In its simplest form, the tactics of Ajax exploit space using clever movement from midfielders and utilising wingers as anchors. Which in turn provides gaps for the other attacking players to operate in. They regularly look to provide multiple options oftentimes creating triangles and diamonds around the ball. Though this seems to be a product of their philosophy as a club, rather than true tactics. Roughly nine times out of ten, they look to play even in their own defensive third in the tightest of spaces. This requires all players to provide support to whoever is on the ball from all angles and at all times.
Likely the most important tactic allowing last season’s UEFA Champions League semifinalists to dominate possession and create numerical advantages is the role of the 6 or holding midfielder (formerly de Jong, and Lisandro Martínez against Heerenveen). Ajax manager Erik ten Hag often starts matches in a typical 4-3-3. However, as they begin to control the ball in possession, the shape will shift to a 3-4-3. This tactical analysis will look at how Ajax builds in possession from their defensive third shifting to a 3-4-3. Including the key movements and principles which allow them to play quickly through and around the opposition.
The movement of the 6 (holding midfielder)
The scout report for this Eredivisie matchup comes down to Ajax’s ability to build possession from their defensive third from the movement of Lisandro Martínez, Ajax’s holding midfielder in the 21 shirt. Throughout the match, he consistently dropped deep to receive the ball between the two centre backs (CBs). This caused the Ajax CBs, Daley Blind and Jurrien Timber, to split and create a numerical advantage against Heerenveen, building possession from the defensive third. Who under manager Johnny Jansen, defended in a 4-4-2 and pressed with two relatively central forwards.
In the above image, Martínez moved to split the CBs, which opened space centrally and allowed Blind and Timber to open up wider. As this happened the Ajax outside backs, Nicolás Tagliafico left back (LB) and Sergiño Dest right back (RB), were able to push higher up the field. This movement took the wide midfielders of Heerenveen with them. This resulted in a 3v2 in favour of Ajax against Heereveens 2 player press (4v2 including Andre Onana the Ajax GK).
This situation occurred several times throughout the match and as you can see required recognition from the Ajax players higher up the field. The deep run made by Donny Van de Beek to create a central option was crucial for two reasons. The first, he provided an option for Martínez to play him immediately. The second, he dragged two defenders with him which created a numerical advantage for Ajax higher up the field. At this point, Heerenveen had six players committed in Ajax’s defensive third which left their back four isolated. Ultimately, Timber, the right CB, received the ball back from Martínez who opted to skip Van de Beek and played Lassina Traore. Traore the centre forward set the ball back to Hakim Ziyech the attacking midfielder then played the left-winger Quincy Promes in behind creating their first quality scoring opportunity of the match.
Here we see the 4-3-3 shape has transitioned into a 3-4-3 higher up the field. This resulted from Martínez dropping between the CBs, which allowed the OBs to push higher up the field and join the central midfielders. Martínez drove with the ball forcing the two Heerenveen players to step to him, thereby creating a pocket for Van de Beek to receive the ball, turn, and release forward. This sequence was triggered by Martínez’s ability to get on the ball higher and create space for Van de Beek to receive the ball. Martínez’s movement allowed him to receive the ball facing forward with minimal pressure. This simultaneously created space for the OBs to push higher up the field. A situation which occurred regularly throughout the match, created consistent opportunities for numerical advantages and for Ajax to play their fluid, attacking style football.
Runs in behind the backline
Once in possession and out of their defensive third, Ajax relied on two important movements from their attacking players. The first of these movements was runs in behind the Heerenveen backline and playing through them. These runs typically came from one of five attacking players including the front three and two supporting attacking midfielders. At its simplest, running in behind required Heerenveen defenders to make one of two decisions: run with the player or maintain an even line to play the attacking player offside.
In this example, Traore occupied both CBs and released the ball to Ziyech who in one touch played Promes in behind. Not even two full minutes into the match Ajax’s willingness to run in behind created a quality attacking chance down the left side of the field.
