Inconsistent. If there is one word to sum up the season so far for Ajax then it would be inconsistent, well assuming we are not using more colourful language that is. We have reached the end of March and it is looking increasingly unlikely that the side from Amsterdam will win the Eredivisie, instead the attention of the club and its fans will turn towards next season and more specifically whether they have eventually identified the coach that will return the club to the style and success that is it used to.
Erik Ten Hag has impressed in part since taking over at the club, Ajax are again impressing with the first phase of their build-up play and the passing patterns and combinations synonymous with the ‘Ajax way’ are once again in evidence. What has been missing though is the final penetrative movement in the final third. When clubs have set up deliberately to sit in a low block and frustrate Ajax they have struggled to adapt their game system to find a way through, short of the odd set piece or moment of individual skill, the Ajax of old however were capable to solving almost any problem that they came across.
In their last outing away at Sparta Rotterdam, there was a clear shift in attacking emphasis from Ajax in the second half compared to the first and this alteration held the key to Ajax winning the match comfortable (5-2) having been drawing (1-1) at halftime. This was the first clear sign that Ten Hag, undoubtedly a promising coach, had the tactical flexibility to identify and exploit clear weaknesses in the opponent’s tactical structure.
The purpose of this piece is not to give you a tactical blow by blow of the other hand but rather to identify and explain the key attacking difference that handed Ajax the win in this match.
There were no surprises from either side with Ajax retaining their traditional 4-3-3 structure that we all know so well, with Frenkie De Jong currently injured we are no longer seeing the playmaking centre-half utilised which saw De Jong stepping out of the defensive line and in towards the final third when Ajax were in possession. Instead with Maximilian Wober having recovered from a knee injury the likelihood is that when De Jong is fit again he will step back into the midfield alongside Donny Van De Beek and Hakim Ziyech.
With Kaper Dolberg still recovering from an injury, we saw Klaas-Jan Huntelaar retaining his place as the lone striker with Justin Kluivert and David Neres both having impressed this season in wide areas.
Sparta, on the other hand, were set up nominally in a 4-2-3-1 although in practice this they had a five-man midfield line with which to frustrate their opponents. With the experienced Dick Advocaat in charge, there would be little in the way of attacking intent from the home side as the match wore on.
In the early stages of the match, Ajax struggled to gain control with Sparta getting some success with direct passes from the defensive third to the final third, especially into the wide areas. Gradually though the visiting side gained control and began to develop triangles throughout the field in order to retain possession and move the ball around probing the Sparta defensive block.
Sparta, however, were content to allow Ajax space in the wide areas in the middle third through which to build, as the ball entered the final third however the defensive block would shift over and cut out the space that had been open.
In essence, they were inviting Ajax to attack wide before closing the trap to cut out the attack in the final third.
Here we see Ajax in possession of the ball just inside the Sparta half. Although Sparta have left the wide are relatively open they are compact centrally.
Matthijs De Ligt was the key to the Ajax build-up play giving his willingness to take responsibility on the ball, he is comfortable and confident in stepping out of the defensive line with the ball or in passing through the opposition lines to move the play towards the final third.
In the first half when he was in possession of the ball we would see Sparta allow De Ligt possession but use cover shadows and individual pressing movements to prevent the ball from being played centrally. In the above example De Ligt was able to pass vertically to David Neres who has moved into the half space and he, in turn, can play the pass out wide to right back Kristensen who has space. It is at this point though that as Kristensen moves to attack the edge of the penalty area that we see Sparta close the trap and shut space down.
Again here the play is dictated by Matthijs De Ligt who has possession coming out of the defensive phase. This time the vertical pass to Neres in the half space is closed but Kristiansen has taken a deeper position to offer a horizontal pass to open a passing lane in to the final third.
Once again Ajax are allowed to progress the ball out from the middle third to the final third through the wide spaces. Dick Advocaat is experienced enough as a coach to know that he cannot prevent Ajax from playing through to the final third across the full width of the field. Instead, he has his side structured in such a way to almost force Ajax to play wide before pressing the ball.
For the majority of the first half, we saw Ajax struggle to play the final pass into the penalty area, in this the Sparta gameplan was succeeding. The key, however, lay in the halftime changes made in the away dressing room by Erik Ten Hag.
The second half of the match saw Ajax score four times before Sparta scored a late consolation. How though did Ajax change the match so thoroughly after struggling to create chances in the first 45 minutes? The answer lay in the way that Ajax attacked the Sparta defensive block.
This time the play is being dictated by Lasse Schone in the midfield, although he is positioned in the same way as we saw in the two first half examples. Schone has the vision and space to play a diagonal pass to Justin Kluivert in the wide left area who in turn plays a first time pass behind the defensive line for the underlapping Nicolas Tagliafico.
A relatively simple change perhaps but in the first half, Ajax had almost become too focused on creating passing combinations in front of the Sparta defensive block without realising that a more direct approach would be more efficient. We should note however that although the diagonal pass is more direct that does not mean that this is long ball football. Instead, this is almost a more impressive form of combination play.
This time we see a combination of the short passing and the more direct approach as Ajax create an opportunity to penetrate the Sparta penalty area. Maximilan Wober plays a quick one two with Justin Kluivert before clipping a lofted pass forward in to the path of Nicolas Tagliafico with the Argentinian full back attacking the space that had been created by Kluivert cutting inside.
Here we see Ajax work in front of the Sparta defensive block in order to force the home defenders out of position. The initial first and second passes seem simple and without genuine purpose, in fact, these passes are deliberate and intended to have a defensive player move out to press the first pass. This, in turn, will create space in behind that can be accessed by the pass into space over the top.
This match provided a brief insight into what may be possible for Ajax next season under Ten Hag. Earlier on in the season, there would have been every chance that Ajax would have become more and more frustrated by the defensive strategy used by Sparta. Instead, a change to the focus of the build-up play saw them begin to find routes to bypass the defensive block.
Once this had happened a couple of times within the match Sparta became more open in their defensive structure allowing Ajax to develop more passing lanes and routes through to the penalty area.
Inconsistent yes, but at this stage, all that Ajax need is to regain a sense that they can once again be relevant domestically and in Europe. In this match, we may have seen signs that Erik Ten Hag is the right man for Ajax.