Following a hugely successful 2018/19 campaign which saw them catapulted back into Europe’s elite, Ajax will be looking for more success in the coming year. After conquering the Netherlands with an Eredivisie and KNVB Beker double, as well as a first Champions League semi-final since 1997, it will be fascinating to see how they fare this season. The losses of key men Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt will have some impact on the tactics of Ajax, however, this scout report will use tactical analysis to show how they will cope without their former stars.
Despite some of their key men being away at the Copa América and African Cup of Nations, Ajax have looked strong throughout pre-season. Six wins from eight and 26 goals, including a Dutch Super Cup victory over PSV have been key in building sharpness ahead of the upcoming campaign. Perhaps the most interesting and exciting aspect has been the emergence of various youth players. After the departure of the aforementioned De Ligt, there is somewhat of a vacancy at centre half and arguably the best performer of pre-season has been Perr Schuurs. The 19-year old defender has stepped up as the starting right-sided centre-back with Edson Álvarez only recently signing and Lisandro Magallán still adjusting to Ajax’s tactics.
Despite a lack of minutes in the Ajax first team last campaign, it seems that Schuurs is in pole position to start the Eredivisie season at centre-back. His profile is fairly similar to that of De Ligt and has shown his reliability in pre-season. As can be seen in the images below, Ajax took up a familiar back three shape in the build-up, with Schuurs on the right and Carel Eiting dropping in on the left, similar to De Jong last season.
As a result, they were able to create an overload, with Schuurs driving past the first line of the Watford press in this instance to join the attacking phase, a key theme of Ajax’s centre backs under Erik Ten Hag.
He has also been key in bypassing the opposition lines by using his passing. As can be seen below, he plays the ball directly through the Watford midfield to find Tadić in the position he likes to occupy in between centre-back and full-back. His most impressive performance so far came against PSV. During the 2-0 Super Cup victory, Schuurs attempted 52 passes with an impressive success rate of 92%, further showcasing his ability to contribute to Ajax’s attacking phases and the creation of overloads.
In addition to Schuurs, pre-season has also seen the emergence of Sergiño Dest at left wing-back. Whilst it is likely that he will fall behind Nicolás Tagliafico in the pecking order, it could still be a breakthrough campaign for the 18-year old American. A converted winger, he was able to impress whilst playing for Jong Ajax last season. Despite being fairly solid defensively, it is his attacking contributions which have impressed.
Finding himself in advanced positions, he averaged just under four crosses per game, with 36% of those finding their intended targets. It is his dribbling which causes considerable issues, however. Around 1.8 touches in the opposition box per game and 3.58 progressive runs show an attacking intent which suits Ten Hag’s Ajax as they look to pin their wing-backs high and wide.
How could they line up?
Despite losing the key men already mentioned, Ajax have seemingly recruited very well. Răzvan Marin has been brought in from Standard Liege to replace De Jong whilst Álvarez hopes to fill De Ligt’s vacancy. With the further additions of young defenders Kik Pierie and Lisandro Martinez as well as Dutch international winger Quincy Promes, the squad now has a multitude of options, whilst the Ajax DNA will remain the same. There are a variety of ways in which Ajax could line-up this season. During the build-up phase, they will look to use a number six in the defensive line to bypass the first line of the press. It may be more beneficial to utilise the controlling ability of two number six’s when facing a team who may look to control the possession.
Using both Lasse Schone and Marin, they would be able to drop one into the defensive line whilst another takes up position in the midfield, pulling opposition players further up the pitch and creating pockets of space behind the midfield. This was a key theme of Ajax’s Champions League success last campaign. Both the inverted wingers and Tadic in his false nine role were able to drop into the half-space between the opposition defence and midfield to cause problems.
Alternatively, when playing a side much inferior to themselves, they may opt for a more conventional approach, as they have done throughout pre-season. Using a player like Hakim Ziyech in midfield, they are able to play higher up the pitch and use one of their midfielders in the halfspace, rather than a false nine dropping deep. Switching players out in this manner enables them to use a traditional number nine in the form of Kasper Dolberg. Whilst he lacks some of the link-up play of Tadić, he is still more than capable of leading the line for Ajax.
For Ajax, the core philosophy will always remain. The high-pressing, attacking football focused on vertical possession will be a constant in the history of the club but following on from last season, it will be interesting to see which adjustments are made. Despite their European adventure ending in heartbreak, confidence will be sky high heading into the new campaign. With the squad strengthened and many of last seasons stars remaining in Amsterdam, the domestic competitions will be expected and hopes will remain that they can conquer Europe once again.
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