With AZ Alkmaar breathing down the necks of Ajax in the race for the Eredivisie title in recent weeks, it was essential for Ajax to continue their good form. They did exactly that in a convincing 3-0 over RKC Waalwijk, who sit bottom of the table. Furthermore, Alkmaar had fallen to a defeat away at Twente, dinting their title hopes significantly – the points gap between the top two sides now stands at six points following this victory for Ajax. Erik ten Hag has made some tweaks and adjustments in recent fixtures to improve their overall game, which has resulted in them finding some impressive form. This report will provide a tactical analysis of Ajax’s strengths during the game as well as an analysis of Waalwijk’s tactics in the game.
Erik ten Hag deploys a 4-2-3-1 formation most weeks, and that was the case again in this match. The back four consisted of Nicolás Tagliafico and Sergiño Dest, the full-backs, with Lisandro Martinez partnering with Edson Alvarez at centre-half. In midfield, Ryan Babel and Dušan Tadic operated on the wings, with Donny van de Beek and Carel Eiting as the two deeper central midfielders; Hakim Ziyech playing as the central attacking midfielder. 19-year-old Lassina Traoré earned himself a start and bagged a goal to contribute as he looks to earn a regular first-team place.
Waalijk manager Fred Grim utilized the same formation – on paper at least, with the away side playing deeper, meaning the individual roles for each player will majorly differ to that of the Ajax players. Paul Quasten, Hannes Delcroix, Hans Mulder, and Jurien Gaari made up the back four, who had a tough day at the office and failed to demonstrate a great defensive shape. Sylla Sow and Emil Hansson played as the wide midfielders, with Richard van der Venne located as a midfielder playing slightly higher than Daan Rienstra and Clint Leemans. Mario Bilate led the line.
Ajax attacking the wide areas
It has been well documented that Ajax are aware of their strengths of attacking the wide areas, with an overload often been performed on one side with the wingers getting extra support from a central midfielder and the full-back of the same side. One pattern which emerged from this game is the relationship between the full-back and winger where they combine on numerous occasions to quickly launch an attack. Their dominance allows for the full-back not only to find a winger in space, but also provide attacking support rather than dropping back into defence after executing the pass.
This first image is one example of an Ajax full-back combining with the matching winger as Tagliafico receives the pass from Eiting – Tagliafico let the ball run across him, allowing himself to be set to play the pass down the line instantly. The immediate intent of this action shows that these tactics are a main element within their game. Tagliafico also continues his run after finding Babel, by making a darting run around the inside of the in-possession Babel, causing defensive difficulty for the away side as they struggled to organise a strong shape to combat the attack. This example also shows the attacking intent with the use of an overload, as this phase of play also saw Ziyech and Traore get involved. This is a method which was used often by Ajax on both sides, with Tagliafico and Babel combining eight times in total, and Sergino Dest linking up with right-winger Tadic 14 times throughout the match.
The analysis above is another example of Ajax attacking with Ryan Babel making a run into the channel and the pass finding him. The difference here is a result of the numbers Waalwijk have upfield near the Ajax defence, preventing Tagliafico to surge forward due to the risk of leaving the defence outnumbered. The shape of the three highlighted players from the away is the perfect tactic to prevent Tagliafico (offscreen in a left-back position) and causes van de Beek to take up a position as an acting attacking left-back of sorts, who eventually finds the pass into the channel.
Waalwijk’s struggle in possession
As is the norm for most Ajax games, the league leaders again dominated possession, and Waalwijk struggled to create much when they did have the ball, often falling victim to the pressing tactics of Ajax. Ten Hag will have been very much aware of the weak spots in the away side and likely delivered set instructions of when and where to press.
Ajax’s work off the ball is at times just as vital as their work on the ball, and it is very clear that ten Hag puts a lot of work into their pressing tactics – what areas to press and what the main trigger is to execute a unit press. In this instance, Waalwijk’s right-back Gaari couldn’t beat Tagliafico to go forward and was forced to pass back to his goalkeeper. Tagliafico continues to apply pressure to ensure the play goes backwards, and when it does, you can see a great understanding of the roles of the Ajax players. Ryan Babel, the central player of the highest three, drops back a short distance to avoid leaving space behind him for Waalwijk to exploit. Lassina Traore reacts quickly to sprint towards the goalkeeper and applies enough pressure to force a poor clearance. The final element to this tactic involves the next unit of three, the midfield of this sequence of play. They held their position as Tagliafico forces Gaari back, but they squeeze up the field a few yards as soon as the pass heads back towards the keeper, again leaving no space in that zone to be exploited.
Ajax’s dominance on the ball
While Ajax prefer play quickly with short and precise passes to unlock the opposition defence, they have the ability to adjust to a slightly different method of attack. They are well-equipped when it comes to keeping safe possession with the intent of eventually picking off the opposition with the exploitation of open space. As is the usual way of an Ajax game in the Eredivisie, the home side had 61% of total possession with 78% of that possession reaching the opposition half and an impressive 29% of is reaching the penalty area. This dominance saw a total of 62 attacks from Ajax, almost doubling the efforts of Waalwijk.
Ajax are the most effective and adaptable team in-possession in the Eredivisie, and this was demonstrated in the analysis above. After retaining possession for a healthy amount of time, shifting the ball from side to side to try and unlock the Waalwijk defence. This was achieved as space was left unoccupied by the visitors, and midfielder Eiting opted to break into it to receive a lofted pass from Martinez. The only criticism of this is the quality of the pass from the defender – it didn’t give Eiting the best chance to receive the ball in a way for him to progress the attack. A better pass in there would have resulted in Eiting carrying the ball towards the Waalwijk penalty area. It was a great example of Ajax’s ability to visit different routes of attack.
Even at early stages of the game, Ajax put their foot on the pedal and applied great amount of pressure to the Waalwijk defence by committing several players forward. In this situation, they had a total of eight players involved in the attack, with five players close or in the penalty area. This gives the player in possession plenty of options to choose from to carry the attack forward and causes a major issue for Waalwijk as they have to manage both their own shape and organisation as well as leave no player in a dangerous position unmarked. The final pass in this attack from Ajax could’ve been better, and as an attacking unit, they could’ve displayed more patience to find a better position to unlock the defence. This tactic is a classic Ajax move, committing many players forward to create dangerous situations.
After AZ Alkmaar fell to a defeat the day before this match, Ajax saw this game as a huge chance to extend their lead at the top of the table as well as a chance to send a message out to not only Alkmaar but the rest of the division. The tactical adjustments made by Erik ten Hag have proven to be highly effective for his side, with their form improving in recent weeks. With the recent developments surrounding the departure of Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea in the summer, it already looks like Ajax are working on a style of play that doesn’t rely on his talents. 3-0 isn’t a new scoreline for Ajax and with performances like this, it isn’t hard to imagine that they’ll be seeing scores like that more often in the remainder of the season.