The rivalry between AZ Alkmaar and Ajax Amsterdam has never been a balanced one. Ajax has always been on the highest shelf of Dutch football. They are the most successful and decorated domestic club with no less than 34 Eredivisie titles in the 63 seasons played so far. On the other side stands Alkmaar with two league titles, the last coming in 2009 under Louis Van Gaal. This huge gap is visible on the head-to-head results as well: before the current season, AZ managed to collect only 53 points from the available 252 against Ajax. So, AZ Alkmaar was defeated in 79% of the clashes, with an overwhelming negative goal difference of -111. AZ Alkmaar, since their establishment in 1967, has never managed to achieve back-to-back victories against Ajax in a single season – this fact emphasises perfectly that in the 2019/2020 season, in which they managed to beat their rivals 1-0 and 2-0 in particular, Alkmaar achieved an unprecedented and historical performance. In this tactical analysis, we will investigate all the reasons behind it.
AZ, a traditionally small club, is without question the biggest surprise of the current campaign: they are sitting in the second position in the table, level on points with their giant counterpart, trailing only by worse goal difference. In Arne Slot, the club has a young, ambitious but consistent coach with clear objectives and disciplines despite his limited previous managerial experience. He has already built up an excellent cohesion of young, homegrown prospects – with the likes of Myron Boadu, currently the second top scorer of the league with 14 goals or Teun Koopmeiners who earned the captaincy at only 21 years of age – and more experienced players with a significant routine on the highest level. Generally, the team is using a 4-3-3 formation, building up from the back with short passes (with an 85,5% pass accuracy currently the best in the league), playing mostly on the ground, trying to keep the ball as much as possible (second-best of the league with an average possession of 57,8%) and creating high-quality chances in front of the goal. However, their main strength has turned out to be their defence: they have allowed an average of 10,6 shots per game and conceded only 17 times, both the best figures in the league.
They arrived at each game with Ajax in different veins of form: enjoying a six-win streak in the Eredivisie before the first match (even though just suffering a 4-0 defeat in the Europa Cup against Manchester United) while they were freshly eliminated from the Europa League by LASK Linz before the second occasion. Obviously, playing against Ajax is always different from the other games, demanding a specific approach and significant changes in the tactics. However, Ajax was definitely not in their best shape: in December they were defeated on home soil two times in a row: by Willem II in the Eredivisie and Valencia in the Champions League – the latter also meaning a relegation from the competition, a devastating result after the semi-final achieved in the previous season. Similarly, they arrived at the second game against AZ with two losses from three, being relegated from the Europa League as well, this time by Getafe, another Spanish outfit. On top of all, Ajax had to deal with a significant amount (and quality) of players unavailable for the games. The circumstances were far from ideal for them, but this alone wouldn’t have been enough for the back-to-back losses – an extraordinary performance from AZ was also required.
1) Intensive pressing
As mentioned, AZ is a team spending a lot of time on the ball, dominating the midfield and building up patiently. In this regard, they are very similar to Ajax or, at an even higher level, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, a manager renowned for his ball-dominant and combinative style of play. In his philosophy, the main goal of pressing is to gain the lost possession back very quickly, in order to have full control on the game as soon as possible, and then start the offensive build-up without a rush, analysing the opponent’s movements and waiting for opportunities. However, Arne Slot was perfectly aware that playing against Ajax inevitably requires a different approach and tactics, and that they will not be able to keep the ball as much as they are generally used to. Therefore, he set up his pressing mechanism with a different intention, similarly to the ‘Gegenpressing’ of Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp who, when losing the ball, does not aim to gain back the possession itself but rather to switch to an attack with an immediate effect. This concept indicates that giving the ball away is not necessarily a bad thing but a chance to disturb the opponent and gain momentum in the offence. In this system the whole team acts as a unity and aims to slow down the opponent, kill their creativity and rise above them mentally – something very typical of AZ in both matches. The players were very sharp, looking for opportunities and reacting quickly to any mistakes of Ajax.
