Getafe, who have proven themselves as a well-drilled unit this season under manager José Bordalás, currently sit fifth in La Liga. They went into the second leg of this tie with a 2-0 advantage over opponents Ajax, who are currently battling AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie title race. Ajax, known historically for their aesthetically-brilliant football, were looking for a greatly improved performance this time around having failed to register a shot on target in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League tie. This piece of tactical analysis will take an in-depth look at how the concluding match of this fixture played out.
Ajax manager Erik ten Hag went with a 4-3-3 system, after acknowledging that he must change his tactics, having been unsuccessful with his usual 4-2-3-1 setup in their 2-0 defeat to Getafe. Ziyech was unable to start due to recent struggles with a calf injury, providing Ryan Gravenberch and Carel Eiting with the opportunity to be handed their Europa League debuts. Tadić was able to play as the number nine due to the absence of Lassina Traoré from the matchday squad. Onana also returned to the side, replacing Bruno Varela.
Getafe, meanwhile, made no changes to their team that managed to prevent Ajax from having a single shot on goal in the opening leg. Bordalás decided to start with top goalscorer Ángel Rodríguez on the bench, preferring instead to go with on-loan Brazilian striker Deyverson to partner regular starter Jaime Mata. Getafe were set up in their conventional 4-4-2 system in order to try and restrict Ajax’s space in the final third.
Ajax in possession
Ajax saw lots of the ball in this match, managing 69% possession (3% more than they recorded in the first leg). The effect of this was that Ajax were in their attacking structure for the majority of the game, while Getafe defended in a 4-4-2 mid-block.
The above image shows Ajax’s typical structure throughout the match. Midfielder Carel Eiting would drop deep on the left side to create a 3v2 in the first phase of build-up, a common tactic used to counter a two-striker formation. Gravenberch often played as a six in this set-up: this allowed Donny Van de Beek to play in a more advanced position, while Tadić dropped deep to create a 3v2 against the two central-midfielders of Getafe (more on Tadić’s role later in the piece).
The two wide-forwards often stayed narrow, while the full-backs provided the width. Eiting’s deeper role provided the full-backs with license to push higher up the pitch since Ajax had three staying back to defend against transitions.
To combat Ajax’s full-backs, Getafe’s wide midfielders dropped deep to essentially form a back six. The downside of this, from Getafe’s perspective, was that massive gaps were left in front of them, either side of their midfield two.
Ajax made use of this structural weakness and used it as their main source of progressing the ball. Here, Perr Schuurs (playing on the right of the back three), engages the space ahead of him by carrying the ball into this area of the pitch, just ahead of Getafe’s left midfielder, Marc Cucurella.
A common characteristic of Ten Haag’s side, Ajax once again overload the ball-near side of the pitch. The result of this is that the outside centre-back would always have options to pass to when in this position, allowing Ajax to comfortably play their way into Getafe’s third of the pitch.
However, Getafe did press situationally, and Ajax took advantage of this to score their opening goal. Again, the outside centre-back, this time Lisandro Martínez, carried the ball forwards. In this example not only do we see both of Getafe’s forwards coming over to press Martínez, but most importantly, Getafe’s right midfielder is also situated higher up the pitch. Ajax display perfectly how positional rotation can be extremely effective. Daley Blind, normally seen high up the pitch in this match, decides to drop deep. As a result, Getafe’s right midfielder is dragged with him, creating space behind him which is exploited by the run from deep of Eiting.
Ajax have a 3v1 situation on Getafe’s central midfielder as they again overload the ball-near side of the pitch. Martínez’s excellent distribution enables him to pick out Tadić in between the lines. Since Ryan Babel is pinning the two centre-backs, Ajax now have a 2v1 on Getafe’s right-back (as shown below).
Overloading the space between the lines has manufactured a 5v5 situation for Ajax in Getafe’s third. Ajax seize the opportunity: Blind manages to pull it back to Van de Beek who is in a pocket of space in front of the Getafe backline.
Utilising a piece of technically superb close control, Van de Beek then gets to the byline and slides the ball across the 6-yard box into the path of Danilo at the far post to tap it into the net. Getafe did well to get so many players back in the box to defend the cross, however, they showed poor defensive awareness as not one of the seven defenders recognised the danger at the far post, instead choosing to follow the ball towards the near post.
