Ten Hag’s Ajax and how they do it

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.

Game Principles

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:

  1. 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.

The Turnaround

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.

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  1. Initial nerves wearing off now after ten minutes and Ajax starting to control play and tempo. Excellent play in tight quarters but risky passes not quite paying off yet…

  2. Ajax passing with crispness and confidence. It brings an urgency that is often lacking with teams that just methodically pass the ball around. Ajax is proactively looking to attack. And a GOOOOAAAALLLLL!!!!!

    VAN DE BEEK!!!!!!

  3. VAR approves! Van de Beek was close but even. really composed to finish that!

    And almost another right away!

    Ajax playing great and applying constant pressure, Keep it up!

  4. One misplay by Schoen almost costs them.

    20 minutes in and Ajax still looking great! Composure in the back and defending as a team when they happen to lose the ball

    Then they attack with pace on the counter

    I honestly can’t remember enjoying watching them play as much as I have over these last few weeks…

  5. Blind falls and gives Llorente a free header. Thankfully he misses wide.

    De Jong with an ill advised ball hanging up high that’s intercepted.

    Ajax hunting in packs and moving constantly without the ball. They’re like black ants swarming. Tottenham on their heels again

  6. Tagliafico with a yellow for taking down Eriksen. Ajax setting up very high…

    Two Tottenham players down in the box…

    Vertognen and Alderweireld collided — two former Ajax men. Vertognen looks like he got the worst of it. LOts of blood

  7. Vertognen really struggling and now coming off. Looked to be possibly a broken nose and/or concussion…

    What a save by Onana right after the restart

  8. Momentum shifting slightly after the injury break. Tottenham with a corner after a desperate lunging tackle and Onana clears…

    Tottenham with more of the ball now. Ajax slowing down, but Neres in on a break. Just can’t get by Sanchez…

  9. 5 minutes of injury time. Tottenham now much more tightly marking in the midfield. Ajax despite slowing down, still frequently first to 50/50 balls

    Veltman denies Rose 1v1 in the box. Desperate clearance following a series of lofted passes. Ajax needs to get out of this half without conceding and regroup!

  10. Eriksen really playing deep now, coming back to get on the ball. Tottenham just playing long to Llorente and letting him knock the ball down for teammates.

  11. Ajax must score another goal at least . Must take advantage of this game and they will be getting tired by the final 15min of the second half

    We can’t let this injured lion escape. they are back to Amsterdam it will be a lot more dangerous

    1. I agree. Continue to play proactively. Tottenham will probably make some changes at halftime, but we’re still doing great things.
      I don’t expect us to drop back now and I hope that we don’t. Need to find Tadic and Neres bursting through …

      Tottenham needs to score heading to Amsterdam, but if we can get a second (or third) away goal, that would be fantastic!

  12. Just like Jan’s article said, Ajax now always looking for the forward pass first. De Jong doesn’t settle for the easy pass, and looks to play through to the next line.

  13. So close again. We’ve got to get another!

    Forcing them to switch the ball long. And Neres gets back to defend. Nice!

    I think continuing to pressure them and force them out of their game is to our advantage. Pressure with numbers…

  14. Ziyech gets back in defense as well. I’m getting concerned about us getting tired as well. But I think it will wear on Spurs more.

    Right now though, we’re getting lucky. They’re slicing through our back line.

  15. Phew! That second half was brutal.

    Much less inspired after watching that, but at least we held on. The away goal is helpful, but a second would have been great.

    I thought Neres had it!

  16. what a first half from van de beek. he was wonderful. the best ajax player. but what happened to him in second half. never near his first half. tottenham has good analysor and in second half they play very fast from right to left and it tease ajax. the best thing was marzzouri came to schone and the game change for ajax again.

  17. We were lucky in 2nd half. Son would have found a way. 2nd leg will be tough and if we lose focus like in a few instances we may be made to pay. In any case, congratulations to Ajax. I can breathe now.

  18. No I am not satisfied with the result

    Should have made it 2-0

    They will definitely score in Amsterdam
    Next week when there energy are back with son

    It’s good that we got an away goal but the second leg won’t be easy !

  19. Winning away from home and keeping a clean sheet is always a job well done. The only slight concern is that, if the 2nd leg is a high scoring game with an aggregate tie, then Tottenham will have the tie-breaker on scoring more away goals.

    Anyways, it should be a great game. Advantage Ajax at home.

  20. I am concerned with the number of wrong passes in the 2nd half. Frankie was very close to making multiple mistakes at wrong positions in the back. We are very lucky Kane and Son didn’t play . Sissoko bossed around from the moment he was in the pitch but Spurs basically had no real attack. That’s why we should have got that 0-2. And we create so many clear chances but somehow can’t score. Spurs will throw the kitchen sink at us from the get go. We need to score with counter attacks. I know that there is a week to go but All I want is being in the final. I am aware Liv or Barca would be too much. May God be with us next week.

    1. Yes, they need to finish their chances. A 2 – 0 win would have been a much much better mental advantage and also would have given them a better cushion. They also need to make adjustments to handle Sissoko. Son coming back is a major advantage to Tottenham. He won’t be wasting chances like Llorente. His off the ball movements will also open up more passing lanes for his teammates. On the other hand, losing Vertonghen (if he can’t make it) would also be a handicap for Tottenham.

      Ajax basically have to play the way they played against Juve in the 2nd half to get to the final. It’s doable but it won’t be easy.