As we will see in the pictures below, Arne Slot’s fundamental goal was to start pressing the Ajax defence as high as possible, in most cases right at their penalty area, aiming to prevent their build-up play. Myron Boadu and Calvin Stengs were leading the line with Oussama Idrissi and Dani de Wit providing strong support behind or one of them joining as a third attacker. By this, they were able to put immense pressure on the backline (including goalkeeper André Onana who is excellent with his feet and therefore is involved quite often) which usually operates with short passes and reaches the higher zones of the pitch only from a few touches. This time, however, they were just unable to find their regular passing lanes. Apart from cutting the corridors and marking the zones, one of the AZ players were constantly attacking the player with the ball at high intensity, forcing them to make quicker and thereby worse decisions which Alkmaar could take advantage of.
This intensive approach led to several chances and directly resulted in one of the goals. In the early minutes of the second game, AZ put constant pressure on the opposite defence near to their penalty area: they were closing down the passing lanes with four players while Oussama Idrissi was attacking the player with the ball. Given this 5-vs.-4 situation was not in their favour, the Ajax defenders had to go back right to their goalkeeper. Even though one of them could have easily kicked the ball away much earlier, they stuck to their style and tried to get out of this tight position on the ground. Defender Daley Blind tried a diagonal pass to his teammate Lisandro Martínez at the centre of the pitch which, by that moment, was also the centre of a perfect circle shaped by the attacking team – the structure is perfectly transparent in the below snapshot. As a result, the ball found Fredrik Midtsjö from AZ who was sharp enough to deliver it immediately to Myron Boadu who made good use of the opportunity and took the lead for his team right at the beginning of the game.
2) Well-organised defence
At some stages of the game, especially during the meeting in March, AZ chose a different approach and let their opponent come to their half of the pitch more often. Just like the high and intensive pressing, this was also an intentional and conscious strategy. In these cases, they set up their first line of defence around 30-40 meters from their goal. Apart from Myron Boadu, a classic striker whose main objective was to come back to the half-line and wait for opportunities in transition, the whole team dragged back and left much more space and time for the opponent to move the ball around. Generally, Ajax tried to stick to their traditional style of play and use the central zones of the pitch to find a way through, building on short passes, quick movements, and individual skills. In response, AZ stood up in a 4-5-1 (or 4-4-1-1) formation in which the defenders and midfielders were shaping a perfect double-line and one of the central players was always bursting out to the opposite player carrying the ball. This pressing role was not assigned specifically to any of the Alkmaar players but was always the responsibility of the one closest to the ball – this method reflects the tactical maturity of the team: every member of the system knew their range of tasks exactly but none of them shied away from stepping out of it when they deemed it more beneficial for the whole. The cohesion between the AZ players was remarkable to the naked eye – just like in the example below – and demoralising for the opponent.
We will see in the next picture that when Ajax managed to get closer to the goal, AZ fluidly evolved into a massive 6-3-1 in which the wingers stepped back to support the full-backs (either on the flanks or in the half-spaces) and created a coherent line of six which was clearly a mismatch against the four or five attackers of Ajax. At the same time, the three midfielders in front of them – Teun Koopmeiners/Jordi Clasie, Dani de Wit and Fredrik Midtsjö – composed a perfectly synchronised triangle, always moving together and closing the central areas without a single mistake. They showed a perfect example of teamwork in zonal marking, relentlessly scanning the movements of the opposition midfielders and certain zones to be covered. On top of that, one of the three was still always stepping out on the player with the ball, putting immense pressure on them.
With the ball moving out to one of the sides, the whole backline followed and transitioned into a 5-3-1-1 with two or three players supporting the wing-backs in order to overload the wide areas and the half-spaces. The midfielders continued to take the same triangular shape as when defending in the central areas, attacking the ball carrier without a rest. This way, Ajax was forced to be on the move all the time, shifting horizontally across the pitch without taking any steps forward. This made the players even more stressed out and frustrated, helping AZ to maintain the mental dominance which, in the end, turned out to be a key element of the encounter.