The role of Dušan Tadić
Dušan Tadić was extremely important to how Ajax wanted to play with the ball. He was given the freedom to drop in between the lines to create overloads where needed, usually on the left as that’s where Ajax preferred to build up their play.
One of the benefits of Tadić having a free role was that he was regularly able to play a part in third man combinations. In this instance, Martínez’s movement creates an open passing lane in which he can receive the ball directly from the inside centre-back. He can then play a lay-off pass to Tadić, who is able to receive the ball facing forwards. A relatively simple pass is then all that is required to play Promes in behind the opposition.
On yet another occasion where Ajax overload the left side of the pitch, Tadić helps create a 6v6 situation in a very small area of the pitch. This presents the halftime substitute Quincy Promes with an opportunity to play a neat give-and-go with Tadić to get in a dangerous position in the box. Promes cuts inside but doesn’t control the ball well before being able to pick out a teammate situated on the edge of the box.
This was also an example of how Ajax weren’t efficient enough at using the entire width of the pitch. Several times they created an overload on the ball-near side which dragged several Getafe players to the edge of one side of the pitch, leaving large spaces open on the far side. However, Ajax were often unable to switch the play quickly enough to make full use of this advantage.
For example, Promes has control of the ball here after Ajax have dragged every single defender to one side of the pitch. However, despite having an abundance of time and space, Promes decides to play it back to Schuurs rather than switch the play to Sergiño Dest who is the free man on the far side.
Getafe’s tactical setup
Getafe’s main objective was to deny Ajax any space once they reached their third of the pitch by setting up in a mid-block. However, Getafe did press situationally.
Getafe were obviously wary of leaving gaps in their defensive line, so when they did try to press, only their front players pushed forward, while the back four stayed relatively deep. The problem this caused was that it would leave lots of space between the lines for Ajax’s players to exploit, which is exactly the sort of areas that they thrive in.
In this situation, Getafe press high up with three of their more advanced players. However, when pressing, a basic principle for every team is that you must stay compact. Getafe were certainly not compact when pressing, as seen here. They force Onana into playing a long ball, however, Ajax now have a substantial overload in midfield and can easily win the second-ball.
With just three touches of the ball, Ajax suddenly have the opportunity to attack Getafe’s defence in a 4v4 situation.
Here is another example of three Getafe players pressing high, but the defensive line not stepping up. A large gap right in front of the defence has been opened up where Van de Beek can receive the ball.
Typically relying on long balls to progress the ball, Getafe were relatively successful in their approach. The two Getafe strikers won 63% of their combined aerial duels, often due to their 7cm height advantage over 178cm Martínez. Above is a perfect example of how Getafe were able to get into advanced areas of the pitch without the risk of losing the ball in their own half.
Getafe also relied on transitions to get them into good positions near the Ajax goal. The two images above show how they managed to intercept a pass from a centre-back before launching a counter. Here, Getafe had a 5v5 in Ajax’s half and the Dutch team was vulnerable on the defensive transition due to their strategy of overloading the space between Getafe’s midfield and defensive lines. If Getafe ever won the ball high up the pitch, recovery runs were simply not possible for many of Ajax’s midfielders as they were too far away to get back in time.
Pictured above is a collection of examples of Getafe exploiting Ajax’s lack of defensive balance late on in the game. This was expected as, after all, it was a knockout tie, so Ajax had nothing to lose. Getafe created some good chances late on in the game through these scenarios and should’ve converted at least one of them to truly seal the tie.
Having completed this tactical analysis, it is evident that Ajax were far better than in the first leg, registering four times as many shots as they did in the first leg and creating far more dilemmas for Getafe’s defence. Having said that, they were not decisive enough in the final third: mainly due to their inability to properly take advantage of situations where they had numerical superiority. Hakim Ziyech was clearly a big miss for them as they evidently lacked his incision and awareness in and around the opposition box.
Getafe were fortunate that David Neres and Ziyech were unavailable, as their level of technical ability in the final third would’ve also been extremely effective at making use of some of the spacing issues that Getafe had when pressing. They weren’t ‘attractive’ with their use of the ball in this tie, but they were effective and managed to get the vital away goal that will see them playing in the last 16 of the Europa League. This style of play is something that has kept the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid on their toes in La Liga too and will continue to serve them well as it seems.