Following two disappointing 1-0 defeats in their previous two matches, Ajax would’ve viewed a trip to Alkmaar as the perfect setting to regain their winning form. The hosts are the only likely challengers to Ajax’s title desires, with nine points separating third place Willem II and second place AZ. The visitors were three points clear at the top going into this huge game, a lead which has now been cut, meaning goal difference is the only separator, for now, thanks to AZ’s massive win in this match. Having won their previous six Eredivisie matches, all with clean sheets, AZ would see this as a huge opportunity to capitalise on an Ajax side who are hurting following a Champions League exit. This tactical analysis will analyse the tactics and approaches deployed by both sides in a close match which resulted in many attacks for both sides being cancelled out for the majority of the 90 minutes.
Arne Slot sent his side out with a 4-4-4-1 formation deployed. Jordy Clasie continued his stint as a center half, joined by Stijn Wuytens in the heart of the defence. The solid backline was completed by the two full-backs Jonas Svensson and Owen Wijndal. Their performance as a unit – not only keeping Ajax at bay but squeezing up the field at appropriate times gave the midfield unit to be more aggressive both on and off the ball. Fredrik Midtsjø and Teun Koopmeiners pulled the strings in the middle of the park, with Oussama Idrissi and Dani de Wit operating in the wide areas. AZ attacks were spearheaded by Calvin Stengs and Myron Boadu, who eventually stunned Ajax to claim the three points for his side.
Ajax lined up in a familiar formation of 4-2-3-1 with Erik ten Hag making a few changes in personnel following their Champions League defeat. Noussair Mazraoui joined the back four, taking the place of Nicolás Tagliafico at left-back. The Argentine would later make an appearance with his most notable contribution to the match being a glancing header which arguably should’ve been scored by the defender. Lisandro Martínez slotted in at centre back following his stint in midfield against Willem II, with Joel Veltman and young prospect Perr Schuurs making up the rest of the defensive unit. Razvan Marin and Edson Álvarez operated in defensive midfield roles, protecting the defenders, with Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic playing as wide attacking midfielders. Donny Van de Beek found himself in a playmaker position behind the striker, a role usually undertaken by Ziyech. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar lead the line, but even with his experience and quality, a goal could not be found.
AZ Alkmaar’s game plan off-the-ball
From the very first whistle, the intentions of AZ Alkmaar were clear, and it was obvious that Ajax are facing a side who are hunting them down for the league title. Off the ball, AZ methodically pressed the league leaders, but only in certain areas of the pitch. When Ajax had possession in their own half or Alkmaar’s midfield third, the home side would squeeze as a unit and the closest AZ player would close the Ajax man down, often forcing either poor control of the ball or a wayward pass.
As shown in the image above, AZ are not looking to sit back and soak up pressure from Ajax. Their advanced midfielder Calvin Stengs tracks back before applying pressure to Marin. Not only is this pressure forcing Marin to make a quicker decision, but the angle of the press eliminates Marin’s option to pass it forward to Alvarez. The press results in a turnover of possession, with Stengs executing a sharp through pass towards Boadu, but the striker fails to convert.
Continuing with the discussion based around AZ’s success off the ball, it’s worth talking about their defensive shape during spells in the game which saw Ajax have high amounts of possession, patiently trying to break AZ down. Smart enough to understand the risks of applying constant pressure, Arne Slot clearly set instructions not to do so, especially when Ajax had a strong number of players contributing to an attack, but enough remaining in defence as to combat any counter-attack made by the hosts.
The image above shows AZ defending in their own half, but not exactly sitting back or “parking the bus”. Their defensive line is 20-25 yards from its goal, with a midfielder dropping in to make a back five, rather than four. This is a smart move as it allows AZ to deal with Ajax’s wide threats on either side – an extra man in the defence essential allows them to be wider as a unit, defending more ground without the danger of being exposed in the middle. The centre is supported by the unit of three midfielders who are well placed to stop passes and mark runs made in that area. This is just one example of a clever defensive strategy used by the home side; many times they kept the league leaders out with strong and tactically-sound defending. The strength behind that back-line of AZ Alkmaar is present most, if not every week they play. However, it was even stronger against ajax than it has been in its recent five matches, all of which they kept clean sheets; in the previous five matches, the back four averaged 69.2 possession recoveries between them, which is an impressive stat in itself. Even more impressive is that against Ajax they trumped that stat, with 74 recoveries as a unit.
Ajax’s defensive struggles
In this match, one team put on a defensive masterclass; the other was Ajax. While it is vintage Ajax to commit players forward and hold a high line to dominate possession in the opposition half, they failed to combine this with a stable backline this time around. In situations where a turnover in possession occurred and AZ transitioned into an attack, Ajax’s defensive unit looked almost scared to a point; a lack of organisation and positional awareness allowed the hosts to exploit gaps between full-backs and centre-halves, and even between the two centre-halves on occasion.
