Ajax succumb to AZ pressure as their title hopes slip away
With the title race in full motion, Ajax travelled to Alkmaar to face fourth-placed AZ. Ten Hag’s men hoped to go into the international break only trailing PSV by a mere two points, with the two pacesetters set to clash on 31 March. Unfortunately for the Amsterdam side, they were undone in a rather convincing way by Van Den Brom’s side.
Their 1-0 loss, thanks to a Guus Til tap-in from a corner, leaves them five points adrift heading into De Topper. This tactical analysis will look to untangle the situations that faced Ajax during the game and to point out ways in which they could have improved their buildup play.
Future Barcelona star Frenkie de Jong returned to the starting XI in this game after being out of action midweek vs Zwolle. Hakim Ziyech also returned but was unfortunately forced off mid-way through the first half due to a muscle injury.
Dusan Tadic, who performed a plethora of roles in this game, started in the striker position, a familiar sight to those who watched their triumph in the Champions League. Teenager Noa Lang was rewarded for his assist midweek by not only retaining his space on the bench but being the first tactical sub utilised by Ten Hag.
AZ continued with the promising team that dropped points the previous weekend to PEC Zwolle, making no changes. Youngsters Til and Calvin Stengs continue to receive some much-needed game time.
AZ put pressure on the visitors
AZ conceded the majority of the ball but barely seemed to be under threat. The home side had a mere 35% possession but having little possession played into their hands. AZ maintained a mid to high block throughout the game in which they often forced Ajax to go back to their goalkeeper or to attempt wing play. Their structure was mainly set in a 4-1-4-1/4-4-2 hybrid which would fluctuate depending on certain triggers.
Van Den Brom’s team were heavily focused on their task of not allowing Ajax to build up through the central areas. Their three central midfielders in Maher, Til and Midtsjo would often rotate but never compromise their structure.
Up front, Seuntjens pressed alone to cut out a passing lane into one of the Ajax central midfielders if De Jong and Schone were in advanced areas. If either of the deeper midfielders had dropped into the defensive line to help with build-up, one of the aforementioned midfielders would press up with Suentjens.
Disrupting Ajax in their build-up was the aim of this move and it was certainly effective. AZ were happy to concede space behind their back line as they pushed up extremely high. By holding a high line they allowed very little space in the central areas due to their compact positioning.
This allowed the central midfielders to be aggressive in their actions as they could rely on the back four to pressurise any ball played that broke their press, immediately forcing Ajax back to square one.
Onana struggles on the ball
Generally, when the ball found its way to the Onana, he was faced with a choice to either play a risky pass through the press or to bypass it with a long ball. Onana often opted for the more immediately safe option of the long pass, but without Huntelaar on the pitch Ajax’s attackers struggled to win any aerial duels.
This seems to be a slight weakness in the overall game of the otherwise brilliant Cameroonian. While he is more than capable on the ball and often plays scintillating chipped passes to either wing, he seems to lack the composure under a tough press.
Plenty of situations occurred during the game in which an opportunity arose to break the first line with a pass through to either De Jong or Schone. These chances would go begging however, as Onana opted to circulate to his defenders or clear the ball allowing for an easy turnover.
AZ bypass the Ajax press
Ajax set up in very similar structures to those that have featured in their games previously. Defensively they focused themselves on winning the ball back in dangerous areas high up the pitch. They attempted this by trying to force the play in the first stage of the build-up to the wings. From there the players would look to pressurise the ball and force a mistake.
AZ looked to build up in a 2-3-2-3. By splitting their centre-backs they formed a triangle with the centre mid who dropped deep, mostly Adam Maher. Ajax, looking to prevent easy progression through the centre, inadvertently played into the hands of the hosts with their pressing structure.
The leading striker, Dolberg for the majority of the game, prevented circulation between the centre-backs. Donny van de Beek would occupy the deepest midfielder while Neres and Ziyech or Tadic would try to block any lanes to the remaining central midfielders. Mazraoui and Tagliafico pushed on to stop progression via the full-backs.
As already mentioned, this played straight into AZ’s hands. Due to the press, they were able to create numerical overloads in attacking areas. They simply needed to be able to progress the ball forward to these areas.
Instead of trying to play through the press, the hosts decided to circulate the ball to either centre-back in a wide area, and then he would play a diagonal ball into Seuntjen. By positioning both remaining central midfielders high they created a situation where they were able to reliably take advantage from any knock-down Seuntjen was able to provide, thus bypassing the Ajax press completely.
Erik ten Hag’s men slipped up royally in this game and handed all league advantage to their rivals PSV. Ten Hag himself can take a solid percentage of blame for his lacklustre in-game management. Although the Dutchman has been largely popular so far, his decision to leave Huntelaar on the bench when Ajax were struggling under pressure without an outlet remains baffling.
Additionally, when Noa Lang initially came on in a central position, Ajax looked more dangerous. His higher positioning than Schone, whom he replaced, allowed him to find space between the lines easier. So when he was shifted out wide left due to the belated introduction of Huntelaar, it felt like slight panic of the behalf of Ten Hag.
Ajax now sits five points behind PSV going into the international break. With the two teams playing each other immediately after, Ajax will be praying that Ziyech’s injury does not keep him out for long. Anything but a win for Ajax would surely leave too much of a gap for the Amsterdam side to realistically claw back with only eight games to play.
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