Ajax vs PSV has been a mammoth of a clash in Dutch football in recent years. While the rivalry is still strong, there is no element of a title feud between the two of them this year. However, the stakes were still high in this meeting with PSV chasing down Champions League qualification, and hosts Ajax looking to strengthen their lead at the top of the Eredivisie. This match-up produced another dominant Ajax display where they dominated possession and registered a monstrous amount of shots; resulting in a narrow 1-0 victory for the home side. In this tactical analysis, we zoom in on the strategies deployed by both sides to provide an analysis of the tactics which played a major role in the outcome of this game.
Erik ten Hag sent his side out in the evergreen 4-3-3 formation, a shape which seemingly suits Ajax to a tee. Veteran Ryan Babel lead the line, venturing away from his usual role as a winger, with wide support coming from Quincy Promes and Dušan Tadic. Donny van de Beek and Carel Eiting operating as central midfielders, with Ryan Gravenberch playing as the deeper midfielder of the three. Nicolas Tagliafico and Sergiño Dest were the full backs, with Ajax sending out a central defensive partnership of Joël Veltman and Lisandro Martínez.
Ernest Faber used a 4-2-3-1 formation for his PSV side, with two defensive midfielders in place in an attempt to halt Ajax’s attacking efforts through the middle. Daniel Schwaab partnered up with Nick Viergever at the heart of the back four, with Olivier Boscagli and Denzel Dumfries operating as full-backs. The two defensive midfielders were Pablo Rosario and Jorrit Hendrix, who sat behind attacking midfielder Mohamed Ihattaren. Wide attacking support came from Cody Gakpo and Bruma – Sam Lammers led the line for the visitors.
Ajax pressing off the ball
While Ajax have had their success and issues on the ball in recent months, one consistent aspect of their game is their ability to execute an efficient pressing system. They undertake this plan in different forms – they have demonstrated being able to instantly press with the closest player to the opponent on the ball to win the ball back quickly or stop the opposition attack. They also thrive in areas where the opposition take their time on the ball in their own half as this gives Ajax time to press in areas they wish, to cut off certain options for the opposition and force them to play the ball into the area desired by Ajax. A final pressing tactic was seen when PSV had the ball in the Ajax half; Ajax would quickly swarm the PSV player in possession to force him to attempt a pass which was often stopped by Ajax.
In the analysis above, we can see a star example of Ajax’s shape off the ball. The tactics they deploy here allow them to block off any passes out from defence, eventually forcing the central defender to pass to the goalkeeper. Because of the marking from other Ajax players and the continued pressure on the keeper, the pass is played long – more as a clearance than anything else. This is one of Ajax’s most effective and most used methods off-the-ball, as the forced long pass/clearance often results in them being able to recycle possession and build an attack on their own terms. Ajax doing this by their own rules isn’t rare either – and they command possession more often than not, with no exceptions in this game with 59% of total possession belonging to Ajax.
In the analysis above, Ajax adopt the midfield and attacking shape from a 4-4-2 formation in order to shut down the options PSV had in playing out of defence. The man in possession for the visitors is central midfielder Pablo Rosario, who has dropped in deeper to receive the ball. Ajax recognised the method behind this – Rosario is naturally more talented on the ball than his defensive teammates and would have looked to pick the ball up in his area and pick out an effective pass going forward. However, a combination of poor movement from PSV, slow advancement of the ball by Rosario himself and Ajax’s quick transition into the shape we see above resulted in Rosario being rushed to play a hopeful long ball. This pressing strategy from Ajax ticks two boxes for them – firstly it shuts off any positive options for PSV going forward, which then leads to box number two. As mentioned, when Ajax press in such a fashion, the opposition opt for a long ball which more often than not lands at the feet of an Ajax defender. This is exactly the way Ajax want it as it allows them build attacks from the back, with a high defensive line.
