UEFA Champions League 2020/2021: Ajax vs Liverpool – tactical preview
The UEFA Champions League returns this week, with the group draws producing some mouthwatering ties. One of this week’s games sees Dutch giants Ajax play EPL champions Liverpool. This tactical analysis will look at both sides’ attacking and defending tactics, as well as comparing their key statistics, all with the aim of finding their strengths and weaknesses. The preview will also look at which lineups both sides could use.
If we first look at Ajax, we can see in their attack how they like to use Dušan Tadić in any way they can. The Serbia international and former Southampton player has featured as an attacking midfielder and a winger in his time, giving his team flexibility in the final third.
We can see here how Tadić positions himself on the edge of the attack, in plenty of space. This gives him two options; firstly, he can take the ball towards the goal line and then pull it back into the box for a teammate, and secondly, he can take it inside and shoot at goal. As the red arrows show, he does the latter and scores, and this demonstrates the threat he poses. Tadić’s main strength is seeing where the space is, and then manoeuvring the ball into that area, creating problems for opposing defenders.
Liverpool have defensive problems at the moment, which we will come to later on, so it is possible that Tadić will be deployed centrally by Ajax, aiming to create issues for the Liverpool defenders, and taking advantage of any gaps that appear between them. As he is arguably one of Ajax’s most important players, Liverpool will need to stop him seeing too much of the ball, otherwise they could go the same way as Heerenveen here.
This image shows us the other thing that Ajax like to do; getting their central players moving through gaps in opposing defences. Here, against Heerenveen again, the ball is a good distance away from the forward line, but it shows that Ajax like to create passing options early, ensuring that they control the space before their opponents can get into it and close down these options.
The other thing this does is to move the defenders further away from the ball’s current location. This is because Ajax have players moving through the Heerenveen defence, and, as a result, this opens up space between the defence and midfield to operate in, and you can see how there are two Ajax players in this central space already. Therefore, if the defence closes down the front two players, the two behind offer the next best passing option, and this would get the ball closer to the goal. This is something Liverpool need to be aware of.
One weakness of Ajax’s attack is crossing, particularly in situations like in the image above. What Ajax need to work on here is finding the target player with the ball, because they often find the defenders instead, who then clear the ball from their box. Therefore, when Ajax get into good positions, they don’t make the chances count, letting their opponents off. If they don’t get their crosses more accurate against Liverpool, then the Reds will be able to clear the ball and launch a counter-attack, using the natural pace they have in the team.
In defence, we can see more areas where Ajax are not so good. Firstly, in the image below, Groningen have managed to get a shot away from outside the box.
This comes because, whilst it looks like Ajax have closed down the space around the ball, they are not good in one-v-one duels. Therefore, opponents can take the ball forward and shoot from positions like this.
We know that Liverpool’s main attacking tactics are to play with a front three, and their players can go up against opponents and win duels. Therefore, Ajax will need to work on this before facing Liverpool, because, if they let the likes of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané past them, or let them shoot from these areas, then Liverpool will create plenty of chances and be dangerous overall. The situation in the image above led to the only goal of the game between Ajax and Groningen, so we can see how costly this inability to defend in these situations can be for Ajax.
In this image, Ajax are attacking, but have been too slow on the ball. This has allowed Vitesse Arnhem to nip in and take the ball off them, as is shown by the blue arrow. Therefore, again, it is likely that Liverpool will look to close down Ajax’s players at every opportunity, meaning that Ajax will need to get the ball and move it quickly, which could lead to mistakes being made in possession.
What we have shown so far is that Ajax will carry a significant threat against Liverpool, but have some issues in defending which the Reds can use to their advantage.
We will now turn our attention to Liverpool, to see their strengths and weaknesses in attack. Firstly, if we look at this image, we can see how their main threat comes from the wings.
Liverpool’s main attacking tactics rely on their full-backs getting high up the pitch, controlling the wings, as Andrew Robertson is doing here in the loss to Aston Villa this season. This allows the wider forwards, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, to cut inside and support Roberto Firmino in the central areas, increasing the threat Liverpool carry. We have seen since Jurgen Klopp was appointed that he puts a lot into getting the full-backs high up the pitch, and sees them as a major part of his gegenpressing tactics.
Therefore, it goes without saying that Ajax will have to watch this threat. Teams have looked to stop Liverpool playing like this by moving their wider players higher up the pitch, and this is something that could work in this game. Liverpool’s defence has looked shaky so far this season, and the injury to Virgil van Dijk last weekend will not help this. Therefore, Ajax, by putting pressure on the centre-backs, and getting their players into the wide areas outside them, will force Liverpool to keep their attacking full-backs back, and this therefore will starve Liverpool of creativity at the other end of the pitch.
Focusing on the forwards themselves, we know they work together well to create space for the team. In this image, against Chelsea, Firmino has the ball, and instinctively Salah and Mané have spread apart, with Chelsea’s narrow defensive structure giving Liverpool the space to get around them. Firmino now has passing options either side of the defence, making it easy for them to get the ball behind Chelsea.
Ajax will have to be wary of this, and their defence will have to be disciplined and organised. If they are too narrow, then they will give Liverpool the space to get behind them, as the Reds have here. Liverpool’s squad is interchangeable, and this is a central part of their tactics. Therefore, Ajax will have to be wary of this regardless of who starts.
Liverpool might seem faultless in attack, but there is one way that they can improve.
