Titleholders Ajax qualified for the Champions League group stages last week and ended that successful week with an away game against Sparta Rotterdam in the Eredivisie. The newly-promoted side Sparta started the season well, but Ajax proved to be too strong for the Rotterdam side, as this tactical analysis will show.

In this analysis supported by statistics and tactics, we will have a look at three tactical trends during this Eredivisie game. We will look at the attacking style of play by Ajax, how Sparta set up defensively and how Ajax escaped the pressing by Sparta, in this tactical analysis piece.


Sparta vs Ajax line-ups

Sparta coach Henk Fraser fielder a defensive 4-4-2 formation with Adil Auassar and Dante Rigo playing as a defensive block, while Abdou Harroui and Mohamed Rayhi would assist the attack in the attacking phase of play. Bryan Smeets and Ibrahim Dervişoğlu were the two strikers, as the Rotterdam formation tried to hold off the titleholders Ajax.

Ajax’s manager Erik Ten Hag had a different approach to this game. Ajax’s side is built on dominance and they want to play like that with their 4-2-3-1 formation. Edson Álvarez and Lisandro Martínez played as a defensive bloc, while David Neres, Quincy Promes and Hakim Ziyech were the attacking midfielders with Dušan Tadić playing as the striker. With Donny van de Beek’s injury, Ajax is looking to fill in his particular role and it was interesting to see Promes play on ’10’.

Ajax managed to book a rather convincing 1-4 win in Rotterdam, but the result was not the most interesting thing about this match. We will now look at the aforementioned tactical threads.

Ajax’s attacking style of play on the flanks

Ajax employed a 4-2-3-1 formation in this game, but in attacking phases of the game, this formation changed into an attacking 4-3-3 formation with the wingbacks making runs down the line. In this phase of the game Tadic would play as the striker with Ziyech and Neres as wingers.

The attacking phase: Ajax’s front four with Ziyech, Tadic, Promes and Neres.

As you can see, the attacking midfielders Ziyech and Neres become wingers, while Promes also participates as the fourth attacker. He plays close to Tadic. Those four players were tasked to create a number of chances and were constantly posing a threat for the Sparta defence.

Ajax attacking style of play during this game was characterised by the way they categorised their playing field in attack. They had particular ways of attacking on the flanks and through the middle. In the image below you can see how they conducted their attacks in theory.

Theoretical approach of Ajax’s flank attacks. Ziyech would drop down, while Tagliafico would make a run down the line.

Martinez would move from his defensive bloc to the flank and Ziyech would drop from his attacking position, which meant that the Sparta midfielders would follow him. This left room for Nicolás Tagliafico who would make a run down the line. This can be seen in the image below.

Martinez passes the ball to Ziyech, who then would look for Tagliafico who would make a run down the line.

Martinez passes the ball to Ziyech, who is marked by two midfielders. He is eager to pass the ball to Tagliafico who makes a run down the line. Ziyech has two different options here. He can either pass the ball to Tagliafico, who then in return will cross the ball to the incoming players on the far right side.

The other option for Ziyech is to cut inside on the right. Because Tagliafico, Ziyech and Martinez occupy the left flank – there is space in the middle, as you can see in the image below.

The Sparta midfielder closes in and gives Ziyech the choice to pass the ball to Tagliafico or pass the ball into the space, while Tadic is making his way into that space.

Ziyech is forced to make a choice when he is closed in by the Sparta midfielder. On this occasion, he still wants to cut inside which lefts him dispossessed, but this style of play gave Sparta all sorts of troubles in defending mode.

The most danger from the positional attacks from Ajax came from the flanks.

This also can be seen in the image above. Ajax had 43 positional attacks of which 6 ended with a shot. The most danger came from the right flank with 0,56 xG coming from that flank, followed by 0,16 xG from the left flank. It was Ajax that was dominant with their style of play, but if they had been a bit more clinical they would have a monster score on their hands.

Sparta’s pressing midfield and Ajax escaping it

As mentioned above, Sparta fielded a 4-4-2 formation with Dervişoğlu and Smeets as the two strikers in this rather conservative system. The wide midfielders Rayhi and Harroui played deeper, as they were the first to assist the attackers in an offensive situation.

The first line to block the Ajax attacks and form a defensive bastion was the four-man midfield. Fraser employed a midfield that had both power and pace, in order to keep up with the frequency of the Ajax attacks.

When in defensive mode, the 4-4-2 formation changes into a 4-4-1-1 formation with Smeets dropping down.

When Ajax had the ball high up on their own half or just on Sparta’s half, Sparta would react to that. They changed their formation slightly and changed from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-4-1-1 formation with Smeets dropping down and playing between the four-man midfield and striker Dervişoğlu.

Sparta started pressing with their four-man midfield as soon as Ajax passed the circle on Sparta’s half. Before Ajax passed that specific area, the midfield did not press, as can be seen in the image below.

Ajax can pass the halfway line without Sparta pressing them.

The four-man midfield and Smeets only started pressing when the Ajax players with the ball, passed that area as illustrated above. When they did, usually two Sparta players would close in on the Ajax player with the ball. In doing that they forced the Ajax player to make a decision and that press led to difficult situations for Ajax to play their ways out it.

This could be seen in the second half in the 62nd minute of the game. Ajax passed their way to the right flank and Ziyech got the ball. Sparta pressed him with two different players as can be seen in the image below.

Sparta pressing the Ajax players on the right flank in the 62nd minute of the game.

Faye and Rayhi pressed Sergino Dest on the right flank, forcing him to make a decision. He has one option going and that is passing the ball back to Alvarez, as the option of Ziyech is blocked. Ziyech is also being pressed by Sparta, in the person of Rigo.

Sparta forced Ajax to make a decision, but the titleholders were not impressed by this pressing style of play. Yes, it caused minor inconveniences, but the passing style of play by Ajax made sure they escaped the pressing and could create a number of chances as a consequence.

The key to this all was Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. He played as a striker with a lot of movement. He would drop down into the midfield to collect the ball or to pass it to the midfielders, luring the central defenders to that same area. At the same time, this left more space for the wingers to be utilised, as the defenders were drawn away.

Key to the passing style of play was Huntelaar dropping down to midfield.

Huntelaar would pass the ball to the upcoming players in the middle, in this example, this was Promes. He would then pass it to the flanks, which were not covered because of Huntelaar’s movement. In this example, Huntelaar passes the ball directly to Tadic, who makes a run down the left This can be seen in the image below.

Tadic crosses the ball to Ziyech, who scores the 0-4.

The key was the direct style of passing which saw Ajax’s pace being used to get forward. Tadic was marked but his skill made sure that he could provide a cross. At the same time as Tadic is making his actions, four Ajax players are moving forward. Ziyech is the most prominent and gets the ball eventually, scoring the 0-4 in the process.

Final thoughts

Ajax traditionally has a tough away game at Sparta and it was not very easy to manage to score against this side either. Sparta managed to press compact with their 4-4-2, but Ajax’s direct style of passing and their specific way of combining on the flanks made the difference. Ajax won another three points in the Eredivisie after beating Sparta 1-4 in Rotterdam.

Artwork by @chapulana

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