On the 24th of May 2017 in the Friends Arena of Swedish first division team AIK Solna, football enthusiasts were able to follow the contest between a very young but technically gifted team and an English superpower.
An entertaining Europa League Final between two teams following different strategic conceptions. Ajax opponent, Manchester United, managed by nobody else than Jose Mourinho, were able to win the contest but nevertheless were shown their limits. The team of the current Bayer Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz had 70% possession and a remarkable amount of shots on goal.
For a long time it has been quiet around the Dutch side’s performances in international competitions, until the 2016/17 season when the excellent work in their youth development paid off and success on the pitch seemed to return. Since the 2:0 defeat against Manchester United things constantly improved for the first team.
Almost 3 years later, precisely on the 30th April 2019, the excellent youth philosophy of the record champion got rewarded once more. The first leg of the semi-final in the UEFA Champions League against Tottenham Hotspur had been won 0:1. Before that, the side had eliminated Top-Clubs such as Real Madrid and Juventus Turin and excited the footballing world.
Although AFC, due to a late Lucas Moura goal, narrowly missed out on the final, the brave, technically gifted and tactically astute team managed to establish themselves among Europe’s elite through their performances in the 2018/19 season.
A crucial figure behind the success: Manager Erik ten Hag.
Erik ten Hag
Born in Haakbergen, the Dutchman always followed his primary goal of expanding his skillset.
“I am who I am. I am not a copy of somebody else. As as coach you can admire others and learn from other managers. The main thing is to work in a way that reflects your personality. Otherwise you are forcing yourself into a role. Players realize this and you lose authority.”
Starting as a youth coach in Enschede, Ten Hag worked as an assistant manager for Twente Enschede as well as PSV Eindhoven, until he felt ready to take on the role as head coach at 2nd division team Go Ahead Eagles.
2013 he left his home country to work for the amateurs of FC Bayern Munich, who he led to the championship of the 4th division and only narrowly missed out on promotion by losing the playoffs. During his work at the Säbener Straße, he had multiple exchanges with the manager of the first team Pep Guardiola.
“If you want to learn from other players, other managers, other cultures, then you are going to evolve as a manager.”
2 years later FC Utrecht signed Erik ten Hag which allowed him to gather experience in the Dutch Eredivisie as sporting director as well as head coach at the same time. His learning process never stopped and he joined his current club Ajax Amsterdam at the end of 2017.
Flexibility during Ball Progression
Ajax do not prefer specific zones to transport the ball during their attacks. Depending on their opponent’s actions against the ball, they adapt depending on the individual situation.
Should their opponent potentially offer free space on the wings as well as weaknesses regarding the distribution of players, Ajax progress the balls down the wings. Should the middle of the pitch be dominated by the opponent Ajax will not try to overload the centre but much rather exploit alternative zones.
This happens through constant runs as well as positional interchanges to manipulate the opponents’s structure. Due to the opponent’s goal of winning the ball as soon as possible, it causes them to stress and forces miscommunication.
The principle of creating a surplus during build-up against the first line of pressure has become a widely adopted approach to cope with the opponent’s press. Due to the high quality of their goalkeeper Andre Onana, Ajax only need an equal number of outfield players to successfully play through the opponent’s press.
The Cameroonian is trying to reach his teammates through either short or long passes. FC Liverpool decided to press Ajax in a 4-3-3 with a flat front three to guide build-up inwards. In order to reach equal numbers Edson Alvarez positioned himself in close proximity to the ball, in front of the box, to achieve a 4 vs 3 surplus involving goalkeeper Onana. Alvarez automatically ties down the centre forward, which leads to the creation of space between the centre forward and the left winger. Through the excellent reading of play by Davy Klaasen and the occupation of the vacated space the opponent’s 8 gets dragged along.
