Ajax, back from dethroning Champions League giants Real Madrid, hosted Fortuna Sittard at the Johan Cruyff Arena. The game comes at a bad time for Fortuna Sittard who badly need the three points on offer to stave off the relegation battle. Ajax, on the other hand, remain eight points behind leaders PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie and with two games in hand. This was a must-win game for the ‘de Godenzonen’. Not only would Ajax win but they would dominate.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at how Ajax dominated Fortuna Sittard to a 4-0 win.
Ajax lined up in their familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. The back four, including the goalkeeper, remained unchanged from slaying Real Madrid the week before. Donny Van De Beek switched positions with Lasse Schone, with Schone then being replaced by Kasper Dolberg who was moved up front. Tadic took up the role as left attacking mid with
Fortuna Sittard went with a slightly more defensive formation of 4-1-2-1-2, a slight change from their usual 4-2-3-1. This was a clear sign they wanted to keep the ball from the back of their net.
Ajax: persistent man to man marking
When not in possession Ajax would form personal 1v1s. A man would be marked and followed on their run. As an illustration, the picture below shows just how tight the players were being marked. In addition, the right back and second man in the two of midfield (Donny Van De Beek) are closing the ball carrier’s lane down, stopping freedom of forward movement. Fortuna Sittard, though originally trying to progress forward with possession are forced to play the ball backwards.
Ajax’s pressing was very aggressive from the word go. When without the ball in the opposition’s half, all but the defensive line would manoeuvre forward in two rows to stifle Fortuna Sittard’s passing options passively marking them in the process.
With the opposition stifled and most passing options shutdown, an opportunity opens for Ajax to intercept. Now with the ball in possession, the red and whites are in a great position to initiate a counter-attack. On this occasion, produces a shot on goal.
Below, Ajax are pressing with a man to man method as well as ‘split marking’. Each player has an exact opposite to mark when off the ball regardless of defending or pressing. Fortuna Sittard tried there best to maintain possession by comfortably passing around their own half to form a build-up of play. Most normal teams tend to keep a defensive position and shift laterally with where the ball is. Ajax, however, press again with vigour, completely shutting down the ‘safe’ options and forcing the opposition to once again make a mistake.
Ajax continued to do this throughout the game, establishing in the process that Fortuna Sittard were not to play from the back. They are forced to hit the ball long from the goalkeeper. This creates a ‘possession lottery’ in midfield, increasing the chance for Ajax to gain possession whilst the opposition is in a slightly more vulnerable position and in between the mindset of challenging for possession and keeping a strong defensive shape.
What really impressed me was Ajax’s organised defence. Going forward they are world class and they showed that midweek against Real Madrid. Even in their last few games, they have won by a three or four goal margin. Despite playing a team in a relegation battle Ajax are not a team to get ‘giddy’ going forward wanting goals. Instead, their whole build up forms from when not in possession of the ball.
As shown below, the back four are narrow and man-marking their opposite number tightly. Note the centre back stepping out of the defensive line to stay tight on his man. The two defensive midfielders Frenkie De Jong and Van de Beek act as a ‘screen’ towards the opposition ball carrier reducing the opportunity to shoot. Once in range, one of the two can make a challenge for the ball. If the ball is passed laterally one of the two will head towards the new player in possession whilst the other stays marking the original man.
For extra support, the attacking midfielders all close in-field to reduce options further and offer support. Once the ball is repossessed, Ajax have numbers to retain possession and to initiate a counter-attack.
Below we can see the two defensive midfielders in the blocking role again. The back four stay narrow and man mark. With no immediate options forward, the player in possession looks for opportunities towards the right flank.
The player is covered by one of the defensive midfielders whilst the other man marks the other player. This way, Ajax have superiority in numbers at the back increasing the chances of a ball managing to find its way into the box should find a player in white and red.
Playing with width to break lines
In the second half, Fortuna Sittard finally managed to organise themselves in defence despite Ajax running them ragged. Not wanting to concede more goals they decided to employ a deep compact block which is extremely difficult to penetrate. To combat this Ajax played high and wide stretching the Sittard defence. Below we can see how Ajax have manoeuvred themselves to create options and break one of the lines of Fortuna Sittard.
The substitute Schone can pass out to the wing or central to midfield. What plays into Schone’s favour is the Fortuna Sittard player trying to anticipate an attack down the flank and makes a run to shut down the passing lane on the left. What this does in turn, is open up an even better passing lane for Ajax to attack vertically and for Tadic to run onto, completely opening up the defence and breaking all defensive lines in one sweet pass.
The amount of green indicates total domination with long periods of high pressure for Ajax on the attack momentum chart. When Fortuna Sittard did have the ball they were closed down and forced to make mistakes. It shows on the chart how little pressure they put Ajax under.
Fortuna Sittard only dominates the defensive stats in this game with Ajax being that dominant in nearly all departments. The passing from Ajax was over more than double. Daley Blind managed 109 passes alone with 93% accuracy.
The heatmap below shows Ajax’s balance of attack on either flank but with a tendency to ‘cut in’ from the left and to keep out wide on the right.
Another loss for Fortuna Sittard keeps them in danger of being relegated this season. Manager Rene Eijer will have to search for something deep within the team to ensure Eredivisie status.
Conversely ‘de Godenzonen’ are clearly showing they are a young force to be reckoned with, not just in Europe but in the league also. They’re now only five points behind PSV with a game in hand and look to carry on their terrifying form and momentum to claim the top spot.