If we look at this image, we can see how Liverpool seemed hesitant to make runs into the space behind Aston Villa’s defence. New addition Diogo Jota has the ball on the left hand side, but he can’t get it into a good area to set up a shooting opportunity, because there are no Liverpool players available there. Aston Villa have a five-man defence, marshalling the Liverpool attack, but they were helped by Liverpool not looking to make a run behind them.
The thing about this is that Jota is one of the forward line, so needs to be in a more central position to receive the ball, rather than where he is here. This is why Liverpool couldn’t create a passing option here. Going back to the previous example, Robertson was in this position. Therefore, Ajax will see from this that, if they can keep Liverpool’s full-backs pinned back in defence, then they will force the wingers to put the crosses in, and the central threat that the Reds thrive on will be lessened.
We will now look at Liverpool’s defence, analysing their weaknesses in this area.
Admittedly, this image is from the game against Lincoln City in the Carabao Cup, so it was a weakened side, but the point is still the same. The Imps have the ball on the right wing, looking to move it into the box. Liverpool have opened the space for them, and one Lincoln attacker has made the run into it to meet the ball. Given that Liverpool now have Van Dijk out injured for a long time, they will need to be very careful of these situations, because Ajax will look to exploit them, taking advantage of any space they can find in the Liverpool box.
A bigger concern will be the enormity of the gaps between the Liverpool defenders at times. Here, against Lincoln again, the ball has been crossed in from the wing, and a Lincoln attacker has made the run through the middle, as the pink arrow shows. The red line indicates how much space Liverpool gave Lincoln to get through them. Again, given that Liverpool will likely have a makeshift central defensive partnership against Ajax, it will take time to gel, and gaps like these will be present. Ajax will therefore look to exploit these gaps, and we have already seen how a key part of their attacking tactics is to push their central players through the defensive line. These gaps are therefore likely to be something Liverpool will need to watch against the Eredivisie side.
Liverpool’s defence has shown worrying signs of shakiness so far this season, and this image from the opening Premier League game against Leeds United shows one example of why this is. We can see how Van Dijk has chased the ball back, and has a teammate with him to help deal with the situation. However, the Netherlands defender makes an error, and Leeds striker Patrick Bamford, who is in the white circle, has chased down Van Dijk, taking advantage of his mistake to score.
Therefore, Ajax can beat Liverpool by putting pressure on their defence. We have already seen how Dusan Tadić has the necessary creativity to cause problems for opposing defences, finding space to score wherever he can. It is possible that he will be given a more central role against Liverpool, giving the defence a tough night, and, if Liverpool play like this, then Ajax have the players available to punish any mistakes made.
We have looked at both teams individually, and now we will make a direct comparison between the key statistics of both sides, looking to further our analysis of their good and bad points.
Going back to some of the points we have already made, it is interesting that Liverpool have a worse passing accuracy than Ajax, given we have already said that Ajax’s crossing is often where their attacks fall down. This suggests that crossing will not be the main focus from either side, but we could see more attacks built up through the central areas instead.
The second point to make is that Liverpool have a lower expected goals (xG) value, and a higher conceded goals value. This implies that Ajax are more likely to score goals, and Liverpool are more likely to let them in. This is proven by the fact that Liverpool are missing Alisson and Van Dijk, and have crumbled at times so far this season, so it is expected that Ajax will score at some stage in the game.
Ajax also have a higher success rate in defensive duels won, which is also interesting, given we have shown how they are uncomfortable when engaged in them. This perhaps suggests that plenty of chances will be created, with neither side able to close down spaces. Therefore, the game will come down to who is more creative and more clinical in the final third. As the Dutch side have a higher xG value, this is likely to be them.
The last thing to do is to have a look at which players are likely to line up for each side.
From these images, we can see Liverpool’s favoured formation, and how their opponents mainly opt for a 4-1-4-1. This offers them an extra player who can slot into defence when Liverpool are in attack, which could help Ajax to keep Liverpool out.
We know that Liverpool are without goalkeeper Alisson and centre-back Virgil van Dijk, which means it is likely that Joe Gomez and Joel Matip may line up together in central defence, with Matip’s injury against Everton not thought to be as serious as first thought. However, Jurgen Klopp may opt to play Fabinho there instead. Other doubts include Thiago Alcântara, Kostas Tsimikas and Naby Keita, who is back in training after completing his Covid-19 isolation period, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is a long-term absentee. Aside from that, Liverpool are likely to name their first-choice players, including famous front three Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané.
Ajax, meanwhile, prefer to use a 4-2-3-1, giving them a target player and good width to create chances. They also have two players protecting the defence, which could be useful against Liverpool’s attack. Their opponents prefer to use a 4-4-2 system, which gives them two strikers to push between Ajax’s defenders, and to take them on in one-v-one duels. It also gives them width, and therefore a good chance of stopping Ajax’s wingers getting too far forward, cutting off the supply to their central attackers.
They are likely to name the majority of their first-choice players as well, including wingers Antony and Quincy Promes, who were both on the bench against Heerenveen on Sunday. If those two both start, then Dusan Tadić is likely to play more centrally, giving Ajax a major attacking threat, which could create plenty of opportunities, particularly against a makeshift Liverpool defence. Former Everton midfielder Davy Klaassen could also start, as could left-back Nicolas Tagliafico, linked with a move away over the summer.
In conclusion, we have seen how both Ajax and Liverpool have strengths and weaknesses in their tactics, and that means this could be a difficult game for both. From the points we have made in this tactical analysis, Ajax are likely to create plenty of chances and score goals, and Liverpool will need their primary goalscorers to be in good form to win this game, particularly as it may well come down to who can score the most goals as to who wins the game.