This week Ajax travelled to Lisbon in order to take on Benfica for the fourth matchday in Group E of the champions league. Ajax managed to secure that one point needed in order to qualify for the next round of the tournament. Throughout the whole 90 minutes, Erik Ten Hag’s team were in control as they finished the game with 60% possession. Both teams played attacking and fluid football, which was not a surprise.
Ajax lined up largely as expected, however there was one big surprise. For the first time this year, Erik Ten Hag decided to use Dusan Tadic as a ‘false 9’ and not go with either Dolberg or Huntelaar. He decided to do this in order to be able to ‘break’ Benfica’s strong defence by playing quickly and vertically. Moreover, another reason Ten Hag decided to play Tadic as a ‘false 9’ is because he would always drop and take a defender with him and then cut quickly out wide, creating a 3 v 1 situation on the left when Tagliafico would also come high up the pitch. However, the main reason Ten Hag did this is because as mentioned before Tadic moved from the far side to the near side of the attacking line across two Benfica players. This movement created the passing lane for Tagliafico to play the vertical pass through that Tadic or even Donny Van de Beek collected and played on from.
It was a surprise to see Benfica go with Gabriel in the centre instead of the experienced and quick Pizzi. Their formation was also different than any other match they’ve played, as they decided for the first time to go with a 4-1-4-1 instead of a 4-3-3. Other than that, the team news was as expected.
AJAX’S BUILD UP
Throughout their game, Ajax like to build up in an interesting and clever way. They start from the back where calmly either Daley Blind or Matthijs de Ligt play with the ball. As Frenkie de Jong cuts diagonally towards the side that the ball is being played to, in order to take an opponent with him and create space for Lasse Schone to get the ball free and without any problem, the ball is transferred to the final third of the pitch where the Ajax players start to play quicker with combinations between them and movements in spaces.
In this game Ajax did the same with only one difference. De Jong this time moved in the opposite direction of the ball and this actually worked as he always took two players with him, creating a lot of space for Schone in the middle to create.
However, before Schone gets the ball it’s very important that De Jong cuts wide in order to grab a defender or two with him and create space in the middle. This worked a lot against Benfica as they played openly, meaning that Schone had a lot of free space in the middle to organise and create.
In this game, Ajax based most of their attacks from the right side instead of the left as usual. They did this because Benfica’s left back, Grimaldo, usually moves high up the pitch and they wanted to take advantage of this and outnumber Benfica’s defenders.
In this image, you can see De Jong’s heat map. He moves towards the flanks of the pitch and more specifically towards Tagliafico’s area. This happens for two reasons. Firstly, as mentioned before, in order to create space for Schone and secondly because Tagliafico moves up the pitch and De Jong covers for him sometimes in case of a counter attack.
TADIC AS A ‘FALSE NINE’
Erik Ten Hag decided to go with an unexpected surprise. He placed Tadic as a ‘false 9’ in order to take advantage of his speed and ability to quickly change direction, confusing the defenders. However the main reason Ten Hag did this is because, as mentioned before, Tadic moved from the far side to the near side of the attacking line across two Benfica players. This movement created the passing lane for Tagliafico to play the vertical pass through that Tadic or even Van de Beek collected and played on from.
Another thing that Tadic did, which was a problem for Benfica’s defence, is move between areas of space left from the Benfica defenders.
In this image, you can firstly see Benfica’s spacing whilst in defence. They divide their defence in two, which Ajax took advantage of, as two defenders go left in order to prevent a 2 v 1 or to be ready to defend in case the defensive midfielder loses the ball.
Then the two other defenders close on the attacker and stay centrally. This was good for Ajax as they took advantage of this in order to create 2 v 2 situations. As you can see in the image Benfica’s defenders have lost Tadic as he makes a move behind them, whilst Van de Beek follows him in order to become dangerous for Benfica’s defence together with Tadic.
AJAX OVERLOAD ONE SIDE
Another way Ajax attacked Benfica is by overloading the side of the ball with players, as the other side was free with only one Ajax attacker against a Benfica defender creating a 1v1 situation.
As you can see in this image, four Ajax players are moving towards the side of the ball in order to create an overload as Hakim Ziyech is free on the right flank. By doing this Ajax could create chances at any time of the game, as with one pass they could find a free player or create a 1 v 1 situation. This is the reason that Ten Hag placed Ziyech there, as he is a quick player and could beat any Benfica defender on a 1 v 1. This image is also a great example of how deep Benfica defended, letting more Ajax players come up the pitch.
AJAX PRESS HIGH UP THE PITCH
Ajax tried to block Benfica’s build up by pressing high up the pitch. They tried to make Benfica play wide and cut all passing lanes from the middle, in order to regain possession quickly high up the pitch.
As you can see in this image, Ajax’s players press high up the pitch in order cut all passing lanes. It is important to note that, as you can see in the image, they have left one Benfica player alone at the right. This is because they prefer Benfica to play from the wide than to play from the centre. This is one of the main reasons why Ajax were in control of the match.
This was a match between two sides that were fairly evenly matched. Both looked to play forward whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Ajax got what they wanted, as one point was enough to secure their qualification for the round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League. The team is starting to build a ‘refuse to lose’ character and will have high hopes for the rest of the tournament.