Tactical Analysis: Erik ten Hag's Ajax

By Arnoud Royon

19-April-2021 on Analysis

18 minute read

Arnoud Royon is a professional performance coach and video analyst who currently works with Kozakken Boys in the Dutch 2nd division. He has previously worked with NAC Breda, Fosa Juniors from Madagascar and VV Baronie.

 

In this guest post for Nacsport, Arnoud takes a look at the first leg of Ajax’s Europa League match against AS Roma, which they lost 1-2, and breaks down some of the problems in ten Hag’s team tactics which led to their exit from the Europa League with a 3-2 score on aggregate.

 

Before all of that, he gives us his thoughts on the role video analysis plays in modern football.

 

Over to you, Arnoud...

On Video Analysis

 

The greatest tool that has emerged in football is video and data-analysis.

 

Video analysis has also become an elementary part of future tactical developments in football and, it’s my strong opinion that, within a modern footballing staff, the function of the analyst is becoming more and more crucial.

 

The analyst is in direct contact with the ideas and concepts formed by, and with, the head-coach. Players and other staff members are also in direct contact with the analyst regarding team and individual development throughout the season.

 

This is why I like to the job. It’s discipline, working in a dynamic environment where you're always looking for options to improve yourself, the player and tactical concepts. You're always on the move, so there are always triggers to help you learn and adapt.

 

With that being said, let’s take a closer look at Ajax vs AS Roma...

 

Starting Formations

 

Starting formations. Both Ajax and Roma were very fluid. Gravenberch high to pin one of two defensive midfielders. This meant in the third phase Ajax would have a numerical advantage.

 

ajax as roma starting formations

 

Disrupting Roma’s Build-Up: First Phase

 

As ten Hag’s side tend to do, they invited a short passes to a central player, cutting off one side, preventing a switch of play by the opponent. Because AS Roma’s most central defender - Cristante moved up into the midfield - Tadic faced some difficulties in pressing the ball. If he covered Cristante, Neres or Antony could press from outside in, leaving the full-backs wide open. If Tadic decided to defend the space the keeper could easily switch side or Roma’s defenders could easily play a small sided position game in which Ibanez was important as being comfortable with the ball.

 

As the (mostly) right full-back progressed with the ball, Gravenbergh was late to press the ball. Tagliafico couldn’t leave his zone because either Pedro or Pellegrini would attack his blindspot.

 

Luckily for Ajax, AS Roma did not play a good positional game. They relied on the transition to attack when Ajax lost the ball.

 

ajax pressing mechanisms

 

Ajax pressing mechanism. Invite a short pass. Cut off one side to force the ball wide or long. In this situation Gravenberch - highlighted - had difficulties in timing because AS Roma’s full-backs positioned low.

 

ajax roma full low back

 

Low full-back by AS Roma. Gravenberch needs to press in big spaces not protect the middle / centre of the field. Normally, Ajax would give Tagliafico the instruction to press the low full-back. This tactic was not suitable in this game as ten Hag didn’t want his defensive line to face a 1v1.

 

ajax tagliafico pressures

 

If Tagliafico pressures the player with the ball he leaves a gap for AS Roma’s attackers to attack. Therefore he holds the line.

 

roma formation vs ajax

 

AS Roma’s 4-1-2-2-1 formation.Highlighted player in the centre of the pitch is Cristante who would regularly join the midfield. Other highlighted players - Pedro and Pellegrini - would make conditional runs into deep and wide areas. 

 

ajax roma man on man marking

 

One of Ajax’s pressing mechanisms. Man-on-man orientated press to force the ball long or to one side. AS Rome sometimes had the chance to switch sides via the goalkeeper. Tadic recognised this danger and pressed the keeper.

 

AS Roma 3rd man option

 

Tagliafico presses Roma’s midfielder who can easily play a third-man option - the right full-back - because Neres is covering a central defender.

 

Ajax Gravenberch pressure

 

Gravenberch steps out to pressure a low right full-back. In the centre Taglicafico can be seen sprinting back to cover space.

 

Disrupting AS Roma’s Build-Up: Third Phase

 

Ajax vs Roma Midfield

 

Ajax forwards defend the centre of the pitch. Rensch steps out to defend the left full-back. Klaassen follows the player who moves into the back of Rensch.

