AZ Alkmaar under Arne Slot emerged on the scene this season by challenging Ajax for the title with a high-intensity style of play. At the moment of speaking AZ are in second place in the Dutch Eredivisie, only missing out on first place from Ajax by goal difference. Nonetheless, this is a big achievement for a club that doesn’t have a huge amount to spend. As a consequence AZ are, more than the wealthier clubs, dependent on other factors, like for instance, tactics. In this head coach analysis, we will see what makes AZ Alkmaar under Slot so special this season. Let’s take a look at which tactics Slot uses to outwit his opponents in this tactical analysis.
Movements are key
AZ use a 4-3-3 shape whilst attacking. When defending they turn into a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 dependent on how high or low their block is. AZ will try to build from the back most of the time. During this phase, the centre-backs split and take a wider position whilst two midfielders drop between those centre-backs.
Meanwhile, the fullbacks have different roles. The ball-near fullback will stay high and wide, making himself a passing option, while the other full-back on the ball far side moves inside to create an overload behind the opposition’s first line press. Often the goalkeeper or the centre-back look for this option as this is the free man.
As we can see below the full-back comes inside when taking a position in behind the pressing player. We can state that this is a good addition and passing option to the offensive play. But the purpose is to close the centre if AZ would lose the ball during the build-up.
The next phase when progressing will be the two wingers dropping behind the first line press. When a team doesn’t have a compact block while pressing then the space can be found in this area of the pitch. Playing a high block against AZ is risky because of their threat in behind. The second goal comes from Ajax’s backline pushing up too high. With AZ playing a ball in behind, where Oussama Idrissi just had to finish.
Then follows the position of the centre midfielder and striker. This doesn’t help the opposition by keeping a compact block as these players will look to push forward to stretch the opposition vertically. So basically during the build-up, the ‘kaaskoppen’ play in a structure positioned in pairs of two. Having a lot of layers helps open up diagonal passing lanes. Playing diagonally is also one of AZ’s biggest strengths.
Before we saw AZ playing combination football through the thirds but if AZ can’t find a solution by combining through passes during the build-up, they will play a long ball. In the game against Ajax, AZ hit 25 long balls to one of the front players. Only five of these were successful. Being under some much pressure that game, a rest moment would bring some relief. But by playing these long balls they would constantly lose the possession. So they would need to keep running behind it.
Slot tried to solve this problem by creating equality or even an overload in this area as we can see on the picture. But the problem is actually that the receiver of the ball would always lose the one on one battle with the defender because of the simple fact that Myron Boadu, the striker, isn’t your type of striker to use his physical presence to hold up the ball.
Concepts of attacking play to think about
As described in the formation section AZ Alkmaar line up in a 4-3-3. But this can also change to a 3-4-3 with the left-back Wijndal moving into midfield and the centre backs stretching out in the backline. With this change of formation, AZ tries to create an overload in midfield. But what makes them create more chances it’s not about the formation, it’s about movement.
We can see one of these movements here. This rotation is very simple but so effective. The winger Calvin Stengs comes in midfield, the centre mid moves up to the striker position, while the striker runs to the wing. The rotation here creates confusion in the opposing defence. The defenders have to make the choice to follow or stay. In this case, every defender follows creating space for each rotating player.
And this brings me on to the most important image. I will make the image big enough because this explains the whole playing style in attacking sense. So, we first see the fullback on the inside. Why is he on inside in a medium block? Some would say to overload the midfield area or open up passing lanes to the outside. Both make sense and are partly true.
But the reason is actually that AZ Alkmaar isn’t good enough to break down a low block.
By positioning the fullback on the inside, he is manipulating the 2de line cover and pulling out the winger. This is also the reason when playing short passes with the midfielders in this position. The next pass would be to the winger who would drop deeper against the line and with this movement he will pull out the opposing fullback. Which creates space for the midfielder to run in behind.
Note that I wrote in behind. Because in a medium block of the opposition there is more space to run into. So to summarise in short. By manipulating the 2de line cover in the second third, there is more space for AZ to run into. This explains the positioning of the fullbacks.
Notice when watching AZ that they will barely penetrate the centre of the field, because as stated before there isn’t enough quality in this area. Against Manchester United the same tactic was used.
Moving on, another important aspect of AZ’s game is the interaction between the winger and fullback. When one is on the outside, the other one is in the halfspace. Often using cross movements to confuse the defence.
Lastly, a concept that brings them a lot of joy is when the ball is in the halfspace, there has to be a player penetrating between the far side centre back and full back. This is hard to defend because of the movement that happens outside of the sight field of the defender.
Man marking or zonal defending?
When defending AZ will try to push the opposite side to the side. Curving runs by the striker shut of back pass options. And then it will come down to everybody man-marking a player to force the long ball as AZ have physically strong defenders to deal with these long balls.
But do they man-mark?
The answer is yes and no. They do man-mark but AZ is masters in letting an obvious passing lane open. When this passing lane is open the opposition will try to play this pass but then the AZ players will anticipate and take out the pass. This image here shows this concept. Notice Jordy Clasie following his direct opponent when pressing. But when you look closely he turns his head to look for other passing lanes. This is an obvious trap with Clasie intercepting the ball and playing in Boadu to score.
Talking about Boadu, take a look at his position. Already thinking about the next moment. What if we win the ball?
Here again, everybody man marking but leaving one obvious options open. The moment the ball is played, you can see three players trying to intercept the ball.
The last example is in the low block. Letting Ajax play a pass between the lines. But once played, AZ attempt to intercept. This gives the opponent the confidence to play risky passes but in reality, the pass is not on.
When we speak of the low block defending, one can see that this is AZ’s speciality. Keeping a low and compact block with nearly no space between the lines.
Except for the far side midfielder. He is the one, when the play is switched, to be closing down the opponent.
To maintain this low block there always has to be pressure on the ball. Normally the centre midfielder steps out to pressure the ball carrier. This can also be the sign of a pressing trigger but the rest of the team will decide this.
The art of counterattacking
AZ Alkmaar’s biggest weapon is the counterattack. When making the transition there are clear rules.
When setting up the counterattack. You have to try to occupy the centrale lane and the two halfspaces. When occupying these, it’s not allowed to be static. That’s why you will often see fullbacks making runs from deep to support the counterattack.
Here again, all the necessarily lanes are occupied. Next, they look at how to pin defenders. Looking for 2v1 situations by overloading, in this case, the right halfspace. Also, look at the run of the attacker. Running at the blind side of the defender. Giving him a decision to make.
Lastly, AZ looks to switch the play during counterattacks. As defenders cannot look at the ball and the running players at the same time.
When we look at areas to improve their game, we look at the games AZ lost this season. In every game, AZ had more possession than the opposition ranging from 56 to 70 per cent of possession. Just from this statistic, we can state that breaking down a low block isn’t their bread and butter. Hence the reason AZ hasn’t lost a game to a team outside the top 4 in the Eredivisie. As these teams will take the initiative. Some would conclude that they have to defend better in counter-pressing situations but Alkmaar only conceded 17 goals this season. So it would be harsh to say that this is their weakness.
We can conclude after this analysis that it is no fluke that AZ Alkmaar are punching above their weight this season by challenging Ajax for a Champions League spot and of course the title. Using razor-sharp counterattacks and passing lane defending to their advantage. One can only applaud the work of newly appointed manager Slot.