Following back-to-back wins in their previous two games, Ajax missed a big chance to keep their lead at the top of the Eredivisie to six points following a 2-1 defeat against Groningen. To make matters worse, league title rivals AZ Alkmaar won their match, cutting the gap between the two to just three points.
Not for the first time this season, this match away at Groningen saw an Ajax display where they dominated possession and controlled the majority of the match yet struggled to score enough goals which ultimately cost them the game. This is an issue that has hung over the heads of Ajax in recent months, and failure to rectify this has already resulted in more defeats that they would wish for.
This report will provide a tactical analysis of the tactics used by both sides throughout the game, with a scope on the major aspects at play; with an analysis of Groningen’s game plan off-the-ball as well as Ajax’s efforts going forward.
A familiar shape of 4-2-3-1 for Ajax from the offset – the only major changes in terms of personnel were the absence of key playmaker Hakim Ziyech and goalkeeper Andre Onana. Ryan Babel and Quincy Promes would offer attacking support from the wide areas for the central-based Dusan Tadic up front. Joel Veltman and Lisandro Martinez were the central defensive partnership, with Ryan Gravenberch offering protection from the midfield. Siem de Jong replaced Ziyech to partner Donny van de Beek in midfield.
Hosts Groningen set up in a 4-4-2 formation – a shape that Ajax have had issues within recent months. Deyoyaisio Zeefuik and Django Warmerdam operated in the full-back positions, with skipper Mike te Wierik and Bart van Hintum completing the resolute back four. In midfield, Joel Asoro (currently on loan from Swansea City) and Sam Schreck performed in the wide areas, with a central partnership of Daniel van Kaam and Azor Matusiwa. The line was led by the duo of Ramon Pascal Lundqvist and Kaj Sierhuis who is actually on loan from Ajax themselves – making for a controversial moment when he found the back of the net early on.
Groningen’s off-the-ball display
With a hostile and loud atmosphere from the home supporters, Groningen seem to be boosted in confidence and ability, especially out of possession. They displayed strengths in defending in numbers with a tight shape in some moments but also showed that they aren’t afraid to defend higher up the pitch, with their wingers and attackers applying dangerous amounts of pressure to Ajax in their own half.
In the analysis above, we can see something which is a rarity – an Ajax player facing his own goal under immense pressure from an opposition player. This scenario occurred after a clearance by Groningen, and Asoro gave Martínez very little time and space with near his own penalty area.
Displays of pressure from Groningen such as this which shook Ajax and stopped them from executing their tactical game plan. More often than not, in a situation like this, Martinez would have time to control the ball and drive upfield before playing the next pass. Furthermore, such a strategy from Groningen not only knocks Ajax off their stride, it also boosts the confidence of the hosts as they sense the danger they could put Ajax in with such pressing tactics.
As mentioned, another side to their defensive arsenal is their ability to drop deeper as a unit and stop Ajax from breaking them down in their usual fashion. This tactic requires a strong deal of patience, organisation and teamwork – qualities shown in abundance in this fixture by Groningen.
In the analysis above, we can see that the hosts have retreated to their own half, defending with all 10 men behind the ball. While Ajax have become somewhat accustomed to playing against teams who defend deep, the positioning and the organisation of Groningen completely stumped the Dutch giants.
As shown by the yellow lines, the back four of Groningen is very well organised – set up narrowly in front of a midfield unit which has more width to it but still effectively cutting off any attacking progression for Ajax. Even the two forwards are back helping with this task – the closest one applying close pressure to the man in possession, while his partner positions himself close by, cutting a passing line off to an Ajax player in the process.
The task of cutting passing lines and options out by Groningen is evident in several areas in this attack, forcing Ajax to slow their offense down in order to identify any possible routes through the resolute defence.
While this aspect is a part of Groningen’s defensive superiority, the individual performances of full-backs Deyoyaisio Zeefuik and Django Warmerdam were outstanding and thwarted much of Ajax’s threat. Applying pressure at the right times, out-battling and tackling the Ajax attackers and being all-around defensively sound was just one part of their game – they also offered support when Groningen had the ball.
In the image above, Zeefuik can be seen quickly sensing the danger as the ball reaches Ajax winger Quincy Promes. The right-back positions himself efficiently to block off a crossing option, before eventually blocking an attempt of a pass and setting up a counter-attack for his side. This example of defensive ability wasn’t a one-off for Groningen, both full-backs performed consistently with strength and confidence throughout the game, keeping Promes and Babel relatively quiet on the wings.
This facet of the game ultimately caused Ajax to struggle in the department of chance creation. With defensive support from his teammates in midfield, Zeefuik is able to force Promes to play wherever suits Groningen the best, enabling them to stop the Ajax attack and start one of their own.
Ajax’s attacking efforts
When Ajax put in a typical display, their attacking strategy causes havoc for opposition defences – but that just wasn’t the case in this game. While they caused a few select issues for the Groningen defence, the visitors’ only goal came as a result of some quick thinking after a drop ball situation, catching the hosts’ off-guard. The goal aside, the league leaders struggled to create a sufficient amount of convincing opportunities, despite dominating with 65% possession and registering 14 shots on goal.
The image above shows a time where Ajax had opted to pursue a goal through different means. Instead of their usual attacking method, they cut the play inside from a deeper position than they had previously in the match. Ryan Babel performs a one-two pass with van de Beek, showing excellent agility in his movement after his first pass. As this pass-and-move is taking place, substitute striker Lassina Traore makes a smart move into the highlighted area to link up the play with Babel once the veteran receives the ball back from Van de Beek.
This segment of attack shows Ajax edging towards their best, with a demonstration of impressive combination play to attempt to create a chance on goal. The above analysis does not capture Ajax’s attacking chances throughout the game; for the most part, they struggled, often opting for long balls, crosses from a deep position, or simply just recycling possession with a lack of pace due to the two banks of four set up regularly by Groningen.
While the defensive shape from the home side was a huge factor in Ajax’s defeat, attention must be drawn to their own downfall. A lack of pace when moving the ball has already been highlighted, but a lack of movement from teammates was detrimental to the result of scoring just one goal.
In previous weeks that have seen Ajax fall to a defeat in the Eredivisie, the league leaders had, as expected, dominated possession and registered a high number of attempts on goal. The difference in this game, however, is the excellent defensive tactics deployed by Groningen, frustrating and slowing Ajax down.
Ajax’s struggle with a plan B in attack still remains arguably the biggest threat in their hunt for the Dutch title as more points could potentially be lost through this issue. Tactically, the team has clear instructions given by Erik ten Hag, and more often than not these instructions are met by the players – the key to winning the title will be found when Ten Hag finds a solution to their attacking shortcomings.