Last season’s UEFA Champions League sensation, Ajax, started a new long trip in the most elite European’s football tournament. Their first this season’s rival in qualifications is Greek champion – PAOK Thessaloniki. Abel Ferreira’s team played very passionately and bravely, but they also showed some amazing set-piece actions and types of defending.
This tactical analysis will also show some transformations of Ajax’s formation and players positioning during the match. The following analysis will introduce you to Erik ten Hag’s new ideas and tactics.
Abel Ferreira, PAOK’s new head coach, started this match with the 4-4-2 formation, which was susceptible to transformations. In the defensive shape, PAOK often used the 4-1-3-2 formation, whenever they wanted to press Ajax’s defensive line with more intensity. It was interesting to see Chuba Akpom, former Arsenal striker, who played a very important role in the match. He has been usually used as a target man, whenever PAOK wanted to skip their short pass play.
Erik ten Hag made only one change relative to their weekend match in Eredivisie, against Vitesse. Noussair Mazraoui played instead of Razvan Marin in the midfield. Mazraoui’s role was pretty interesting, he was often changing his positions according to Ajax’s formation transformations. We could also see Daley Blind as a deep-lying playmaker once again.
Frenkie De Jong’s departure didn’t change the system
The departure of an amazing deep-lying playmaker didn’t disrupt Erik ten Hag’s system. He immediately found a natural replacement for the new Barcelona’s signing. Ten Hag only changed a position and a role to Daley Blind.
Blind has always been a fantastic Deep-lying playmaker, but he’s been used as a central defender because of his intelligence and ability to defend the space or to cover his teammates. Blind became Ajax’s midfield orchestrator and the main creator from the deep.
In the picture below, you can see how Blind came very deep, near to Onana, with an idea to collect the ball and create a new action.
It’s also important to mention the role of the central defenders who positioned themselves very wide to open the space for Blind to create and take the ball forward. You can also see the positioning of PAOK’s strikers who also stayed very wide, following Schuurs’s and Lisandro Martinez’s movement.
In the picture above, you can see Blind’s idea to move on very often from his main position with the purpose of confusing PAOK’s pressing and their idea to stop Ajax’s ball flowing which depended to Blind. It’s also important to mention Mazraoui’s positioning, and participating in the build-up as a deep-lying playmaker.
The following situations will show you some types of PAOK’s pressing and their ideas to ”lock’’ Daley Blind.
In the picture above, you can see a very interesting way of defending used by Abel Ferreira’s PAOK. Namely, at the moment when Joel Veltman came deeper to help form Ajax’s temporary the central defensive trio, PAOK’s offensive players were concentrated on Blind’s movement and his role in build-up. PAOK’s first defensive block line formed a tetragon, like a cage, to stop the pass to Daley Blind. They used that type of defending a few times in a similar way, as you can see in the picture below.
Ajax’s different pressing formations according to different pressing zones
Erik ten Hag’s primary formation was the 4-2-3-1, but in this match, Ajax also showed several interesting pressing shapes and formations.
- They used the 4-1-3-2 formation when the goalkeeper, Paschalakis, had the ball,
- The 4-3-2-1 formation was used whenever PAOK had a throw-in, and
- They transformed their pressing to the 3-2-3-2 formation whenever one of PAOK’s central defenders sent a long diagonal ball.
1. In the picture above, you can see Ajax’s pressing the 4-1-3-2 formation when PAOK’s goalkeeper had the ball. This is a type of very high positioned and aggressive pressing formation, so Ajax used this pressing shape with an idea to force PAOK’s goalkeeper to send a long ball forward. It’s very simple for Ajax to form this pressing shape because of their natural positioning; Ziyech just cut inside and stayed next to Dolberg, Tadic withdrew and stayed alongside van de Beek and Mazraoui forming the central midfield trio, with Blind’s support from behind.
2. This was a great example of a throw-in’s high-intensity pressure, with 6 players positioned on a pretty small space, covering every possible direction the ball could go. Every risky pass from the throw-in would be intercepted.
3. In the picture above, you can see Nicolas Tagliafico who temporarily became Blind’s partner in the central midfield. This caused the remaining three defenders to become more compact and become a three-man backline.
One wrong step can ruing good organization
Exactly fourteen seconds before PAOK’s first goal Ajax formed the 4-1-3-2 high-intensity pressure with the purpose to steal the ball in the opponent’s final third, but Mazraoui’s and van de Beek’s moving synchronization was very bad, so after a few seconds, there was a huge gap between them.
Varela, PAOK’s the right centre-back and Biseswar, PAOK’s the left-winger, recognized that the mistake made by Ajax’s the central midfielders and immediately exploited it, using the mid-range diagonal pass through the middle, which opened a large space for Bisewar to continue the action.
The rest of PAOK’s attack was routine, so they scored a goal easily, using only one mistake of Ajax’s positioning in high-intensity pressing.
It is very important to mention Donny van de Beek’s role in Ajax’s high pressure. Van de Beek was tasked to constantly follow the player on the side closer to the ball. Whenever the ball was in the PAOK’s the left centre-back possession, Van de Beek was marking the left central midfielder (as you can see in the picture above), Omar El Kaddouri, with the purpose to stop the vertical pass through the middle.
It was pretty similar on the other side.
In this situation, PAOK’s the right centre-back had the ball, so Van de Beek was marking Nigerian midfielder, Anderson Esiti, who was positioned on the side closer to the ball. That type of individual marking is very useful because the player who constantly closes the vertical passes from the defensive to the midfield line automatically stops good ball flow.
The art of set-pieces
One of PAOK’s goals was scored after an amazing set-piece (free-kick) action. The main idea of this set-piece action was to make a few blocks and space for Leo Matos’s jump and headshot. There were three steps to this action, we will look to break down each moment.
1. As you can see, Erik ten Hag wanted to use man-to-man marking in defending this set-piece play, but Crespo and Varela ruined that idea. When the referee blew the whistle, Crespo and Varela immediately blocked their guards (Varela-Schuurs, Crespo-Tagliafico), with an idea to open the passage for Matos’s move and headshot.
2. One of the key things to the success of this set-piece action was Veltman’s carelessness. The whole time, he was just standing next to Matos, who was positioned on the far post, and who easily escaped him when he got the space for that move.
3. There you can see the space which Crespo and Varela opened for Brazilian, who scored his first carrier goal in Champions League.
Ferreira’s PAOK made a great impression in the first leg match against the last Champions League season’s semi-finalist.
It’s very important for Ajax that they scored two away goals in Thessaloniki, so they could be confident ahead of the revenge match in Amsterdam.
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