After a tepid first matchday of the Eredivisie, Saturday evening witnessed the clubs heading for their second match of the season. Securing a point in the opening day surely couldn’t satisfy Ajax’s fans, especially when they were the superior team against Vitesse. On matchday two, they welcomed FC Emmen to the Amsterdam Arena with the expectation of winning all three points.
An expected tepid transfer window saw many of Ajax‘s players depart for bigger clubs. But they have already secured the future stars that will potentially replace the likes of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt. While Eric ten Haag remains on their sideline, nothing is impossible for the Amsterdam-based club. And everything started off perfectly for them with the Johan Cruijff Schaal over PSV Eindhoven.
Emmen are enjoying their second year in the Eredivisie after surviving relegation. But they didn’t enjoy the best start as a last-minute winner stole the headline against Groningen. They once again entered this match as an underdog and the difference in quality was shown during the game. A brace from Klass-Jan Huntelaar and three goals by Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech and Dušan Tadić meant three points stayed at the Amsterdam Arena.
Ajax lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Lisandro Martínez and Joël Veltman starting as centre-backs. The back-four was completed with the two wing-backs Nicolás Tagliafico and Noussair Mazraoui. Central midfielders Daley Blind and Răzvan Marin screened in front of the defence. The usual front four for Ajax consisted of attacking midfielder Donny van de Beek, wingers David Neres and Hakim Ziyech. False nine Dušan Tadić was responsible for providing the goals.
Emmen also started with a 4-4-2 formation as central defenders Nick Bakker and Keziah Veendorp played in front of goalkeeper Dennis Telgenkamp. Full-backs Lorenzo Burnet and Glenn Bijl providing the width alongside wingers Marko Kolar and Nikolai Laursen. Michael de Leeuw was the team’s attacking midfielder and he provided supports for striker Jafar Arias.
Ajax’s style of play and how they dominated Emmen
Emmen entered the game in a very negative state as they defended deep inside their half. This allowed Ajax to build in their favourite style, which was the three-man build-up. The principles remained the same from last season and even the players’ roles. One of the pivots, usually Blind, would drop deep and push Veltman into the middle. Marin shifted centrally and created two passing triangles inside the middle third.
When the attackers sat on the shoulders of Emmen’s defenders, the wing-backs’ pushed high up the pitch and were willing to attack the wide spaces. Their high positioning, combined with the midfield line of four, forced the opponent to track back and fill in the spaces inside the box. Although this might bring them the numerical superiority, Ajax players tended to use quick combinations among each other and that advantage would be bypassed easily.
Besides the original build-up idea, the players also created the pressing block on some occasions. While Blind and Marin remained in their original position, Veltman and Martinez had the license of drifting a bit wide to find the attackers and make penetrative passes. They could also dribble the ball up the pitch to reduce the transition time and allow the players to be more precise in creating chances.
As mentioned, Ajax tended to use quick combinations inside the final third to bypass Emmen’s defensive structure. It allowed them to approach the goal more easily and created more attempts on goal.
On the expected goals (xG) graph below, it’s easy to notice that most of Ajax’s shot occurred inside the box. Most of their chances were highly-rated and reached a decent accuracy rate. In total, Ajax’s xG throughout the game was 5.17, which was also reflected through the goals on the field. Because of their fluent attacking concept, they were able to threaten Emmen’s goal on many occasions.
Inside the final third, Ajax players’ moved flexibly off-the-ball and created spaces for each other. As a false nine, Tadić constantly created spaces for his teammates to move into by dropping deep and attracting Emmen defenders’ attention. Furthermore, recognising and utilising free spaces was also one of his traits.
Around him were van de Beek and Ziyech, two of Ajax’s creative players who could create spaces through their movements. Similar to the shot below, when Mazraoui and Ziyech controlled the ball, they dragged two opposition’s defenders out of their original position. This left a huge space behind them and allowed Tadić to move in and assisted van de Beek’s opening goal.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that Tadić and van de Beek usually switched position with each other. Whenever a player came deep to provide a passing option and brought their teammates into play, the other one would vacate the spaces left behind.