 

Ajax Alvarez defending

 

If Alavarez - circled - steps out to defend one of two attacking midfielders - another midfielder would attack. Tagliafico is running with this midfielder and therefore is always reacting.

 

AS Roma attacking midfielder

 

AS Roma’s attacking midfielder - highlighted - makes an outside run. If the central defender follows huge gaps originate in the centre of the pitch. This presented some difficulties for Ajax’s man-marking tactic. In the Dutch league, Ajax often have big problems defending these areas.

 

Video analysis Ajax Neres

 

If Neres pressed the full-back, Ajax invited to pass the ball into a central zone as they usually do. Klaasses presses intensively to ensure turnover. In this game, this situation happened multiple times but Ajax left this unchanged.

 

Ajax Martinez pinned by dzeko

 

Martinez (circled) is pinned by Dzeko. Alvarez - highlighted - cannot press forward, if he does one of two attacking midfielders will attack the space in between Martinez and Timber.

 

Transition to Defending

 

Ajax transitioning to defence

 

In Ajax’s man-marking counter pressing everybody steps forward to ensure the ball is not played into space. This is something Ajax have had trouble doing during the season in the Europa League, Champions League and domestic competitions.

 

Ajax vs Roma Counter Attack

 

If the counter is processed correctly, AS Roma would attack large spaces in a 1v1 / 4 / 4 situation. This is something Ajax needs to work on, and have been all season.

 

Ajax’s Build-Up: First Phase.

 

From Goalkeeper

 

On a few occasions, Ajax had to execute their plan, building-up from behind. AS Roma found some difficulties in pressing.

 

As normal, ten Hag wanted Ajax to have a numerical advantage counting on the players ability to play a good (small sided) positional game. Ajax lured AS Roma keeping both Rensch and Tagliafico low. This meant that either Pedro or Pellegrini had to step out to create pressure on the ball.

 

The midfielders could not leave Klaassen or Gravenbergh because, in turn, they would move into their blindspot. Dzeko would make an diagonal run inside, making it difficult to switch the play. Gravenbergh dropped deep while building up. The presence of Neres and Antony made sure AS Roma could not go man to man over the whole pitch making them vulnerable in depth.

 

 

While heavily pressed through the middle by the Giallorossi, the ball would sometimes end up in the possession of keeper, Scherpen. Many times his choice to play a direct long ball into wide channels ended up in losing the ball.

 

Real chances for Ajax came when playing a good small sided position game, luring Roma out of possession to attack the space in behind their defense.

 

Ajax Goalkeeper Scherpen

 

Goalkeeper Scherpen could play a third-man option via Alvarez - something tan Hag wants: to keep the ball, or play wide to the low full-back. His choice to play a long ball affects nothing.

 

AS Roma Midfield attacks 

 

If Roma’s midfielder steps out to attack a low right full-back (Rensch), Klaassen will move in his blindspot. The midfielder will choose to stay if Scherpen played the ball to Rensch.

 

Ajax long diagonal ball

 

A long high diagonal ball by the keeper is too easy to defend. In normal situations Ajax would have the upperhand in the positional game but this is not one of Scherpen’s core qualities.

 

pressure structure roma vs ajax

 

Pressure structure of AS Roma. Gravenberch stays low to be reachable. Pellegrini coaches the right full-back to not apply pressure, giving away massive space.

 

Moving Situation

 

There has been enough said about the mistake made with the freekick. Something which needs work is their awareness and his passing abilities. This connects into a well developed tactical ability, the ability to play the ball as Ajax and ten Hag want.

 

Ajax error leading to goal

 

Alvarez - highlighted - asks for the ball in front of the box. Martinez should send the pass out front to the open area of the field.

 

Alvarez in trouble

 

Martinez puts Alvarez into trouble knowing he is not comfortable with the ball. To make matters worse is attacked by an AS Roma player and the highlighted player Pedro is waiting for the ball to get passed back to play a small-sided positional game.

 

Alvarez loses ball 

 

Alvarez loses the ball, commits a foul. Free-kick by Pellegrini makes it 1-1.

 

Ajax Attacking Plan

 

Erik ten Hag’s Ajax plan was evident from the start. Horizontally stretch the pitch with Neres and Antony. Both players' core qualities are 1v1 situations and attack depth without the ball.

 

Ajax vs Roma Champions League Neres wins 1v1

 

Neres wins his 1v1. Antony - highlighted - makes a diagonal blindspot run. A signature move by both wingers.

