There are a couple of amazing stories in football, developing in front of our eyes… There’s Oranje’s revival under Koeman, with a spot in the Nation League’s finals… There’s Liverpool’s surge to the top, with two Dutchies as key players… Atalanta’s story is like a fairytale too, and FC Twente – relegated within 10 years of winning the title in Holland – reports back for duty in the Eredivisie next season!
But it’s Ajax that deserves the biggest boldest font.
Here is VI Pro’s analysis on how Ajax and its coach Erik ten Hag think, work and approach the game.
The initial commentary on Ten Hag’s appointment by the Dutch media was all focused on what we can now see as trivialities. His raspy voice, his East Holland dialect, his longwinded sentences and his headstrong approach to people and football in general were the subject of all we had to say about him.
But Ten Hag ignored that all but just worked. And he worked hard and diligently, with a strong technical staff, with amongst others Alfred Schreuder, Richard Witschge and Aron Winter.
Ten Hag works on the basis of his principles. The foundations of the game, if you will. For his: “It’s all about patterns, and we train these. We want to offer certainties to the players. Patterns they can fall back on. And we can add more and more and become ever so flexible in how we play. We call it “automatisms”, patterns that allow players to think and act really quickly. It’s like improv in theatre. You can only improvise if you know the script by heart… And in our case, Ajax is all about attacking, playing dominant and attractive.”
These principles are non-negotiable for Ten Hag. He is flexible in the system, flexible in which players he uses. But he’s not where it his principles are concerned.
In general, Ten Hag plays a 4-2-3-1 but uses different players in different situations. There is the CL line up, with two controlling mids and Tadic as the false striker.
In the less demanding Eredivisie games, he uses Dolberg or Huntelaar as a true #9 and uses Van de Beek as holding mid, with freedom to penetrate. Usually Tadic and / or Ziyech combine the #10 role behind the forward.
Pass map Ajax vs Juve at home: Tadic as false striker with the wingers Ziyech and Neres moving inside, creating space for the full backs.
Pass map Ajax vs Emmen away: a more offensive right back, allowing Neres to play inside. Van de Beek close to Huntelaar. Tagliafico a tad more back as Tadic occupies the left flank.
Pass map Ajax vs Fortuna at home: Van de Beek playing as controlling mid, but penetrating when possible. Dolberg as central striker with Ziyech in the #10 role.
Ten Hag’s principles:
- Create an extra man in midfield
Create a man more situation, and the first ball always played forward. That was one of the first things Ten Hag demanded, in his first training sessions. In Ten Hag’s first half season, he used Frenkie de Jong as central defender, moving forward into midfield. Now, with Daley Blind in the that role, De Jong can play from midfield. It’s also the drifting wide players (Ziyech or Neres or Tadic) who come in to create a man more in midfield. Ten Hag always wants to dominate the midfield.
2. Changing positions
Ten Hag demands a lot of changes in positions. He doesn’t want to see the predictable positioning that come from the “system thinkers”. With the dynamic players like De Jong, Van de Beek, Ziyech and Neres, there is always a player on the move, which results in other players taking over the roles or covering the spaces.
3. Don’t over-use the width of the pitch
It’s second nature for Ajax players: once one of the backs or wide players comes inside, the other moves outside and vice versa. In the times of Van Gaal (1995), the wingers were supposed to have the white on their boots, from the chalk lines. In Ten Hag’s system, not so much. When Tadic moves to the left line, it’s Tagliafico bombing forward on the underlap. Ziyech and Mazraoui enjoy a similar partnership. The opponent is constantly in doubt: do I follow the winger, or do I stay and wait for the back to run into my zone?
4. Always make runs and play passes forward and in behind
Ten Hag sighs deep in 2017, when interviewed about the state of Dutch football: “There is no country in the world where central defenders pass the ball to each other this often…”. And statistically, in those days, Ajax was the champion of square passing (under Frank de Boer). Ball possession should not be the objective, Ten Hag said in his first presentation to the media, for Ajax. Possession is a means to an end.
