Following their midweek defeat in the Europa League against Getafe, Ajax appeared to be somewhat impacted by such a result, as they struggled to pose any major threats to home side Heracles Almelo, who now sit 9th in the Eredivisie.
To make matters worse for the Eredivisie leaders, 2nd placed AZ Alkmaar recorded a healthy victory at home to cut the gap between the top two to just three points. Heracles, a side who had picked up just one win in their previous four league games, clearly deployed effective tactics to not only prevent Ajax from deploying their usual strategies to the same level but to frustrate the visitors too – long shots and wasteful passing occurred following some strong defensive action from Heracles Almelo.
In previous weeks, a number of teams who have faced Ajax have opted to field a 4-4-2 formation, which has proven effective in certain areas, but resulted in a lack of a midfield presence. To combat this, Frank Wormuth deployed a 4-4-1-1 shape, with Mohammed Osman operating as a support striker in possession, but dropping into midfield to give the unit more solidarity off the ball to slow Ajax’s progress in attacks. The striker he was supporting up front was the eventual goal scorer, Cyriel Dessers. Dessers caused trouble for the Ajax backline by leading a press as well as acting as the target man for certain attacks. The wingers were Mauro Junior and Delano Burgzorg, who had central support from midfielders Alexander Merkel and Orestis Kiomourtzoglou. The resolute defensive unit consisted of Tim Breukers, Jeff Hardeveld, Mats Knoester and Maximilian Rossmann.
Ajax veered away from their regular formation of 4-2-3-1 to adopt a similar shape in a 4-3-3 as they looked to push with a more attacking midfield unit. Erik ten Hag opted for experience over youth by selecting Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to lead the line, with Dusan Tadic and Ryan Babel, two more experienced players, providing support from the wide areas. Donny van de Beek and Ryan Gravenberch were the two more advanced midfielders of the three, with Lisandro Martinez holding down the role of anchor-man. The back four was Sergino Dest, Nicolas Tagliafico and Perr Schuurs. The lack of a creative attacking midfielder was obvious for Ajax, an issue they must fix in the summer with the departure of Hakim Ziyech.
Ajax – off the ball
Ajax usually demonstrate great ability when defending against opposition possession, however they failed to look as strong off the ball in certain areas of this game. Often, during transitions especially, the midfield unit would be poorly positioned as if the trio in those positions don’t all fully understand their roles. This caused a major problem for Ajax tactically, as they often build attacks quickly in transitions after either the midfield or defensive units win the ball back, resulting in a lack of quick transitional attacks from the Eredivisie leaders.
In the analysis above, Heracles are building an attack on the left, not long after winning the ball back and spreading the play from the right-hand side. In this instance, van de Beek, Gravenberch and Dusan Tadic are highlighted – Tadic isn’t one of the original midfield trio but his role in this passage of play requires more than he is providing. Questions can also be asked of Martinez (number 21 at the bottom right of the image) as to why he is towards the opposite side of the pitch, rather than defending centrally, which would prevent the highlighted Heracles player from having the huge amount of space in front of him. Martinez’s absence gives Heracles the space in the midfield third, allowing them to build an attack with more ease.
In the analysis above, you can see Babel, Huntelaar and Tadic taking up an arrow-like shape to apply pressure and force Heracles to play a certain way. Huntelaar’s position at the head of the arrow reduces the time the player in possession has on the ball, making him think quicker and making a decision faster, which results in a forced clearance. The positioning of Babel and Tadic in the wider areas eliminate the possibility of the central defender passing to either full back, ultimately assisting Huntelaar in forcing the clearance. The roles undertaken by van de Beek and Gravenberch are also important as they mark both close midfield space as well as the two Heracles players who have dropped in to offer assistance to the man on the ball. This pressing tactic is one which Ajax deploy very often, with a high success rate – they enjoy feeding off the loose balls that are presented to them from the clearances.
Ajax on the ball
It has been mentioned previously in this report that Ajax found a difficulty in creating convincing goal-scoring chances or even building attacks sufficiently. This is partly down to Heracles, who adopted the brave tactics of committing more players forward to press Ajax when they had the ball in their own half, slowing Ajax down or even stopping them altogether in some scenarios.
In the analysis above, four Heracles players are well-positioned in the Ajax half to stop any progress up the field. A major pressing trigger in this segment will have been the Ajax defender collecting the ball facing towards his own goal, causing the Heracles striker to instigate an immediate press, with the unit of three following behind. Not only does this stop Ajax from playing in their desired way, it gives Heracles enough time to set up a strong defensive shape to combat the next wave of attack from Ajax. This is an element of Heracles’ game that resulted in a struggle for Ajax as there were a number of occasions where the Dutch giants failed to piece an attack together.
The analysis above shows both positive and negative factors of Ajax’s attacking endeavours. They won the ball back high up the pitch, catching Heracles with a low number of defenders at the back to deal with the attack. There is a clear understanding of the roles within the attacking positions in scenarios like this one – Tadic drives towards the centre of the edge of the Heracles box, with Babel and Huntelaar splitting to make different runs, which Heracles fail to deal with. Tadic makes the smart choice is slightly altering his angle by driving inside more before slotting a pass into the path of Ryan Babel. The downfall in this situation was the quality of the ball from Tadic; the ball wasn’t in front of Babel, but slightly behind him, which took away the chance for the Dutchman to collect the ball in his stride and strike home. Because of this, Heracles were able to get reinforcements present at the back and the attack fizzled out.
Heracles Almelo on the ball
Credit where credit is due, the hosts had a clear game plan on how to hurt Ajax when going forward. Fully aware of the difference in technical ability between the two sides, manager Wormuth decided to play to his side’s strengths, deploying tactics such as a counterattack and smart long balls.
In this segment of analysis, Ajax had encountered another problem with attacking which resulted in a turnover. Heracles pounced on the chance and instantly looked to punish Ajax on the break. However, this move broke down due to an offside position taken up by Dessers. Despite this attack ultimately being a failure due to the offside, this was a method of attack used frequently by the home side, and it caused a lot of trouble for Ajax. This is just one example of Heracles knowing their own strengths and which areas of Ajax’s game to exploit.
It has been mentioned how Heracles effectively used smart long balls to target striker Desser, and in this case, he outmuscled Daly Blind to take the ball around the defender and proceed to score. While they were somewhat forced into long balls and clearances in a number of situations, they used this to their advantage and didn’t just send it long for the sake of it, there was a method to targeting Desser and highlighting certain weakness that may be in Blind’s game. In other instances, they would use long balls to put Ajax under pressure close to their own goal or to have the target man knock the ball down to a supporting player to build an attack.
In yet another game where Ajax dominated possession and registered 26 shots on goal, their failure in front of goal isn’t a totally fresh issue. Where it looked like they had fixed their creative problems in recent weeks, it’s a case of one step forward and two steps back as they must yet again assess the issues around their attacking tactics, and how they fix it to eventually possibly clinch the Eredivisie title.