 

Despite their capabilities the Ajax players did not use their full potential. Antony had good and bad spells. Neres provides almost no depth off the ball making the Ajax attack somewhat static and predictable. Tadic was roaming as a false nine like most of European matches.

 

Ajax Tadic dropping

 

Tadic dropping and Gravenberch passing into space finding - in this case Antony – which happens far too few times. In this case, Gravenberch dribbles, which makes sense since he prefers shorts passes, not like Kroos.

 

The opportunity to switch sides - making AS Roma’s midfield run - was used far too sparingly.

 

Another opportunity, a direct pass to one of the wingers - especially on the right side where Rensch pinned a midfielder or occupying wide areas, which was a clear assignment and done regularly by ten Hag, opening a passing lane to Antony to get him to play his 1v1 - was played too slow, or not at all.

 

Ajax vs Roma Rensch pins midfielder

 

Rensch pins an attack midfielder on the inside leaving a passing line open for Timber to Antony. This has been a typical Ajax move throughout the season. Neres attacks the second post. In this game it did not happen enough, or was badly executed.

 

As a result of this Neres could not make runs into depth on the opposite side.

 

Ajax Tadic False 9

 

After Tadic protects the ball - roaming as a false nine - Neres is passive and doesn’t attack the space behind the defensive line of Roma. If he did Klaassen - circled -  would attack the middle.

 

Ajax Blindsport Antony

 

Blindspot run by Antony. As like so many other times, not a clinical finish.

 

Ajax AS Roma bad positioning

 

Good conditions as a 2 / 3v1 arises after a bad positional play by AS Roma. Antony can just pass into space that Neres is attacking. Again, not being clinical leaves an opportunity wasted.

 

Overloading

 

While Ajax were attacking, ten Hag’s plan seemed to be to overload one side of the pitch. One player provided depth - mostly Klaassen - while another player moved to the ball - mostly Tadic or one of the wingers. This left the opposition to make a choice; defend the ball or defend the space behind their defence. This is what they do in many matches in different forms. Rensch under / overlapping, dribbling by central defenders, conditional runs by Klaassen and Tadic roaming in the final third.

 

All too often, a first touch in the final third was not in order and meant that AS Roma could produce pressure on the ball. In some situations Ajax could not gain an advantage through the conditions they created - an overload and / or moving in and out the ball - because the first touch was off. This meant they had to start all over again, while AS Roma pressed, man-marking, through the middle, making sure Ajax could not easily switch sides.

 

ajax overload

 

Overload at one side. Conditional run by Klaasen. Antony in between lines. Signature move by Ajax.

 

Ajax pin AS Roma defensive line 

 

Neres in a 1v1 situation. AS Roma’s defensive line is also pinned. They cannot put pressure on the ball or provide cover.

 

Summary

 

The ball played by Martinez in front of their own box, to the feet, instead of in front of Alvarez, which led to a free kick in which Pellegrini scored, should have been avoided.

 

This free kick could have been avoided if Martinez had not played the ball to Alvarez at all, knowing he is not over comfortable with the ball. Another option,playing the ball in front of Alvarez seemed to be more logical because AS Roma (obviously) did not want to press in big spaces.

 

Of Course the xG (Expected Goals) are in favour of ten Hag’s team, but if they waste chance after chance such as a penalty and other key moments in front of Pau Lopes’s goal, it will be a difficult task.

 

The lesson Ajax learned is that if you create good conditions - either with positional play or set-pieces you need to be clinical. This problem / opportunity is something Ajax does not face in the domestic competition being the dominant team in 9 out of 10 matches and getting plenty of chances.

 

Ajax Antony bad first touch

 

Antony's first touch is not good enough to switch sides or to dribble.

 

Ajax easy to defend against 

 

Alvarez playing in the centre off the pitch, not comfortable to turn away from the player who is attacking him, plays an easy to defend ball to Timber, who chooses not to play forward (creating a 2v2 on the opposite side) but to play all out.

 

Ajax vs Roma man marking

 

As a result of a bad first touch, AS Roma presses man-marking through the middle resulting in a ball back to the keeper.

 

We'd like to thank Arnoud for taking the time out to do such a fantastic analysis. If you've got any questions about this analysis or video analysis with Nacsport in general, please feel free to reach out to us on any of our social media channels.

 

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