Ajax’s historic season ended in a 4-1 victory at De Graafschap to confirm the domestic double on Wednesday evening. The win was the ideal finale to a season where the club truly adhered to the principles laid down by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff. In doing so, Ajax cemented themselves as a top European competitor once more. In this tactical analysis, we analyse how Ajax managed to demolish De Graafschap to the title.
Fittingly, Ajax’s final game this season followed the blueprint of those before it. They dominated the ball with 63%-37%, the shot totals 16-10 and the shots on target 9-3. They also had more non-shot touches in the opposition’s box 38-18 and a higher xG 2.66-1.14 than their opponents.
Even the goals themselves were classic 18/19 Ajax. A Lasse Schöne free-kick opened the scoring after 37 minutes, his fifth goal from such a format this season. De Graafschap’s equalizer came after 40 minutes as Youssef El Jebli calmly finished following a defensive lapse in concentration. If there was a criticism of this youthful Ajax team, it would be the frequency with which they concede unnecessary goals. Their average of one goal conceded per game this season could be lessened.
Left-back Nicolás Tagliafico re-established Ajax’s lead after 44 minutes. An effective counter press afforded Hakim Ziyech the room to jinx past a defender and find Tagliafico with a cut-back into an empty net. This was one of five cut-backs Ajax attempted in the match. A notable strategy employed by Ajax and many other Cruyff inspired teams for creating goal-scoring opportunities.
After 67 minutes, Dušan Tadić converted a penalty after an iconic Frenkie de Jong mazy dribble from deep who took out several players before being fouled as he lined up to shoot. Tadić signed off his rejuvenated season with a burst of acceleration around a defender and a laced shot to double his tally and give Ajax their 4th and final goal.
Ajax are known for their positional interchange and demand for a clean build-up into the forwards. More often than not, the goalkeeper; two centre-backs and two holding midfield players shoulder the responsibility of advancing the ball through the first two thirds into the front players. Against De Graafschap’s lower block, goalkeeper André Onana was largely redundant of this task. Instead, centre-backs Matthijs de Ligt and Daley Blind rotated forming a diamond with the two holding midfielders Schöne and de Jong. Interestingly the positions each player took up within the diamond altered, disorganising the press and allowing all four the ability to drive forward with the ball at different times.
Frenkie de Jong’s positioning
One of the more striking things about this particular game was how advanced de Jong seemed to operate. He registered five non-shot touches in the opposition box, well above his seasonal average of 0.97. In addition, he had two shots where he normally shoots 0.63 times per 90. Also, his last game against Utrecht saw him rack up an xA value of 0.78, again way above his 0.07 seasonal average.
His excellent performances across the Champions League knockout stages came from a deeper position where it was him, rather than Schöne, who more regularly dropped between the centre-backs. De Jong’s skill set is unique, he’s able to combine the athleticism of a box-box midfielder with the composure and close control of a more classic Dutch holding midfielder. Statistically, this translates to 2.26 completed dribbles and 77.1 completed passes per 90. This equips de Jong with all the tools to progress the ball through the sternest of opposition presses. These kind of deep-lying midfielders are becoming more common in the pace of the modern game. Lyon’s Tanguy N’dombele has a similar ability to break opposing lines both with passes and with the ball at his feet.
It’s unclear as to why de Jong operated higher than usual in Wednesday’s game. When faced with a deep opposition block, perhaps he felt his presence was better suited in more crowded areas. It’s also possible that he was foreshadowing his future role at Barcelona, where Sergio Busquets has long been the king in the holding midfield position. De Jong certainly has the versatility to operate further forward, his lung-busting run to earn his team a penalty showed us that alone.
Ajax’s full-back & wide forward rotation
With the aforementioned players largely responsible for building the game, Ajax’s full-backs and wide forwards are given license to affect the game in the final third. Football’s recent history is littered with teams that use the full-backs to occupy the flanks high up the pitch and have the wide forwards play inside between the lines. What’s less understood is the full-backs playing high between the lines of the opposition, with the wide forwards occupying the flanks. Pep Guardiola uses inverted full-backs largely to maintain possession and prevent counter-attacks but seldom have teams done so in the final third.
Ajax’s all Moroccan right side of Noussair Mazraoui and Hakim Ziyech rotated between occupying these zones throughout Wednesday’s game. It functioned so well because of each player’s attributes. Mazraoui is comfortable playing inside as he replaced Schöne in the holding midfield position in the Champions League semi-final against Tottenham.
Similarly Ziyech, primarily known as an attacking midfielder, is excellent in one v one situations. He completed nine dribbles in this game, above his seasonal average of 5.5. Clearly Ziyech enjoyed the space afforded to him out wide when Mazraoui moved inside.
Such rotation was less pronounced on Ajax’s left-side as Tadić more regularly occupied the flank and Tagliafico often played deeper to cover for de Jong’s attacking instincts.
Ajax’s 2018/19 system
With four outfielders mainly responsible for the build-up and snuffing counter attacks, the other six are able to regularly overload the opposition’s back four or five. This overload allows Ajax to create a flurry of goalscoring opportunities. As mentioned, the full-backs and wide forwards tend to occupy the flanks and channels, leaving the centre-forward and attacking midfielder to exploit the space afforded in the middle.
With the attention of opposition centre-backs often on Ajax’s centre-forward, it was Donny van de Beek who often found himself free in the box with chances to finish as on both Wednesday and throughout the season. Memorably with big tie-changing goals against Juventus and Tottenham. His goal tally of 19 is impressive for primarily being an attacking midfielder.
The arrows above indicate typical runs each player would make when in possession. Ajax would readily shift from a 4-2-3-1 without the ball to that resembling a 3-1-6 or 2-2-6 when they have the ball. Who occupied the six forward roles would regularly change in accordance to some of the rotational techniques shown above and described.
Wednesday’s game saw the end of a youthful Ajax team who brought so much joy to so many. De Jong has already signed for Barcelona and the futures of De Ligt, van de Beek, Ziyech and David Neres are unclear. The head coach responsible for creating such a team, Erik ten Haag, will also be highly sought after.
However, the attacking football and positional play principles, established by Rinus Michels and continued by Cruyff, will always outlast the brilliant group of players and coaches that adhere to them. It was an honour to watch this group of players develop. Tracking their individual careers will be fascinating. The next crop of Ajax youngsters have big shoes to fill but if the past is anything to go by, the future looks bright.