After three years without reaching the UEFA Champions League group phase, Ajax’s last year’s campaign was remarkable. The Dutch side showed the world their magnificent team, constructed with homemade youth talents and a low budget. Therefore, this season, football fans are curious to see how far the Amsterdam team will go.
Undoubtedly, making an analysis on this season’s team, Ajax are not the same. They lost several key players. Nevertheless, with the €205.75 M they won selling those players they reinforced their squad with quality. They acquired Quincy Promes, Edson Álvarez, Lisandro Martínez and more. Ajax started the season with a draw but since then they won their last four games scoring 17 goals.
On the other hand, Lille were not in the UEFA Champions League since 2012/13. Similarly, to Ajax, the “dogs” also sold several of their key players especially their star man Nicolas Pépé for €80 M. Correspondingly, the French side acquired Renato Sanches, Yazici, Osimhen, Timothy Weah, etc.
This tactical analysis will dissect how Erik ten Hag’s tactics overpowered Christophe Galtier’s squad.
For their first game of the season in the Champions League, Erik ten Hag did not make changes in Ajax usual scheme. The Dutch side played, as usual, in a 4-2-3-1.
Ajax’s scheme was the same, but the performers were different from their last game against Heerenveen. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Perr Schuurs stayed on the bench while Sergiño Dest and David Neres started for the Dutch team.
In contrast to Ajax, Lille changed their scheme from their last two games. The usual 4-2-3-1 was changed to the, not so unfamiliar 4-2-2. To match the 4-4-2 scheme, Geltier’s made some changes in the starting eleven. Renato Sanches and Celik started, Jérémy Pied and Luiz Araújo were relegated to the bench.
With this in mind, Lille’s backline had a minor change, trading Pied for Celik. Soumaré and Benjamin André played in centre midfield with Sanches and Bamba on the wings. The two forwards were Ikoné and Osimhen.
Ajax’s intelligent build-up
In a game with such a large score, it’s obvious that the winning team’s attack was successful. But in order to score, the attack needs to be build-up efficiently. Let’s start with Ajax’s possession.
Years ago, Johan Cruyff created an ideology based on intelligent passing and domination of the possession of the ball. The years passed by and the same philosophy still remains set in Ajax teams. Erik ten Hag’s team is no different.
In this game, Ajax had a ball possession of 58 %. These numbers could be bigger if the Dutch side did not try to always score more goals. Nonetheless, Ajax made more 209 passes than Lille (total passes respectively: 524 – 315).
The Amsterdam team kept moving the ball from one side to the other until they discovered an opportunity to inflict damage on the French side. Even when Lille pressured higher in the pitch, most of the times, Ajax tried to keep the ball on the ground.
One of the reasons for their successful build-up was Martinez positioning. The South American would position himself in the middle of Lille’s attack and midfield lines. With this, he always had space to receive the ball and pass safely, as we can see in the image below.
Additionally, to give Martinez even more space, Alvarez and Promes would go higher in the pitch almost near Tadić. This divided Lille’s midfield attention and prevented them from pressuring Martinez. Their positioning was also between Lille’s midfield and defensive lines. Similarly, when they got the ball, they had space and time to orchestrate Ajax’s attacks.
Ajax’s dangerous attacks
The Dutch side’s hunger for goals, even when they were winning, gave us some creative and dangerous attacking mechanisms.
Ajax’s raids would involve six/seven players attacking Lille’s goal. This was due to the Dutch’s full-backs playing more like wingers than defenders. Dest and Tagliafico were very active in their team offensive plays (Tagliafico assisted and scored a goal). In fact, they would not only play on the lateral corridors but would also make runs to middle. This kind of positioning overpowered Lille’s players on the wings. In the image below this kind of advanced positioning and overpower is shown.
Hence, this positioning freed the highly gifted Ajax wingers who had more space to shine. Neres and Ziyech made numerous dangerous assaults and finished the game with one assist each. They executed almost every play in the book. They tried crosses, dribbles, one-two’s, cuts inside, trough passes, etc.
Additionally, Ajax’s midfielders joined this offensive “party”. They would also appear in the opponent’s area, sometimes outnumbering Lille’s defenders in the box. This massive placement of players in the opponent’s box resulted in two goals for Ajax. As can be seen in the image below.
If this was not enough, Erik ten Hag’s team added another ingredient to their attacking recipe. Consistent positional changes. Ajax’s players where constantly swapping positions with their teammates leaving Lille’s defenders “nauseated”. Some of the evident swaps were: Dest with Alvarez; Neres with Ziyech; Promes with Tadić, Neres and Ziyech. The following images demonstrate exactly that.
All of this mentioned above resulted in 3 goals that could have been more. Nevertheless, this kind of massive attack seems a bit dangerous to execute against some of the big teams. Obviously, this also led to some of Lille’s threatening counter-attacks, but this kind of offensive style pleases every football fan.
Ajax’s unviolated goal
As it was explained above, Ajax attacked with six/seven players. Therefore, they had only four/five players to defend their goal, including their goalkeeper. This would make Ajax a vulnerable team to counter attacks. Generally, this was how Lille got to Ajax goal with danger. With the example below, we can prove this.
In order to stop this, Ajax strategy focused on aggressive, quick and crowded reactions to the ball loss. This defensive reaction is another strategy in Johan Cruyff’s football bible.
When Ajax’s players lost the ball, they tried to muffle the ball owner in order to regain possession. Most importantly, the player who lost the precious ball needs to react fast. The image below shows exactly that.
In fact, let’s take a look at some good old statistics. Ajax got 91 recoveries and Lille 87. These numbers seem to be similar, but what about recoveries in the opponent’s half? Ajax recovered the ball 40 times in the opponent’s midfield while Lille only recovered 21 times. This shows us exactly what was explained above: quick reaction to the ball loss.
To sum up, Ajax pressure when losing the ball was quite effective yet not perfect. Indeed, Lille had many opportunities to score with speedy counterattacks.
Lille’s offensive inefficiency
The French side began the game with a clear strategy. They tried to surprise the home team with speedy attacks and counterattacks. This resulted in some chances in the first minutes but with a low danger level.
After the first minutes, Lille remained somewhat impatient. They kept trying those same speedy attacks mixed with long balls to their forwards. This resulted in a low level of passes throughout the game (as seen above). Later in the game, after conceding a goal, they kept trying to score with the same method.
Generally, these attacks were in the form of quick combinations between players, progressive runs with the ball and counterattacks. In fact, Lille got their most dangerous opportunities like that. Throughout the game, the French side got five clear opportunities, but their finishing was poor. As seen on the image below, Osimhen, Lille’s best goalscorer, failed to score almost inside Ajax’s goal area.
Truthfully, it’s clearly Lille’s fault that they did not score. Ajax’s defensive vulnerability left space for Lille to explore and score. As seen in the example below, Lille’s discernment was not the best when given chances.
To summarise, Erik ten Hag’s team outplayed Christophe Galtier’s side. However, Lille were the underdogs of the group and if they scored, the story could have been different. Ajax’s following Champions League games against Chelsea and Valencia will test the Dutch side real value.
On one hand, Ajax started the group with a big win and are the first of the group. They have an advantage of two goals over Valencia. Additionally, their creative and diverse attacks entertained every football fan. Nevertheless, against the big “boys” they have to be more serious defensively wise.
On the other hand, Lille’s started what was already a difficult group for them with a loss. However, this is not the end for Lille as they have more five games to play. With this style of play and their quality players, they surely can surprise the other teams.
In football is way too easy to draw quick conclusions on a team, but every game has its own story. One thing is sure, the UEFA Champions League group H is going to be very competitive.
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