Team SheetsErik ten Hag continued in his favoured 4-2-3-1, a shape in which Ajax achieve an xG of 2.26 per match in this season. Personnel remained familiar too; the only noticeable change was a start for youngster Kasper Dolberg who replaced David Neres up front. The away side opted for an unfamiliar 5-4-1 formation, out of respect for their free-scoring opponents. This defensive shape offered a start for Danilho Doekhi to occupy the vacant third centre back spot. Vitesse introduced Dauda Mohammed to the starting 11, replacing the suspended Alexander Büttner. Top-scorer Bryan Linssen began the match on the bench to make way for Buitink.
A challenge presented
Out to frustrateThe experienced Leonid Slutsky came to the Johan Cruyff Arena with a gameplan, which for 41 minutes worked perfectly. The Russian set his side in a rigid 5-4-1 system in an attempt to nullify Ajax’s ability in the final third. The away side dropped deeper when Ajax had possession, allowing play to continue in front of their shape. Instead of implementing an aggressive press, Vitesse operated a passive system, using their superior numbers in defence to cover spaces. Vitesse refused to engage high up the pitch at risk of being exploited by Ajax’s fluid passing. Instead, they dropped into their structure and engaged once the ball entered their defensive third. The additional central defender prevented midfielder runners being untracked in their movements into the half spaces. The spare man also acted as an obstacle in Ajax’s attempts to overload the wide areas in their ball rotations. The midfield four remained narrow to block the passing lanes into Van De Beek who occupied the space in-between the lines. This funnelled the ball into the lateral spaces, where Vitesse used their structure to stifle Ajax in their attempts to create penetrative passing combinations. Despite their dominance on the ball, Vitesse’s system reduced Ajax to an average pass streak of just six passes.
Blind passingOnce the game settled into its natural rhythm Ajax were able to create chances using accurate passing combined with systematic overloads. One noticeable tactic implemented by the league leaders was their desire to attack down the left flank. There are two reasons for this tactic. Firstly, Daley Blind played as LCB, and being the better passer, attacks naturally formed from his ability to pass penetratively from deep. Blind made 75 accurate passes in the match, achieving a success rate of 88.2%. This is impressive considering many of his links were with attacking players such as Tadić, who Blind found 20 times in the match.
To the leftSecondly, Ajax identified a weakness in the Vitesse structure, Matúš Bero. The midfielder turned right wing back had a torrid time in his defensive duties. Ajax exploited spaces vacated by the midfielder, who eventually got himself sent off after being caught out of position for the last time. Blind used his time in possession effectively, using his impressive range to find De Jong and Taglifico who ventured left. This provided the opportunity to overload the left flank and deliver crosses into the box. In this movement, Vitesse’s narrow midfield four were outnumbered making it impossible to block every passing lane into the attackers.
Ajax’s set-up of the left-flank overload forced Bero into a decision he wasn’t equipped to make. As a result, the 33-time Eredivisie champions could persistently breach the Vitesse shape to get dangerous crosses into the box.