As we come in to the final weeks of the Eredivisie season the title race is very much still on. Going in to the match against Go Ahead Eagles at the weekend however, Ajax knew that only a win would be enough to give them a chance of overturning Feyenoord in the last game of the season the following week.
There is however another consideration with this pivotal domestic match being sandwiched between the first and second legs of the Europa League semi final with Lyon of France. Ajax went some way to easing the burden of pressure by coming away with a resounding 4-1 victory in the home leg but would still employ a degree of squad rotation coming in to this match.
With hope still alive in both the Eredivisie and the Europa League for the club to secure some silverware, the coming weeks would go a long way to deciding whether the first season under coach Peter Bosz would be considered a success or a failure. There has been a sense in recent weeks that the club is on the right track to recover some of their identity. The implementation of quick attacking football coupled with the reliance on the youth system certainly has echoes to the Ajax of old.
It remains to be seen how many players will leave the squad in the coming transfer window, but the quality of players in the youth system bodes extremely well for the future.
Ajax team news
As expected we saw a heavy rotation to the playing squad for this game. In a way it is understandable with the away leg in Lyon coming up the following Thursday, but to rotate to this extent is still an expression of faith in the backup players within the squad.
Andre Onana started as normal in goal but ahead of him the back line had a different feel with Joel Veltman and Nick Viergever in the fullback positons and a completely changed central defensive partnership of Heiko Westermann and Jairo Riedewald. Perhaps the most exciting piece of team news for Ajax fans was the introduction to the first team of Adbelhak Nouri, with the young attacking midfielder long being lauded as one of the brightest young talents at the club. He was joined in the midfield by Donny Van De Beek and Davy Klaassen.
In attack Kasper Dolberg played centrally flanked by the pace and creativity of David Neres on the right and Justin Kluivert on the left.
Playing out of the back and breaking lines
One of the most important aspects of Ajax’s play this season under Bosz has been the way that they instigate their attacking moves by playing out from the back.
The coach favours a vertical style of build up with the ball being circulated around the back four and goalkeeper until an opportunity to play a quick vertical pass that breaks the lines of the oppositions defensive structure presents itself. This patient style of ball circulation in the first instance is designed to force the defensive block for the opposition to shift across the field in an effort to force a mistake that creates space to play in to.
It should also be said that should the opposition maintain a deep defensive block we see Ajax access the wide areas before looking to either play diagonally infield to the attackers or to isolate the fullback in a one on one situation.
Here you can see the structure that Ajax use in playing the ball out of defence when the opposition maintain a presence around the Ajax penalty area.
With the two centrebacks splitting out to the corners of the penalty area one of the midfielder s drops in to the centre to form a diamond. This shape gives the man in possession, Onana in this instance, three comfortable passing options and the midfielder allows the ball to be played through the first line of pressure in to an advanced area from which Ajax can build.
It is a sign of the style of play that Bosz favours that his favoured central defensive partnership has evolved in to Davinson Sanchez and Matthijs De Ligt with both players being as comfortable in possession of the ball as they are in their defensive actions.
The Colombian Sanchez in particular has become extremely adept at playing hard vertical through balls in to the feet of the midfielders to allow them to access the middle third of the pitch.
In this match Westermann and Riedewald showed that they can adapt to this style of play as well and in this example the German defender is seen playing the hard vertical pass through in to the midfield.
This style of play of course is dependent on the midfielders finding space in which to receive the ball. The three players in the middle would constantly rotate with the ball on the back line with Van De Beek drifting left or right and allowing either Nouri of Klaassen to drop in to take possession of the ball.
Interplay to access the final third
Of course the aim in possession of the ball should always be to find a way to access the final third of the field and to break through the opposition’s defensive line. One of the most interesting aspects of Ajax’s play in this match was the number of different tactical concepts that they used to access the final third.
Once again Bosz proved his tactical creativity.
First of all I have picked out an example of some of the direct interplay in the final third that allowed Ajax to break through the defensive line comfortably.
The first pass goes in to the feet of the attacker hard and he shifts the ball immediately to the supporting player. The key is in the pace of the first pass and the timing of the second pass. As soon as you play the ball in to advanced areas and then change the angle of the attack you give the opposition a big problem as they are forced to shift to cover attacking players and cut off passing lanes.
Next we see the third man run from the man who had played the initial pass who continues up the field past the ball and along the blind side of the defender. This run is timed to allow the man in possession to easily slip the ball through in to the penalty area for a chance on goal.
In this example we see Ajax access an underloaded side of the field where they have a wide player in space by playing through a central pivot.
It has to be said that for periods of this match the structure for Go Ahead Eagles was broken with little in the way of cohesive defending. That broken structure however still has to be taking advantage of by the attacking team and Ajax did so with ruthless efficiency.
The man originally in possession in the wide right area has the option of playing a direct switch in to the underload but this remains a low percentage pass with the chance that the opposition will quickly adjust or cut the pass out.
Instead the ball is played in to Nouri in the central area with the young midfielder having found himself in a large pocket of space. Nouri then understands the advantage that they have and plays the ball quickly out to the left hand side.
On this occasion the Go Ahead Eagles defensive structure is relatively set and there is little in the way of space for the man in possession to play vertical passes in to.
Instead the available space is in the wide area and the man in possession shows both the awareness and the quality to access this space with a direct diagonal pass being the right back. Unlike the last example where there was a more efficient option to switch the play with the central pivot the best course of action is to directly look to access the space.
For a long time the term counterpressing was a tactical buzzword that was applied widely – and often incorrectly – there are definite signs though from Ajax under Bosz that he favours this style of pressing in the immediate defensive transition.
Counterpressing tends to be a concept best applied to a team that can play from a dominant position within a match, this is why it suits Ajax so well as they are used to dominating possession against the majority of opponents.
Even with the score at 4-0 we still saw Ajax working hard in the defensive transition looking to prevent the opposition from advancing the ball up the field.
Here with the ball on the touchline there are three Ajax players looking to engage the man in possession to be able to win the ball back. The key though lies in the highlighted player in the centre of the field who is looking to move across to cut of the only safe passing lane for the man in possession.
The aim of this press is to either force the man with the ball to make a mistake and concede possession or make him launch a long ball that has a high probability of being intercepted by an Ajax player.
For a heavily rotated side this was an extremely impressive and efficient performance from this Ajax side. Their 4-0 win coupled with the 3-0 defeat for Feyenoord means that we go in to the final match of the league season with all to play for. A double of league title and Europa league would make for an extremely successful season in Amsterdam, but many fans will simply be happy to see the club starting to move back to the roots of a philosophy that made them so successful in the first place.