In this sequence, Promes had the ball and occupied the Heerenveen RB, while Traore had moved away to create more space. This pulled the CB toward the right side of the field, and Van de Beek who recognised the space ahead of him pointed toward where he wanted the ball to be played. This situation was a direct result from the 4-4-2 press of Heerenveen, which allowed Van de Beek to run beyond his defender and into the available space. Promes who was on the ball recognised the space on the left. He then played the pass to Van de Beek going forward in an underlap creating another early scoring chance.
In this final example, Van de Beek drove with the ball centrally, and Tadic on the back shoulder of the right CB opened his body up to receive the pass inside. Meanwhile, Promes had occupied the RB by keeping a bit of width (left side), and Traore was in a position to get in behind on the right, as well. Ajax was 4v4 with Van de Beek driving at the CBs 25 yards from the goal, an attacking position from which they certainly expected a quality opportunity or goal from. This sequence resulted in Van de Beek playing a perfectly weighted, slick pass between the CBs finding Tadic in behind and onside. From there Tadic in a 1v1 situation with the goalkeeper provided a class finish.
The exchange of players into different positions or space while attacking, combined with well-timed consistent running in behind a backline created massive problems for the Heerenveen defenders. This occurred most often when either Van de Beek or Ziyech looked to get in behind the backline. This particular movement from the midfield can cause several problems for teams like Heerenveen who choose to defend in a 4-4-2.
Similar to previous instances Martínez dropped between the CBs and played Timber to begin this attack. Timber then drove into the space made available from the RB, Dest, who pushed high and wide on the right side to occupy the left-sided midfielder for Heerenveen. Timber, on the ball, played Tadic who checked away from the Heerenveen goal and brought his defender with him. This check created space in behind him and allowed Van de Beek to make his run in behind to take up the space vacated by Tadic and his defender.
From this position, Tadic was able to find Promes who came inside to provide support and looked to play Van de Beek who was running at full speed in behind the defence. There were several key pieces to this sequence: (1) Tadic checked lower to receive the ball, (2) Traore stayed central and occupied both CBs, (3) Van de Beek recognized the space opened by Tadic, and (4) Promes moved inside and provided an outlet for Tadic who was marked tightly as he received the ball.
In the picture above, Timber had received the ball from Martínez and drove forward on the dribble. Having open space, Timber released and combined with Traore and Van de Beek who ended up in exchanged positions. Tadic was a bit wider in this situation which allowed him to anchor the LB of Heerenveen out wide. With Van de Beek settled in the half-space, unmarked, he created a problem for both the left CB and central midfielder who tried to cut out any pass to him. Van de Beek’s movement also created the space for Traore to check into, and because Van de Beek was between the LB and left CB, they were unable to commit to Traore. This allowed him to receive the ball in a dangerous position with his body on the half turn.
In this picture you can see the left CB for Heerenveen was stuck between stepping to Traore as he received the ball and dropping to mark Van de Beek. The midfielder ahead of him was also stuck as he was forced to try and apply pressure to Timber on the ball. Timber stepped into the available space created by Dest staying wide on his right and occupying the left midfielder, to initiate and create the attacking sequence.
Lastly, we saw the quality and fluidity of Traore and Van de Beek’s exchange: Traore played him in one touch over the top which created another dangerous opportunity for Ajax.
This tactical analysis has shown how effective a club identity and set of principles can be utilised in a football match. The ability of Ajax’s players to read the game and creating numerical advantages in possession was key for Ajax. The role of wide wingers anchoring OBs and the exchange of midfielders and forwards were crucial in creating space to play. Ajax’s ability to find players in the half-space or slip them in behind was the last piece of the puzzle in creating consistent scoring chances. Ultimately, Martínez’s movement, combined with Ziyech and Van de Beeks ability to recognise open space ahead of them, were the difference makers in this Eredivisie match. With both Ziyech and Van de Beek set to leave this summer for Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively, it poses the question can Ajax maintain this recent domestic and European success?