfielders for Ajax in the above image often took a similar shape in similar attacks. To form a triangle-like formation amongst themselves with not one of them occupying the same passing line creates better angles and spaces to exploit. They would often influence each other’s movement to create more options for the player in possession. This method would not only secure large amounts of possession for the hosts, who wracked up an impressive 68% of total possession – it also helped the hosts create a handful of goal scoring chances; the only issue lying in their ability to finish the chance. 21 shots attempted throughout the game with an average of 0.74 attacks per minute, it can be argued that Sparta deserve credit for keeping score so low.
While overloading certain areas of the opposition half, Ajax often did so with a particular shape. Depending on whether five or six attacking players were involved, this would be either a pentagon or hexagon shape, as seen below.
This particular example, seen in the image above, involves six players creating an overload on the left-hand side, with all six situated in between defenders as to avoid being tightly marked. This method draws the Sparta midfield and defensive units across, leaving space for Ajax to potentially exploit on the opposite wing. However, this option was used very little. Instead, Ajax often opted to put together a combination of passes in within the overload shape before executing a through ball or cross. With 14 through passes and 23 crosses in the game, this overload shape seems to be effective for Ajax.
The Ziyech effect
As mentioned in the line-ups section of this report, Ziyech began the match in typical fashion – supporting the lone striker and the wide men from an attacking midfield position. However, as the first half progressed, we saw a slightly different side to Ziyech’s game. Allowing either van de Beek or Gravenberch to push into his position, Ziyech would drop deeper to receive the ball, often from a defender. This may have been an improvised move by the playmaker, recognizing the space Ajax had in certain areas of midfield. Once receiving the ball, many a time would the Moroccan international either play a long pass to the opposite winger or play a lofted through-pass to a teammate making a run behind the Sparta defence.
In the image above, we can see an example of how Ajax committing a lot of players forward allows Ziyech to drop in the receive the ball in a deeper position than he usually would. Less than a second after receiving the ball, he spots the run being made by Promes and lofts a ball into the space – a chance which worried the Sparta backline and goalkeeper. This shows some initiative from the playmaker, as he noticed the space he could utilise, and put it to his advantage to deploy his special passing ability.
His heatmap of the game shows just this. Typically, we would see him involved in and around the penalty area, or in wide positions. While he clearly still had an involvement in wider areas, it was in a different manner to usual, and most of his work against Sparta came a little deeper – outside the box, edging towards the halfway line.
Sparta fight back
Just before the hour mark, Ziyech picked up an injury which resulted in him being taken off; forcing Ajax to adapt their strategy slightly. On the ball, they would look to play a pass to a player who was centrally based near the edge of the penalty area, with more players supporting. This saw Ajax playing narrower and quicker and did in fact result in their second goal.
The image above shows a side to Ajax which we don’t see as often – we are used to seeing them play wide on both flanks to stretch the opposition. However, as we can now see, they are also effective in tight and narrow spaces. In this passage of play, which lasted mere seconds, they combined six passes before going on to score. It has been said recently that Ajax have lacked a plan-B in attack, well this method could be the key to solving such an issue
However, the difference in shape off-the-ball was noticeable, most of all for Sparta. Previously in this match, they relied on counterattacks which came off the back of Ajax mistakes and possession overturns. In fairness to the visitors, this method created some dangerous chances, including once which saw a shot glance off the post. However, each time, the counter would quickly be over, and Ajax would reassert their dominance on the game. A counterattack would finally lead to a goal for Sparta, which motivated them to keep their foot on the gas and apply pressure to Ajax.
In the image above, we see seven Sparta players all in a position to either receive the ball or make a run into space to then receive the ball. This example was almost immediately after Sparta’s goal to make it 2-1, hence their sudden boost in energy and morale. I believe it’s key to highlight two major factors in consideration to this method, however. The first being that Ajax were clearly rocked as their shape wasn’t always convincing after conceding, and almost invited pressure on from the visitors. The second point paints a picture that says Sparta didn’t expect to find themselves in a position where they’d be on the front foot away at the league leaders. This second factor outweighed the first, hence the pressure and attack from Sparta not being too damaging after their first goal, and Ajax found pockets of time where they regained dominance.
While they didn’t exactly make a statement to the rest of the division with this result, Ajax did manage to extend their lead at the top, and deservedly so. Their creative thinking and intuition as a unit allowed them to create some chances which were easy on the eye – the biggest issue this Ajax side has is finding the end product. Most weeks, they’ll dominate possession with a large amount of shots on goal, but they sometimes struggle in putting games to bed – an area for ten Hag to rectify if they are to win the Eredivisie this year.