5. Make sure the rest defence is always organised
A term made popular within Ajax by Erik ten Hag. Rest defence. It is all about being aware constantly that at any given moment the ball could be overturned and lost. Players should always be aware of that potentially happening and being ready, positionally, to take care of these situations. Ajax always wants 4 players behind the ball, at any time. Whenever Onana has the ball, three defenders will form the last line with one controlling player in front of them, allowing Onana options to work the ball from the back to midfield.
6. Immediate pressure on the ball
Gegenpressing, a German term (meaning: counter pressing) brought to Holland by Schreuder (Hoffenheim) and Ten Hag (Bayern Munich) from their days in the Bundesliga. Defending the counter is key in getting results. Ajax has almot perfected this and have used it to great success in the Champions League as well. Ajax is now capable of playing on the half of the opponent and get a result against the best teams in the world.
7. Get back in the organisation immediately after a failed pressure moment
This “Gegenpress” is not just a matter of hunting the opponent until you get the ball, but also having a plan for when it fails. Ajax now will have a number of players behind the ball who will defend and control zonally. The players will force the opponent towards a certain side of the pitch, to make the angles for passing harder and the next gegenpress easier. This more passive approach will decrease Ajax’ chance of winning the ball back, but at the same time in also decreases the chances for the opponent to create anything against Ajax.
8. Lure the opponent to the flanks
Ten Hag doesn’t want to meddle to much in the axis of the pitch. He doesn’t want De Jong, Schone or De Ligt to move away from that area by stepping out. He wants to keep that intact, which means the team will force the opponent to go towards the flanks. The wingers do this to move inward, which opens up the passing options to the flanks for the opponent. Once the pass comes, Ajax locks the opponent in, like a horde of wolves would with prey. In this way Ajax can put max pressure on the opponent without being very vulnerable themselves.
9. Keep the spaces limited
Ten Hag wanted to increase Ajax’ defensive certainty. Controlling the distances between players, keeping it minimal, is key in this. Ajax does this on their own half of the pitch, but also on the opponent’s half. Blind and De Ligt are often positioned on the opponent’s half to block their progress. Throw-ins are recognised moments for Ajax to have a lot of players around the ball to put pressure on the ball as much as possible.
10. Defend the space
Ten Hag uses zonal marking vs man to man marking. He teaches his players to defend the space, instead of following opponents. In his first months at Ajax, he uses the 4-1-4-1 system, but this season it’s more a 4-2-3-1. The distance between the lines can not be more than 10 meters.
11. Immediately play the ball towards the goal
Who analyses the goals Ajax scored this season will see heaps of goals that will qualify as counter-attacking goals. Situation where Ajax pounces straight after re-possessing the ball. This is not a coincidence. Ten Hag works on recognising the moments where the opponent is most vulnerable. And with Frenkie de Jong in midfield, Ajax now has a player who sees the way forward quicker than anyone and has the ability to execute.
Ajax has a tremendous number of goals again this season and key in this was Ten Hag’s willingness to adapt his ideas and approach to the qualities of the players available. With Daley Blind coming in the club, Frenkie could move forward to midfield, and Lasse Schone now has the job to protect the defence when Frenkie is exploring his free role.
This last summer it seemed Hakim Ziyech would make a move to a bigger competition. Zakaria Labyad and / or Dusan Tadic would be in line to take Ziyech’s role in midfield. Ten Hag has made the decision to play with the “point forward” in midfield, vs the “point backwards”… Usually, Ajax plays with one holding player sitting in front of the defence, and with two midfielders playing more high up the pitch ( the point backwards). Ten Hag now uses the opposite system. Two holding mids, with freedom to roam and penetrate (De Jong, Van de Beek) and with one more forward playing “#10” midfielder (the point forward system). Ten Hag: “Whatever you do or however you call it, once we build up and our central defenders move up, we will need to be playing and positioning in tiers if you like… You get more than 3 lines (defence, midfield, attack). We need dynamics and more variable implementations. These are the patterns I was talking about.”
But as Ziyech didn’t leave, he was able to use the system and use Ziyech as a wide play maker coming in from the right side of the pitch. Not unlike Messi plays at times, or Dyballa or Bernardo Silva. Starting wide and drifting inside.