Problematic? Not for Ajax! This maximises space for Nouassir Mazraoui on the wing. Due to the 18-year-old Ryan Gravenberch tying down the other 8 the opponent’s shape is quite compact supporting progression of the ball down the wing. The free space on the wing has been occupied by the two fullbacks Nicolas Tagliafico and Mazraoui. To prevent the opposing fullbacks from stepping up and closing down Tagliafico and Mazraoui the Ajax wingers Antony and David Neres position themselves between the opposing centre-back and fullback. After Tagliafico receives the ball, Gravenberch is preventing the nearside 8 from stepping out by taking on a higher position in the left half-space.
The near-side 8 stepping up would lead to FC Liverpool being outnumbered in a 5 vs. 4 situation in the last line thanks to Gravenberch taking up a high position and Mazraoui’s run on the far-side.
In the league encounter against PEC Zwolle Ajax faced a compact 4-diamond-2 midfield press. Erik ten Hag’s team reacted by squeezing the diamond together. New signing Sean Klaiber acted as an inverted fullback and together with Gravenberch forced the opponent’s 8s into the centre to maximize space on the wing.
The diamond got squeezed even further. As usual, Tagliafico offered a wide option on the left while near-side winger Antony offered a wide option on the right in deeper zones. By Klaiber moving inwards and a situational role reversal Quincy Promes and Tadic were able to overload the far-side half-space and through timed runs offer diagonal and vertical passing options to Tagliafico. Through Gravenberch’s movement against the direction of the ball, the opposing 8 got tied down far too deep for him to effectively trackback. This leads to a 3 vs. 1 situation involving Tadic, Promes and Tagliafico.
The Collective Behavior
Reporter: “Is this typical Ajax?” Erik ten Hag: “It is frivolous. But the foundation is collaboration!”
Collaboration is a versatile term that describes the behavior of a group. Where do the strengths of Ajax lie?
The idea of Ajax is based on possession and the development of play. The well developed technical ability of the players fit this approach very well. Not only the technical ability but also the cognitive ability.
The players recognize and occupy free space quicker than their opponents. They also recognize passing channels quicker than their opponents. For them to take advantage of their superior vision they need to demonstrate adequate collective behavior in order to facilitate play for each other.
In this situation against FC Liverpool, Gravenberch recognizes potential space for transition in close proximity to the wide option on the left Tagliafico. Gravenberch’s vision tells him about the man orientation of his direct opponent (Liverpool’s right 8). Should the opponent apply a man orientated press he is tied down in order to construct passing channels. By dropping back Gravenberch is opening up a passing lane for Blind to reach Klaasen who anticipated the vacated space and dynamically occupies it.
Because the near side opposing fullback is tied down through Neres positioning (Between the fullback and centre-back), Liverpool’s 6 needs to step out on the wing to prevent Klaasen from opening up. The space behind the defensive line that Neres could have attacked is too big to close down which prevents the fullback from stepping up. Liverpool’s 6 covering on the wing leads to 2 vs. 1 situation in the centre and on the wing through Tadic + Alvarez / Klaasen + Tagliafico. Thanks to the remarkable cooperation between the players they are always able to create space and therefore facilitate play for each other. The play of Ajax is characterized by a lot of empathy.
The centre is one of the most important areas on the pitch. Who has control over the centre frequently controls the pace and rythm of the game. Despite the strategic importance of the centre, teams often chose to attack down the wings as the opponent blocks the middle.
Often it is impossible to construct passing channels and the components space, time and pressure from the opponent are most difficult to overcome in the central regions of the opponent’s formation.
It has been mentioned that Ajax are able to adapt to the opponent’s strengths and do not insist on progressing the ball through defined zones. Nevertheless, they initially aim to control the centre and the half-spaces in possession.
Doing so Erik ten Hag’s intelligent players test how aggressive the opponent is defending certain zones and how present individual opponents are. The style of press also plays a role. Which zones are defended man oriented and which zones are defended zone oriented.
In central zones teams often opt for a man oriented approach to deny players in possession time and space for optimal decision-making. A high chance of success to create passing channels by tying down opponents.
In this image the opponent presses in a 4-3-3 midfield press with the goal of directing possession inwards. To complicate the press for the opponent Ajax build up with 3 players and Tagliafico staying deep. The effect of directing possession inwards disappears. The 2 wide centre-backs Schuurs and Tagliafico do not find themselves in the cover shadow of the of the opposing wingers.
