Make that a four game win streak for Ajax. With pressure heating up at the top of the league, the Amsterdammers made sure to keep their calm in an important 5-1 win over Heerenveen.
Coming away from a game and analysing the performance is always important in assessing the situation and finding ways to improve. Statistics play an important part in this. Going into the game it was crucial for Ajax to get the win; keeping the pressure on Feyenoord is of upmost importance. With this in mind, the players needed to put everything into the game. However, the start was disappointing, with Heerenveen coming out with intensity and controlling the game from the get go, catching the Amsterdammers by surprise. Initial it felt like there was going to be another lapse after an impressive win in the Europa League. The intensified and pressured style of play in the beginnings of the game really benefited Heerenveen, making Ajax look disjointed and resulting in them being broken down and struggling to get a foothold in the game. For approximately 20 minutes it was a grim picture for Ajax fans. Heerenveen made sure to make the most of the initial stages of the game and in the 8th minute they broke on the counterattack. Sam Larsson made ground with relative ease, where he then played a simple pass to Ghoochannejhad who slotted it away to make it 1-0. A very disappointing start for the home team. Thankfully this didn’t last.
Progressing through the first half allowed for Ajax to establish a foothold in the game. After about 20 minutes the tide of the game slowly moved in Ajax’s favour. From a corner Ziyech delivered the ball into the box, finding the head of Sánchez, producing an assist for Viergever, who scored with his chest. Ajax made sure to make the most of getting back into the game. De Ligt and Dolberg worked together passing around Heerenveen, resulting in de Ligt making it 2-1. At only 17 years of age De Ligt continues to impress, not just as a rock solid defender but also as a complete forward. The Amsterdam side captain also wanted to make his presence known: in typical fashion, Klaassen slotted it home making it 3-1 to Ajax before half time. Ajax came in at half time with 55.4% of possession, 7 of 12 total shots on target, 79.8% passing, and 11 key passes. The disappointing start to the game can be seen in sloppy play. Heerenveen had a total of 12 interceptions with a 75% of tackles being won. Adding to this, Heerenveen prevailed in aerial battles with 61.5% of aerial duels being won in the first half. Despite the score line, there were still aspects to work on going into the second half.
Ajax had learned their lesson in the first half and made sure that Heerenveen wouldn’t have a chance of getting back into the game. The home side set out to play the football they are familiar with. Retaining possession, controlling the game, and adding intensity and pressure that has given Ajax a newfound identity this season. It got from bad to worse for Heerenveen as Dolberg converted a penalty to turn the score into 4-1. After that, there was no coming back from the visitors. The nail in the coffin came in the 83rd when Neres duked the keeper and put the ball in the back of the net, and that was all she wrote. Ajax finished the game with 57.1% possession, with 12 of 26 shots on target, 81.4% passing, and 23 key passes.
— AjaxDaily (@ajaxdailydotcom) April 16, 2017
Despite the score line, Ajax will be walking away critical of their game. The wingers were fairly quiet and had limited involvement until towards the end of the game when Younes linked up with Neres to make it 5-1. Part of this could come down to the return of Dolberg to the line up and his different style of play compared to Traoré. Dolberg appears to drop deeper, whilst Traoré is usually further up and a bit more flowing across the pitch. This change influences the way in which Ziyech played. The Moroccan is such a key component in linking up with the attack and an important aspect in how Ajax go forward. Looking at heat maps and touches during the game, it presents something of interest. During the game it is very noticeable the Ziyech, despite lining up in the centre of the field, attacked from midfield towards the left and gradually moved in centrally. It is also worth noting that Ziyech lined up on the left of central midfield against Heerenveen rather than on the right side against Schalke. This had an impact in how Younes played as Ziyech was predominantly in the area where the German flourishes, as we seen against Schalke. As a result, it appears the Younes played more of a reduced role, resulting in having less of an impact on the game compared to his previous exploits in the Europa League.
Much of the attack was done through the middle rather than out wide. 36% of the attack was done up the middle, compared to 34% on the left, and 30% on the right. This also had an influence on the shooting. 65% of shot direction was from the middle, compared to 12% from the left, and 23% on the right.
Obviously in this game, despite the rough start and not being at full potential, this system worked. Making the most of a talent like Dolberg is crucial. The Dane has been directly involved in 20 goals in 26 Eredivisie games for Ajax this season: 14 goals and 6 assists. To get the best out of the attack, and in this case Younes, it appears that Ziyech would be better lining up on the right of central midfield and having Klaassen on the left. As a result, they will be able to play a similar style of football like they did against Schalke in switching between each other in midfield and providing the important link between midfield an attack. Passing networks provided by 11tegen11 really show how the change in line up influenced the way in which Ajax played.
It is worth pointing out that Neres had a good game on the right. 75% pass accuracy in the final third, 2 shots of 4 on target, and 1 goal. Neres is also the first Ajacied to score in each of his first three Eredivise starts since Luis Suárez back in 2007. With the title race coming down to the wire and having another important game against Schalke, Ajax will need to be at their best. Ultimately, the Amsterdammers will be coming away from the game against Heerenveen with the all-important 3 points.