One of the key aspects of this is, that Ziyech now is found when he is facing the opponent’s goal and it’s no coincidence that the former Heerenveen player is having a super season. In the past, Ziyech played deeper as a real playmaker and when he had a tough match, he would drop deeper to still get the ball and play the risky pass from deeper, allowing for much more dangerous loss of possession.
Now, in Ajax’ current system, Ziyech is allowed to take the risks, much higher up the pitch.
Another piece of the puzzle clicks in in those early Champions League matches: after Tete’s exit, Ajax invests in a Danish and a Spanish option for right back, but its former playmaker and question mark Noussair Mazraoui that grabs his chance as right back. He’s vulnerable defensively, but in offensive patterns he has proven his worth. His tactical discipline make him a typical Ten Hag player. And due to his perfect partnership with Ziyech, there has never been a discussion about the right back spot ever since.
Ziyech and Tadic both have a free role in the team. And the rest of the team will need to make that possible. “Both Dusan and Hakim are at their best when they can play freely and on intuition. So they are allowed to do this, and from the wings,” as Ten Hag explains it.
The full backs have a key role in this. They need to keep the width where needed and always have the outball to at least one side. Tagliafico and Mazraoui execute this perfectly.
It does mean that Schone and Frenkie de Jong have less adventurous roles, but for Ten Hag, the attack starts with Onana, and it helps to have a playmaker-type defender in your last line (Frenkie, Daley). And all three players – De Ligt, Blind or De Jong – have the perfect build up pass available once they’re played free in midfield. Frenkie de Jong in particular has the smarts to remain unpredictable.
Juventus coach Allegri thought he had a solution for Frenkie. “As he moves to their left – our right – I decided to use Bernardeschi to counter and press De Jong. But within minutes, De Jong recognised it and moved to the right side of the pitch, thereby forcing one of our attackers to pick him up. Every attack of Ajax starts with De Jong!”.
Ajax plays Dutch Total Football with a scent of Bundesliga dna. When Ten Hag worked at Bayern, he witnessed Pep Guardiola in the video suite, analysing the opponents to find the perfect moment to stop an opponent’s counter attack. And right hand man Alfred Schreuder did the same with Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim.
These turn-around moments have always been key for Ajax. Even back in the 70s, with Michels / Cruyff’s total football and in 2016/17 under Peter Bosz in the Europe League.
Erik ten Hag also added some gutsy defensive approaches to the team. He has the courage to have Ajax defend far from their own goal. Not a lot of opponents have the ability to play from under that press. In the Eredivisie, hardly any team knows how to deal with the positioning play of Ajax. The wingers move inside a bit, to cut out some passing lines and when the opponent tries the long ball, Mathijs de Ligt will control the situation and deal with it, Virgil van Dijk-style.
This image shows how Ajax deals with opponents who do have the courage and ability to play under pressure. Ajax forces the ball to the side, three players will attack the player with the ball, blocking his passing lines.
The only way to deal with this is to use the long ball to find space on the other side of the pitch. Feyenoord beat Ajax 6-2 in Rotterdam and used left back Calvin Verdonk to explore that space. Real Madrid was also able to use that weakness in Ajax’ tactics. Ajax did concede more goals than PSV, in the Eredivisie. Partly the result from the tactics Ten Hag uses, but also something Ten Hag will further focus on to perfect.
When asked what Ten Hag will need to work on more in the coming season, his response: “The turnaround. In today’s football, that is key. And also, what do we do, once we get the ball? In the past, I felt Ajax would cherish ball possession once they got it back. And relaxed a tad. I want my team to immediately use that situation to take advantage of the lack of organisation with the opponent. With Utrecht, we were the top team in the stat “% goals within 4 passes after repossessing the ball”. Ajax was half way the table. But those are the perfect moments to score, particularly for a team like Ajax, which plays a lot vs parked buses. When the opponent is organised well, and their rest defence is good, sure…keep possession. But otherwise you’ll need to hurt the opponent.”
In the Champions League, Ajax demonstrates this vs Juve and Real Madrid. Neres goal at home against Juventus? He took the ball off a defender and ran in a straight line to the goal. Against Madrid, the five goal were scored after respectively 2, 1, 3, 1 and zero passes in the run up to the goals. When Ajax gets the ball from the opponent, they will take the shortest route to the goal.