This positional interchanging not only occurred constantly in the central area, but it was also adapted on both flanks. As the wing-backs overlapped, the wingers would tuck inside and occupy the half-spaces. There were times that the opposite thing happened, where the wing-backs moved centrally and the wingers stretched wide. By doing so, Ajax players attempted to stretch the opposition’s defensive structure and utilised spaces in between the defenders.
One of the similar situations had led to Tadić’s goal inside the second half. Quincy Promes’ movement dragged along an Emmen defender and created spaces on the left-hand side for Tagliafico. As the Argentinian wing-back overlapped, Blind noticed his run and made a pass into that space. He approached the box, made a pass to Ziyech and after a few sequences, Tadić was close enough to make a tap-in and sealed the third goal for Ajax.
Defensively, they pressed high up the pitch with the aim of recovering possession inside the opposition’s half for a counter-attack. One of the noticeable tactical points from ten Haag’s tactics last season was their intensive, man-oriented pressing. It allowed the team to match the number of the opposition’s players and provided supports for each other when needed.
Each player was responsible for following one of Emmen’s players and kept them in sight. When the ball approached them, they could have sufficient space and time to tackle and win back possession. This also required the defensive line to locate high up the pitch in case of a long ball being played to the strikers. Martínez and Veltman were two centre-backs that were comfortable in the air and intercepting passes. They created solidity when involved in duels, allowing their teammates to focus on other aspects of the game.
Emmen’s style of play
As the underdog, it’s no surprise that they chose to defend their half rather than take on a positive state. Against a team whose quality was so much higher than themselves, Dick Lukkien had to choose a safe approach for his side.
When not in possession, they formed a narrow 4-4-2 defensive structure similar to Burnley’s. They wanted to keep things tight at their own end by limiting the spaces between channels and prevented small combinations between Ajax’s players. The structure would shift along with the ball and focused on the ball-carrier. If possible, some of Emmen’s players could even track the runs from the opposition and cut it off.
The two strikers were responsible for pressing Ajax’s build-up and tried to intercept the ball. They acted as the focal point for the structure and were the first ones that attempted to intercept the ball. Since pressing high up the pitch was not a viable option, putting pressure on the ball-carrier by blocking the possible passing option was how they chose to regain possession for their team.
If the press was bypassed, the structure would move a bit higher and tried to overload the area in front of their box. Their aim was forcing Ajax to circulate the ball outside of it and they used long shots as their main attacking method. It required the players to be disciplined and stick to their original position.
Because of their low-block and ball-oriented style of defending, they were able to intercept many of Ajax’s passes. This was shown clearly on their interceptions graph as most of it occurred inside their final third. Furthermore, Ajax had the tendency to attack through the middle using short passes and the central players had more work to do when it came to recovering possession.
But there was one major problem with their defensive shape. Notice how they overloaded a certain area in the shot below in order to tackle the ball. They created numerical superiority inside that area with six players compared to Ajax’s four.
On the other hand, there were only two players outside of the zone which couldn’t match with three Ajax players. If they let the ball out of that area, the opposition could easily start a counter-attack and threaten Emmen’s goal. Fortunately, their press was a success and it forced Ajax to make a back pass.
When they controlled the possession, Emmen struggled to create attacks due to Ajax’s intensive pressing. During the first half, they couldn’t keep the ball at their feet and had to chase the ball most of the time.
A positive second period saw them manage to keep their possession rate at 50%. Still, only relying on quick counter-attacks and direct passes hindered them from approaching Onana’s goal. They had two long shots from outside Ajax’s box but it wasn’t enough to force the Cameroonian goalkeeper to showcase his ability.
Ajax got off to a very good start inside the first half, dominating the game with what they have done best. Their fluent attacking tactics combined with solidity in defence forced Emmen to a negative state, which eventually led to their five goals. A positive match that built confidence for the players and allowed ten Haag to test some of his new ideas was exactly what they got when welcoming Emmen.
For the away side, travelling to the Amsterdam Arena was never easy. At the start of the season, their expectation was to avoid relegation. They came very close to their first point against Groningen, but securing a draw against the defending champion seemed very unrealistic. Still, they have performed at their best and they should keep their heads held high into a very difficult season.
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