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After the eight-goal thriller between Ajax and Heerenveen in the Eredivise last weekend, the KNVB Cup quarter-final rendition promised much in the way of goals and excitement. Having controlled the majority of the league game, centre-back Kik Pierie’s last-minute equaliser for Heerenveen came as a crushing blow to Erik ten Hag’s side as they failed to capitalise on rare dropped points from title rivals PSV Eindhoven. Ajax grabbed the opportunity for revenge with both hands as they set out on a three-goal demolition of Jan Olde Riekerink’s team.
Heerenveen lined up as expected by having no changes to the game last weekend. Ajax on the other hand rotated slightly with Kristensen, Onana and Huntelaar returning to the fold. Centre-back Lisandro Magallan received his first competitive start after joining from Boca Juniors earlier in the window.
Perhaps most interestingly, regular right-back Noussair Mazraoui started in central midfield for the first time. It could be intriguing to see him utilised here more often. This would take some pressure off Frenkie de Jong and allow the promotion of Sergino Dest next season, who has been flourishing as a full-back for Jong Ajax.
Much of the media talk surrounding Ajax throughout the week was focused on one man: Frenkie de Jong. Having finally put the rumour mill to bed by sealing a lucrative summer move to Barcelona, all eyes were focused on the Dutch midfielder. Many see him as the successor to the longstanding Sergio Busquets due to his natural ability to dictate the play.
It is also not hard to envision him playing further forward, in a role more akin to Iniesta. This versatility in his game epitomises the style in which Ajax attempt to break down defences. With all eyes on him, Frenkie along with his teammates produced a clinic on the manipulation of the opposition’s spacing through rotation of positions.
Ajax attempted to sustain pressure on their opponents by dominating the ball through positional and numerical advantages in key areas. Doing so through clever positional rotations, they have found a way of breaking down defences while preserving their defensive structure. In this way Ten Hag has managed to adapt the traditional Ajax style to the demands of the modern game.
At the forefront of his adaptation is the versatility of their players in possession. Nobody typifies this aspect more than Frenkie de Jong. His ability to produce performances in all stages of play is something Ajax utilise to great effect. Playing deeper, De Jong’s positioning was often the catalyst to a chain reaction of positional rotations from the Ajax players.
Heerenveen set up in a 4-3-3 in possession and a 4-3-2-1 out of it. Out of possession they positioned their wingers to drop off and tuck in centrally. This was likely to cut out De Jong and Mazraoui’s influence in the game and force Ajax to play through their full-backs.
Additionally, Stijn Schaars, playing at the base of the midfield three, would stick tight to Donny van de Beek. Doing so allowed the two spare midfielders to place some pressure on the ball when it reached the wide areas.
Ajax tended to manipulate this structure by positioning one of De Jong and Mazraoui wide of the centre-backs. In this sequence De Jong drops deeper and toward the left hand-side of the pitch. In doing so, he allows Blind to push forward slightly more, freeing him from his immediate defensive duties. Blind’s slightly more attacking positioning engages the opposition right-sided central midfielder.
This triggers Tadic to rotate into a more central area. Due to Donny van de Beek’s high location in relation to the midfield, this forces the aforementioned Heerenveen midfielder into a decision. He can either press Blind and leave space centrally, or stick to his position and allow Blind to progress with the ball.
In the above still, we see this exact sequence produce Ajax’s third goal. Vlap decides to maintain his interior position in order to cover Dusan Tadic. In doing so, however, he forces Floranus, the Heerenveen right-back, to press the advancing Dutchman, revealing space for Tadic to exploit. Kristensen’s interior orientation allows for the sequence to be realised, as he engages the other central midfielder, in this case Van Amersfoort, to ensure he can not drift centrally to cover the space created.
Away from this sequence of play, Ajax had another method of disorientating the Heerenveen defences. With De Jong slightly more advanced, Ajax would create a series of one-on-ones on the front lines. Daley Blind would in turn play as an extra central player. Therefore he maintained structure while allowing for the creation of one-on-one situations on the flanks.
Attempting to keep numerical advantage in defence, Schaars dropped with Van De Beek. This freed up one of the centre-backs. While this allowed for the free centre-back to support the full-backs, it also meant there was a space in front of the defence to be easily exploited. Seeing this, Ziyech would come inside and occupy this space. Below we see Ziyech is able to receive from De Jong under no pressure just in front of the defence.
In the second half Heerenveen made a slight change to this system. Schaars no longer dropped off in order to block the space ahead of him. Thus, they relinquished hold of the numerical advantage and ended up allowing for an increased number of one-on-one opportunities. Blind’s internal position alongside Heerenveen’s passive defence naturally opens up a one-on-one chance for Tadic as Vlap sits to cover the passing lane to Huntelaar.
Ajax’s press and Heerenveen’s build-up problems
Out of possession Ajax operated nearly exclusively in a 4-2-3-1. Using a man-orientated press they looked to disrupt the opposition’s build-up play in advanced areas. It was highly successful in creating multiple chances, such as for Mazraoui’s goal merely three minutes into the game.
In contrast to their nuanced attacking system, Ajax’s defensive structure was simple, yet effective. This was shown by Heerenveen’s inability to create any chances of note. Their only real opportunities resulted in a goal when Kristensen gifted Van Amersfoort the ball in the box, and a penalty which was saved by Onana.
With the two wide players in Tadic and Ziyech covering the full-backs and Van De Beek tight to Schaars, Huntelaar could focus on pressurising the ball carrier while blocking a pass to the other centre-back. De Jong and his midfield partner would react by pressing up to the remaining central midfielders.
This eliminated the space behind their front line. By cutting out any passing lanes to the players in the surrounding zones, Ajax put pressure on the Heerenveen centre-backs. This forced them to play a longer pass or return to their goalkeeper and try to start the passage again. Ajax often recovered play as the keeper went long while they pressed.
Heerenveen struggled to build any meaningful passages of play from the back. Often their right-sided centre-back, Hoegh, would find himself too advanced and block the passing lane to Floranus. Huntelaar and Tadic then made light work of cutting out their passing lanes.
A positive for Heerenveen in this stage was Kik Pierie’s ability to beat the press. While his options were mostly limited throughout the game, the 18-year-old showed great composure and passing range to bypass the Ajax press multiple times.
Despite Heerenveen’s heroics on Sunday to snatch a point at the death, Ajax’s quality shone through in this outing. Through rotational play Ajax manipulated the Heerenveen defence and advance to the semi-finals of the KNVB Cup. With their modern iteration of Cruyffian football, it is hard to look past the Amsterdam natives as winners of the competition.
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