The image above is one example of Ajax failing to deal with AZ during a transition. Idrissi, currently in possession on the image, plays a pass back to Wijndal, who identifies the gap in the Ajax defence and plays a lofted pass into that gap for Boadu to latch on to. The white outlined box marks an area which seems to be seen by Marin; simply running to and covering that area would eliminate the danger of that pass and AZ would either have to force a long hopeful pass or start again with a backward pass – both are better options for Ajax than what really happened. It can be argued that Alkmaar sensed such an opportunity early on as this example was neither the first nor last of its kind.
Defending during a transition isn’t the only area where Ajax struggled defensively. In the first half especially, they deployed a narrow shape when AZ had strong possession of the ball. More often than not, defending in this manner is effective and difficult to break down. However, poor execution of such a defending strategy can open up too much space for the opponents to exploit.
As seen above, Ajax are demonstrating the dangers of defending too narrow, but there are several issues leading to this shape. It starts with Ajax’s number four, Edson Alvarez (below the white arrow) being a yard or so deeper than the rest of the defensive unit. By simply stepping line with his teammates, he leaves two AZ players in an offside position, but it would also allow the two Ajax full-backs, especially left-back Mazraoui, to take a few steps out and become a bit wider as a defensive unit. However, Alvarez fails to do this, leaving a dangerous amount of space on both wings for AZ to attack, with two players almost lining up for a pass on the right-wing. Again, this wasn’t a one-off for Ajax, but it was an issue they appeared to rectify at half time, as it wasn’t troubling them in the second half.
While Ajax shared the same amount of overall possession as AZ and registered 10 shots on goal, the away side struggled to fashion any clear-cut goal-scoring chances and didn’t exactly trouble the AZ defence to any great extent. In line with the previously mentioned numbers regarding shots and possession, Ajax only had two efforts on target out of the 10, and of the 50% possession they had, only 53% of that time on the ball reached AZ’s half, and only 10% reached their penalty area – surprising numbers considering Ajax’s success with this style of play in recent times. This could be down to the changes in personnel, with key players such as Quincy Promes and David Neres missing, and with Ziyech operating out wide when he is more effective in the centre of attacking proceedings.
The above image is an example of Ajax starting an attack in classic fashion – playing a pass to the wide full-back, who has more than one passing option which could hurt the opposition. As shown by the dashed line, Alvarez passes it down the line towards Veltman, who opted to dribble down the line and whip in a cross. The white triangle highlights the alternative to simply hitting and hoping upon a cross. There are four Ajax players involved in the space of the triangle, with the lowest players, Marin and Tadic, giving a body position which suggests they’re ready to receive a pass or make a decoy run to set up a combination of passes to get into the AZ box. Ajax’s lack of creativity in this game was their biggest downfall, and this is just one example of them seemingly running out of ideas when they get so far up the pitch. They also struggled to bring Klaas-Jan Huntelaar into the game – a striker of his pedigree and with his natural finishing ability can bring a game to life in the blink of an eye, but with just one shot and three touches in the AZ box all match, he found himself isolated. It wasn’t just Huntelaar who struggled in this department though – just 26% of all Ajax attacks resulted in a shot on goal; not enough to break a resolute team like AZ.
However, there were instances where Ajax returned to character and put together a wonderful piece of football – if not for poor finishing they would’ve had a goal to celebrate. Creating attacking shaped which considered more than just one player, more than just one passing option – that is where they have found goals from this season.
A lack of a plan B is one major criticism you could have of this Ajax side, but when they demonstrate the strength behind plan A, you can understand their thinking. The image above was Ajax’s best attack of the game and most definitely deserved a goal. Edson Alvarez, in possession on the edge of the box, had already carried the attack through a visually impressive stage already, with three quickly made passes and some brilliant off-the-ball movement. The image does show Van de Beek asking for the ball directly from Alvarez, who correctly ignores him and finds Huntelaar instead, who puts it on a plate for Van de Beek, only for him to hit the ball wide.
Another day where Ajax have put a dent in their title hopes, with goal difference keeping them on top as it stands. Questions could be asked around a failure to integrate a plan B, as previously mentioned – something as simple as a change of shape could’ve woken Ajax up. A lethargic looking side who showed very little hunger, but showed that they missed several key players, were deservedly beaten by their title rivals, who look fearless in every aspect of their game. That’s now back-to-back defeats for Ajax in the league without a goal, and seven wins on the spin for AZ Alkmaar, all without conceding a single goal.
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