The massive presence in the centre worked well – Ajax was forced to move out towards the flanks and try their best from there. It also didn’t help that in December Ajax could not count on Quincy Promes, David Neres, Sergiño Dest and Nicolás Tagliafico (the latter stepping on the pitch only in the 83. minute) who all, by default, are among the most important wide-playing members of the Ajax squad. Things looked much better in March when, apart from David Neres, all the missing players were named in the starting 11. All of these attacking-minded players were positioned very high up the pitch but just could not make a good enough use of the wider areas. They were operating with a lot of crosses in both occasions but this is not the biggest strength of the team and it was visible this time as well – in the first game, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar managed to create a few big chances from these attempts but none of them found the net eventually. While the second time, with the experienced Dutch out of the starting 11, the crosses could not find anyone in the middle. As Tadic is a completely different, rather a false-9 type of an attacker, Donny van de Beek joined the attacks regularly in the central forward position but he was also unable to fulfil the required role. The beating heart of the midfield and one of the leaders of the team – leaving his position resulted in a disadvantage in the central areas and his companions, Carel Eiting and Lisandro Martínez, two great players but with less experience and consistency this season, were unable to cope with the persistence of the AZ triangle.
3) Effective transitions
No wonder that the main objective of AZ was to build upon their league-best defending and play the 180 minutes without conceding a goal, but this alone would not have been enough for the success. As mentioned in this analysis earlier, they used the high and intense pressing to turn it into an attack right away and they did the same when defending in a deeper position. However, they did not attempt to achieve it through direct counter-attacks from which they have scored only one goal this season at the time of speaking. Instead, their first intention was to bring out the ball with elegant, short ground passes, looking for either one of the creative midfielders – mainly Fredrik Midtsjö or Calvin Stengs – or for the teammates on the left-side where the majority of the actions were led.
We can witness perfect examples for both in the below snapshots: in the first one, Calvin Stengs (often cutting inside from his right-winger position and playing much more like a free-roam 10) drops back deep to collect the ball and runs into the empty areas behind the opponent. He has two supporting teammates in the wider areas and Myron Boadu up front: a quick and fluid transition to a 4-2-3-1 formation in attack. While in the second one, when full-back Owen Wijndal runs up with the ball in the left half-space (as his winger Oussama Idrissi opens up space for him on the flank), the team builds up in their genuine 4-3-3 very effectively. AZ was able to proceed from the solid 6-3-1/4-5-1 formation to attacking without much effort and in different shapes throughout the game.
AZ put a great emphasis on this strategy during the second match, as Ajax was getting more and more busy trying to break up their defence, overloading their half (sometimes with eight or nine players) and involving almost all their outfield players in the offensive tasks. Nicolás Tagliafico and Sergiño Dest, the full-backs of Ajax, were generally playing far from their half of the pitch and were joining all the attacks on the wide areas, in many cases acting rather like natural wingers, while Quincy Promes and Hakim Ziyech could cut into the half-spaces. As also mentioned, Donny van de Beek was often leaving his position in the heart of the midfield which made it even more difficult for the team to react to the transitions of the opposition. It was only up to Alkmaar how much use they could make of these situations and eventually, they were successful two times.
In the 62. minute of the second game, Ajax got very disorganised after losing possession on the other half. In the below picture we can see that AZ could quickly transform into an offensive structure, with the wingers running up wide and Myron Boadu moving to the direction of the goal with three defenders on him. As Owen Wijndal was joining the attack on the left flank, as usual, Oussama Idrissi could step into the half-space and find Calvin Stengs fully on his own on the right side of the pitch. He was supposed to meet Nicolás Tagliafico who, on the other hand, was still somewhere around the halfway line, 15-20 metres away from the attacker by the time he received the ball. Calvin Stengs could comfortably walk into the penalty box and even wait for his overlapping teammate Jonas Svensson who could then find Oussama Idrissi completely alone in the middle, even though the home team had seven players inside the box – a perfect example of how disorganised Ajax was in general. Fortunately for them, the goal was then annulled (with the support of the VAR) due to an earlier handball by Myron Boadu.
