Ex-Hammer Haller: How Ajax’s attacking approach can unlock his explosiveness – tactical analysis
The Hammers, who spent €50.00m on the Ivory Coast international in 2019, weren’t satisfied with their investment after he only scored 14 goals in 53 games. Haller failed to impress and replicate his performance from his Eintracht-Frankfurt days, and West Ham were quick to sign a deal with the Amsterdam team.
While David Moyes couldn’t take advantage of the 26-year-old’s abilities and found it hard to adjust him to his strategy, the attack-minded Ajax seem like a great option for him at first glance.
The team currently sit first in the Eredivisie table and have scored the impressive number of 55 goals in 16 games, while conceding only 12. Looking at these numbers, Haller’s arrival seems a tad unnecessary but having in mind Ajax’s ambitions and aim for dominance it is not a surprise that they are looking to expand their attacking options and add even more explosiveness in the advanced areas.
What’s Ajax’s attacking approach?
Ten Hag managed to build an extremely dangerous attacking side who try to control the game and expose the opposition in every possible way. The team rely on pace and short-pass combinations, a lot of movement in their build-up and attacking actions. Their most used formations are the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 and they always try to overload the advanced areas and to produce a high number of chances in front of the goal. Ajax shoot 18.29 times on average per game which is one of the highest rates compared to the teams in the European top five leagues.
Аs part of their attacking strategy they do rely on crossing a lot. While they usually use all of the channels in their build-up, they do tend to exploit the wide areas most frequently, which leads to 20.67 crosses on average and many goalscoring opportunities respectively.
Ajax rely on strong connection and positional awareness both for dealing with the opposition’s press and opening the passing lanes and also for breaking through different defensive structures and movement in the final third.
The team are also quite effective on a counter. While they don’t rely on that too frequently, they do aim to recover the ball and expose their opponents on speed and 42% of their counters end up with shots which is quite a satisfying record.
The team also create many opportunities thanks to taking advantage of their set-piece chances. They have scored 13 goals in Eredivisie from their attacking set-pieces.
Can Haller’s aerial presence increase Ajax’s efficiency upfront?
Even with his first two games Ajax’s shirt, the 26-year-old was able to show his aerial abilities and how beneficial they could be for the team. While they are quite successful in the air winning 50% of their aerial duels on average, especially in the central areas, they still needed additional options in attack that could capitalise on their crossing attempts and corners more frequently.
Haller’s arrival gives that opportunity to the team since their most dominant attacker in the air is Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who is not a regular starter for the team. This decreases their efficiency in front of the goal since it is difficult for them to convert the high balls into goals.
Having the Ivory Coast international in their frontline could be extremely beneficial in these situations. With his 190cm and despite playing only for 50 minutes, he was the player with the most aerial attempts in his debut against PSV Eindhoven. He also showed off his abilities in the win against Twente where he was a starter. He won 9/9 of his aerial duels in that game and eventually scored his first goal for the team with a headed attempt.
This allows the team to get good use of the frequent crossing attempts and combine well with the wide players. Of course, a huge part of his success in that indicator is a result of his good positioning. Haller has a strong spatial awareness and manages to exploit the advanced areas very well. As it was expected, Ajax’s whole attacking movement and partnership upfront, allow him to use that and both be a direct threat in front of the goal, but also combine well with his teammates in the half-spaces, creating chances for them.
This will also be very beneficial for the team during attacking set-pieces. While they are pretty successful in that matter, having Haller’s presence in the box could increase their efficiency even more. His contribution in the air could become one of the team’s main strengths when taking corners. Even if e couldn’t help with his height, his presence could easily drag defenders out of position and open spaces for his teammates.
Partnership with the wingers and positional changes
Ajax 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations are used to successfully exploit the advanced areas and be able to either overload the box in case they rely on crossing or to occupy the half-spaces and perform positional changes to advance the ball and threaten the goal.
Currently, Tadić is the most frequent starter on the left-wing, providing both width with his movement on the flanks and crossing, but also a direct threat with his tendency to cut inside and use link-up-play with his teammates. That’s where Haller could fit right in. The whole team’s attacking movement would allow him more freedom to move around and find a quality position for creating chances.
He could use his positioning in the box to capitalise on the Serbian’s 6.63 crosses per game or he could simply drop back, drag players out of position and combine with Tadić giving him the chance to occupy the central areas.
Haller’s adjustment to Ajax’s attacking strategy seemed very quick and he managed to create a few opportunities for his new team in his first two games. While he mainly threatened the goal with his positioning in the penalty area, his presence in the half-spaces was noticeable. It helped the team in ball progression and in breaking through the oppositions’ pressing structures.
His movement combined with Tadić’s dribbling skills and ability to hold on to the ball could bring explosive results. The same goes for Ajax’s efforts from the right. The support system that Haller has behind him at Ajax could really help him show his true potential. Antony’s contribution from the right-wing has been impressive so far. His exploitation of both the wide areas and the half-spaces is very beneficial for the team and has resulted in him scoring seven goals and assisting eight more. This creates the perfect environment for Haller to take care of the central areas and provide threat there, although he could also easily combine with his teammates from a deeper position.
The 26-year-old’s awareness and concentration help him in finding the best goalscoring position. In his goal against Twente (assisted by Antony) he was following the ball movement carefully and constantly adjusting his positioning according to it. He moved around the penalty area until he was able to outplay the defenders and receive the cross. In his debut game against PSV, his spatial awareness helped him in exploiting a gap and assisting Antony who had moved to the central areas.
Of course, Haller’s actions could be useful when attacking through the middle both for receiving and sending through balls. His advanced positioning could also be beneficial on a counter where he could use his aerials presence to receive long balls behind the defence. His tendency to do flick-ons could be a perfect addition to Ajax’s attacking actions.
Haller is a player that doesn’t stay away from his defensive responsibilities. Despite his advanced position he usually gets involved in the defensive actions. This could be very helpful for Ten Hag’s side due to their high pressing strategy. The combination of his tackling, interceptions and recoveries make him a good addition for that approach. He tends to tackle quite frequently for a striker, trying to block the opposition’s attempts to counter.
Even though Ajax have been quite solid when defending set-pieces so far, the Ivory Coast international could help them a lot with their actions in the box. If he’s not assigned a role to stay on the counter, his presence in the penalty area could be beneficial, especially thanks to his aerial contribution.
As our analysis showed, Ajax’s attacking strategy and skilful forward players could provide Haller more freedom to use his strengths. Using him according to them and providing the relevant support from behind is very important for his performance. With all the movement that happens in the advanced areas and the amount of time Ajax’s have on the ball in the opposition half, he should be able to find his way to scoring regularly again.