Ajax’s attacking positions
Playing through midfield and defensive units via attacking the wide areas is arguably Ajax’s strongest tactical method. They enjoy overloading the side of attack and combining a series of passes to break down opposition defence. This was visible again against PSV, but it wasn’t the only set of attacking tactics on show. They also sense a weakness in a centrally based position in the opposition defence from time to time and opt to overload a small area near the edge of the box to play around the opponents and get through on goal. Another element of their attack is to try and stretch the opposition defence by having attackers and midfielders in gaps in the opponent’s defence.
In the tactical analysis pictured above, Ajax can be seen committing several players forward in an attempt to stretch the PSV. It is worth noting how both Ryan Babel and Donny van de Beek have taken up positions in between two defenders to occupy them both, freeing up considerable space for Promes on the left-wing. Another noteworthy aspect of this tactic comes from the fact that this tactic is often deployed upon an attacking transition – when Ajax regain possession higher up the field than their own 18-yard box, they quickly advance the attack to outnumber the opposition. This can be seen in the above image as Carel Eithing (pictured centrally), is unmarked with a wealth of space in front of him, spelling danger to the PSV defence.
In the analysis above, Promes has the ball with four Ajax players in dangerous positions, yet they all position themselves in a way which suggests they are prepared for one move only – Promes cutting inside onto his favoured right foot and delivering the next move of the attack. This isn’t a new angle for Ajax; whether it’s Promes on the left or Tadic on the right, the concept of using left-footed wingers on the left and vise-versa is one that falls right into the Ajax wheelhouse when you consider their attacking style of building attacks down the wings with a use of a combination play. This particular example shows Promes stalling the RB with tricky feet on the ball as Tadic makes a darting run across the defender to receive the ball from the dutchman. As a result, as is usually the case, once this move is recognised by teammates, other players in the attacking and midfield units follow suit with confidence and support the attack wherever necessary.
PSV off the ball
With Ajax dominating possession in the majority of their games, some teams are clearly developing tactics to combat such ball retention, and PSV showed that in glimpses in this match. On the whole, pressing wasn’t random from the visitors; looking for triggers to press in certain areas, doubling up on the Ajax player in possession. This method would have been designed to stop Ajax quickly recycling possession and building another attack.
In the analysis above, Ryan Gravenberch is seen struggling in possession after a moment of complacency combined with a poor pass and touch in this area. His troubled first-touch and the fact that he facing his own goal upon receiving the ball acted as a trigger for the three highlighted PSV players – they had clearly been instructed to apply pressure in a particular shape when struggling to deal with the threat. This pressing triangle forces the man in-possession to either make a pass to the closest teammate who is often blocked off, and when done right, can provide PSV with a golden opportunity to take the ball and set up an attack.
In the analysis above, Martínez can be seen rushing to clear the ball following a poor touch just outside his own penalty area. As previously mentioned, PSV looked for certain triggers to press – a poor touch in this sort of position is one of them. As a result, two players, one from either side of the Ajax CB, press with high intensity to try and force an error, with the CM Eiting being marked as well, making a short pass out from defence a very difficult one. This disturbed Ajax as they’re not exactly used to being under such pressure so close to their own goal. Even the amount of PSV players in their half in a scenario like this is different to them – seven PSV players all high up the pitch trying to win the ball back or at least stop Ajax playing out from the back. This is a wise move from the visitors as the majority of Ajax’s triumphs on the pitch are a result of their possession domination with a high defensive line; these high pressing tactics eradicate the possibility of this.
In a game as big as this one, nerves of steel are required to hang on to three points as well as an impressive clean sheet. Ajax managed to stifle PSV for the most part and managed to create some desirable chances on goal. It can be argued that the scoreline would’ve been prettier for the hosts if they weren’t without some key players – Hakim Ziyech in particular. A player of his calibre gives Ajax a different dimension to their attack thanks to his creativity and vision. However, the midfield three who lined up in this match offer a more balanced dynamic in terms of attack and defense. This is a deserved three points for the league leaders, with more than just a glimpse of why they are the league leaders.