This late stage of the game Ajax did not really have any other chance but to overload the offensive areas, try to gain back the ball high up the pitch and lead quick attacks. But AZ was perfectly aware of this and even wanted to create such situations intentionally so that they can turn it to their advantage. In the 74th minute, this ‘pressing trap’ resulted in another goal and this time Ajax was not as lucky as a bit earlier. As captured in the next picture, 80% of the home team were positioned on the opposite half of the pitch when Teun Koopmeiners once again launched an excellent long ball on the left side, this time towards Oussama Idrissi. By this moment, Sergiño Dest had already given up his original role as a right-back and was jogging deep in the other half – similarly to his defenders, Perr Schuurs and Daley Blind, who both were standing in the central circle. Lisandro Martínez had to step out from the midfield with a significant handicap and attempt to keep pace with Oussama Idrissi who could then triumph and find the net with elegance, wrapping up the game and taking home all the available six points against Ajax, for the first time in their history.
AZ’s strategy was apparent and consistent right from the very first minute. Although they had to apply some changes to their tactics, their style of play was basically the same as in the whole 2019/20 season: structured, organised, consistent and effective. They were perfectly aware that the Ajax team they were facing was far from its best shape both in December and in March – thanks to their previous results, the players were much weaker mentally and, on top of that, they had several important absentees. AZ’s plan was to build exactly upon these weaknesses: they put intensive pressure on Ajax right from the beginning, making them tired, running out of ideas, making worse decisions and committing errors on an individual level. They were very successful in neutralising the opponent’s style of play and eventually profited from their collective and individual underperformance.
Arne Slot’s team managed to build up with fluid transitions from defending to attacking, either with short passes on the ground or with long balls all over the pitch. They somewhat suffocated the opposite players in the midfield, most important of all Hakim Ziyech, who is generally the epicentre of all Ajax attacks and is certainly the brain of the team. AZ made sure from the very beginning that the Moroccan genius lost his appetite before he could find his form, and they achieved it through a lot of fouls and sneaky tackles. The Alkmaar players brought him down to the ground frequently to make him frustrated as soon as possible – with much success. Many say that these are the ugly elements of football but no need to argue how inevitable and effective elements they are from a defensive point of view.
Unlike his compatriot, who came up with a rock-solid but, at the same time, dynamic strategy, always tailored for the actual stage of the game, Erik Ten Hag was just not able to change on his general style of play and also failed to react to the opponent’s tactics in-play. A very good indicator of the problems was that he used his first substitutions at a remarkably late stage on both occasions, in the 83. and 81. minutes in particular and used only three of his available six modifications altogether which a very unusual decision even if we know that the team was short on players and many of their usual starters were unavailable. While those who did put on the Ajax shirt, the same high-quality sportsmen as ever, were physically on the pitch, but just felt like they were somewhere else in their heads.
As the Eredivisie – together with the vast majority of all the other leagues in the world – is currently on hold, both teams can take a deep breath and hopefully come back from the unexpected break in their best physical and mental form, full of energy and eagerness. Ajax is currently in the lead with a better goal difference, but AZ has every chance of keeping up and even overcoming the record champion, should they continue in the same manner. Their performance is far beyond expectations and with a stable financial background, a young mastermind on the bench and many exciting fresh prospects on the pitch – who will most probably get into the European bloodstream soon and get the chance to prove themselves at the highest level – the future looks bright. No doubt that a successful AZ Alkmaar would be beneficial in the coming years for the Eredivisie, the Dutch football and the whole Old continent, and the club seems to be on the best track possible.