In case the wingers are trying to force Ajax inside, diagonal passing channels to the half-spaces would open up. In this situation academy graduate Klaasen recognizes a possible passing channels towards the the middle third of the pitch. By tying down the opposing 6 his lateral movement opens up a passing channel. Alvarez recognizes this space and makes a “blind-side run” behind the opponent’s 6. Gravenberch realizes the intentions of his Mexican teammate and drops out to maximize space for the receiver.
Tying down the opponent
Usually players tie down opponents with the aim of creating space for their teammates. But what if a player creates space for himself by tying down an opponent?
This situation is an example for the topic. Serbian Dusan Tadic finds himself in the covershadow of his opponent and is completely unavailable for his teammate Ryan Gravenberch. The captain is quick to realize that his opponent is acting based on a man oriented press and can therefore be tied down quite easily. Tadic is moving left to right to find space and waits for a passing channel to open up. Gravenberch’s intelligence allows him to scan the pitch for additional options. Because Tadic’s direct opponent gave in to his lateral movement Gravenberch can reach Tagliafico who can now attack from a different angle.
Options close to the ball in possession
Especially in the final third Ajax are looking to offer options for their teammates in possession.
One player permanently moves close to the player in possession to offer a short option and escape pressure.
Since Erik ten Hag took over Ajax frequently use one-twos as well as the third man principle.
Tadic is leaving his initial position in centre-forward to create a numerical advantage in proximity to the ball. To maximize the technical abilities of the Dutch side every attempt to double-team/ create equal numbers is prevented. The opposing near-side centre-back is realizing the numerical disadvantage in the near-side halfspace and on the near-side wing.
As a result, the centre-back is pushing up to create equal numbers. To prevent the centre-back from stepping up in more aggressive fashion Ajax occupy the far-side with 2 players. Antony and Mazraoui maximize the space inside the opponent’s defensive lines. As a result, the opponent is being stretched out and positive outcomes are little pressure in terms of space as well as pressure from opponents in the near-side zones. The Brazilian David Neres is acting as an option for Tagliafico who is in possession.
Unusual but clever
Ajax Amsterdam are varying their structure against the ball and are adapting according to the formation and pressing mechanisms of their opponents. Mostly ten Hag and his colleagues opt for a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 depending on their opponent’s patterns in possession.
Height of the press, pressing triggers as well as pressing traps are constantly being interchanged. An important aspect of their press are the interception and retention of second balls.
Erik ten Hag is also able to, depending on the zones, allocate man oriented or space oriented press.
Especially against FC Liverpool they applied an interesting approach over an extended period of time.
This image shows a man oriented press in proximity to the ball.
Ajax are playing out of a 4-3-3 midfield press with interchanges and are restricting themselves to a fully man-oriented press of the Liverpool players who are close to the ball.
Antony drops back quite a lot of from his initial position on the right wing to cover Liverpool’s left-back. While Antony, Gravenberch, Alvarez, Neres and Tadic have clearly defined players they are covering, Klaasen defends based on a space-oriented press. In case of a Liverpool player dropping out, Klaasen would later cover him.
Aim of this approach was to eliminate opportunities for the opposition in attack and force turnovers. Despite limited options, the decision-making of the player in possession took time which caused stress after Ajax transitioned into an aggressive press.
In case the player in possession decides to dribble out of defence the closest Ajax player moves out and forces the previous opponent into his cover shadow.
This prevented Jürgen Klopp’s team from exercising a controlled approach for large parts of the game.
Despite constant departures of players in the last years, the club could establish itself as a serious contender in the domestic and international competitions.
Through large transfer revenue Ajax were able to not only sell expensive players but also purchase a couple of pricey new players.
The contract of manager Erik ten Hag expires in Summer 2020. Despite multiple confirmations that the Dutchman enjoys working for the record champion, there is frequent media speculation about his promising future.
It will be interesting to see where he will go after his Ajax tenure.