      Ten Hag absolutely has to prioritize the CL game over the Dutch Cup final and rest whoever needs to stay fresh. Getting to the final alone would be a major accomplishment. Anything can happen in one game even if they would be huge underdogs to Barca or Liverpool.

  21. any time you win 1-0 on the road in the first leg, it is a good win…Ajax was fantastic in the first 30 min., after that I thought Tottenham had the edge. Probably a combination of things: the introduction of Sissoko and Spurs changed their formation; Spurs played with a lot more energy and began to use their physical edge to push Ajax around, and probably most important, I Ajax rant themselves out in the that first 30, there was no way they could keep up that pace with the constant pressure on the ball. So Ajax tired and Spurs upped their game.

    I am hopeful, and of course would rather have the one goal lead at home, but I think it is going to be very tough.

    Watching the game, Blind was very good, De ligt, the bigger the game the bigger he plays; Veltman also had a good game. Maz. was a good sub. Van De Beek was the best of the offensive players…and Onana was commanding.

    Damn, 90 Min. from the CL Final. Incredible.

  22. It was a real battle of tactics. Tottenham started in a 5-3-2, which meant that when Ajax had possession there were only 5 players to win the ball without a high press. Ajax were able to dominate the midfield through a simple numbers game.

    When Tottenham switched to a 4-4-2, the numbers shifted a bit and Ajax lost space and lanes in the middle of the pitch, which made the game more even.

    Ajax then switched to a 5-2-3, which was a 3-4-3 on offense, and we gained some space, though wider than before.

    Will be interesting to see how they match up in the home fixture, you imagine Spurs will start the game with a 4-4-2, and won’t be as heavily reliant on long balls of the top.

    Blind and de Ligt were great. And it’s always good to know that a win or draw gets you through no matter what. Not playing a scoreline game. Ajax need to score 1 to put this tie to rest.

    1. Will be interesting to see how Ajax line up on Saturday with the Dutch Cup final wedged between two massive ties. You imagine that some players will get a rest. Always nice to have Huntelaar and Dolberg on the bench. Schone has tired legs as well.

  23. Great game. I agree, Ajax should have scored more. Donny should have squared that ball to Neres… Mazraoui is originally a midfielder. With great legs and lungs, so very logical to bring him in for tired Schone.

    This game is not settled yet, but great start for Ajax. Spurs needs two and need to stop Ajax from scoring. That won’t happen. Ajax will play the finals!

  24. Ajax get a longer break from now until
    The game with Willem II, but then only rest for less than 3 days before facing spurs at home

    Am I the only one who is not too worried about their energy level? Instead it may be turning out better as a “ too long whole week rest “ may actually not enough as a warm up just like last nights game

    i feel should have killed of the game by 2-0 or 3-0…that would have given us good cushion.but this 1-0 makes as sit on edge of the seat,its thrilling though….
    Son is nice player it is highly like that he will score…or he may be destined to scored..i still lament for Neres wood work and Van de beek miss.doesnt want to sit edge after coming this far…Hope Amsterdam will turn to our favour and luck..it could be a 2-2 or 2-1 or 3-2 scoring..Going to be highscore game..spurs must open up and we should exploit everyinch of it…thats how the screen play in going….

  26. @Tiju, 90 minutes away. How great is that? Agree that the return match will be edge of the seat stuff. Would have agreed that it will be a high scoring game awhile ago, but they were so composed in finishing off Juve, and the second half yesterday shows they have the composure and mentality to play tight games as well. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if the second game was a tight low scoring game.

    1. I hope so. I’m a little concerned that Ajax was at full strength and still struggled to hold off a weakened Tottenham, but considering our success against both Madrid and Juventus, both of whom I’d consider to be stronger than Spurs, I think we can do it.

      All of Amsterdam should be out in force! I wish I could be there — I’m sure the atmosphere will be amazing! I didn’t think we’d see another real Champions League run for Ajax in my lifetime. I still have my 95 Ajax away jersey (which I wore proudly yesterday), but might have to get a 2019 edition if we make it to the final.

      1. Agree. Same concern here. A full strength Ajax could barely survive a weak Spurs with no real attackers. And we unusually couldn’t hold on the ball too well. Also Spurs have 4 losses in a row. They are bound to win at some point but hopefully not in Amsterdam. And Ajax hasn’t won at home since a while in UCL. But if it is meant to be it will happen.

  27. Agree that Spurs were weakened, but look at the talent they still put on the field: Rose, Trippier, Aldeweireld, Vertonghen, Sanchez, Eriksen, Lloris, are all players who played key roles on WC Knockout stage NT’s. Plus Moura and Sissoko were probably their best players, and Llorente has always been a threat. That was a good side, and playing at home in the CL semi-final, you would have to expect that at some point in the play. The normal ebb and flow when two good teams play each other. But Ajax dealt with it extremely well, and that is a positive.

    Spurs did lack a cutting edge. What is scary is that they can get demonstrably better in the attack with the addition of Son…But, I’m sticking with Ajax at home, though because, well, I have to..,and also because they have great side. They put Spurs through their paces the first 30 minutes, as they did with Juve and Real, that is not nothing. And they are playing better and better, playing with a composure and confidence in defense to go with their offensive skill and creativity. Think about it, they won in the CL semi-final, on the road in London, and there is a mild disappointment about not winning bigger.

    So, yes, agree, the return leg has me, to use Tiju’s words, on the edge of my seat. But this Ajax team is good enough that they don’t have to look for a lucky break or feel that something unusual has to happen for them to go through.

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