UEFA Champions League 2020/2021: Liverpool v Ajax – tactical preview
The UEFA Champions League continues to come at us like a steamroller, week after week. The fifth round of the group stages sees Liverpool take on Ajax, in a game between arguably the two strongest teams in Group D, and which could therefore be tightly contested. This tactical analysis will preview this game, looking at what we can expect from each team in terms of the tactics they could deploy, and how each could stop the other in attacking and defensive situations. In order to do this, we have looked at their meeting in the first round, seeing how they set up in defensive and offensive situations.
We will first look in this analysis at Liverpool’s defence. If we look at the image below, their defence starts from the front when out of possession.
Here, the forwards have a wide positional structure, giving Liverpool control of the wide areas and ensuring that Ajax can’t play the ball around the side of them. However, the level of organisation in this structure means that there has also been thought given as to how to protect the middle areas, because having a wide forward structure means that there are gaps in between the players. The midfielders’ role is to play much more narrowly, as you can see, and this covers those gaps. Now, Ajax can’t play around the side, and if they look to go through the middle, then Liverpool’s midfield can move forward and challenge for the ball. Therefore, we can see how Liverpool are organised and look to keep Ajax thinking.
When the ball is already in Liverpool’s third, this structure can’t be set up. Instead, Liverpool’s defensive line becomes more compact, as can be seen in this image. The idea of this is to ensure that Ajax have to attack using the wings, which is then easier to block.
However, Ajax like to get their key players into the gaps, with former Southampton forward Dusan Tadic here positioned in between the two Liverpool defenders, giving them something to think about. As you can see, he is indicating to his teammate that he wants the ball played to him behind Liverpool’s defence, and this is why Liverpool need to watch Ajax’s players getting into these gaps. Therefore, Liverpool’s defence will need to work hard in this week’s meeting, as it is very likely that Ajax will look to get the likes of Tadic in between their defence as much as possible.
Attacking is where Liverpool are stronger, particularly at the moment with their injury problems in defence. In the image below, we can see a key feature of their game.
Here, Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane are all in attack, but they haven’t crowded around the same position. Instead, they have spread out, covering a lot of ground in Ajax’s defence. This offers passing options for whichever player has the ball, which is Mane here. It also makes it harder for Ajax to mark the players, because whichever they mark, the others will be free and in space to receive the ball.
It is likely that, if fit, Jurgen Klopp will start all three of his first-choice attackers, and that will help Liverpool in the final third, because these three know how the others play. That trust and knowledge that they have built up of each other’s games means that they can get in the right positions to help each other, which makes it harder for Ajax to mark them all, and increases the possibility that one of them will be left open in space.
A three-player forward line in some teams needs to stay wide, meaning the central attacker is left alone in the middle. However, a key feature of Liverpool’s attack is that the three forwards are given freedom to move around the box as they see fit, creating problems centrally for opposing defences. That comes because other players keep the width for them, usually the full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. Their job is to supply balls into the box for the three attackers to get on the end of, but also to stretch the opposing defence out by making the pitch as big as possible.
However, it isn’t always those two, and that is where this image comes in. Alexander-Arnold here has taken up a position slightly inside the wing, and Curtis Jones, wearing number 17, has moved to the wing, holding the width for the team. This flexibility and the players’ spatial awareness to see where their teammates are, and therefore where they can be to help the team, is the reason Liverpool succeed so often at the moment. Therefore, against Ajax, we can expect that the players will all move around, looking to create openings, but that they will all also be constantly watching where the spaces are, and moving to occupy them before Ajax do, just as Jones did here.
One player that could start and could play a crucial role is Diogo Jota. Here, we can see how he took the central role after coming on as a substitute in the opening group game, but caused plenty of problems and is a really tricky player to play against. This was still early on in his Liverpool career, but it is likely that, now we know more about him in this team, Jurgen Klopp may want to use his trickery to cause problems for Ajax’s defenders, which is something Liverpool didn’t do too much of last time.
We can see from Jota’s positioning how he gets into areas where he can either shoot at goal himself, or pass to his teammates either side of him. Therefore, he creates chances for his team, and has the ability to see where the best option is. This makes him a very dangerous opponent, and is the reason why he could be the difference in this game if Ajax have a resolute defence.
The difference in the first-round game was the introduction of Jordan Henderson at half-time. We know that he has a really good range of passing, getting a lot of attacks going for his team. In the first half of the previous Ajax game, Liverpool didn’t have too much service, thanks to Ajax’s defending, but Henderson allowed more balls to go behind the Ajax defence, into the Liverpool attackers, and this image shows an example of that. If Henderson starts against Ajax in this week’s game, then the Dutch side will need to mark him closely, because Liverpool’s attack only works to its full efficiency if it gets service, and stopping these types of passes could be key to stopping Liverpool scoring.
We have looked at how Liverpool play; let’s now turn our focus towards Ajax. Again, we will look at what they did in the last game against Liverpool to see how they could set up in this one, beginning with their defence.
Ajax set up narrowly in defence, as we can see in this image. This means they occupy the central spaces, but leave the wider areas free. This means Liverpool can then get into those areas on the wing. However, this is not a problem, because Ajax’s intention is for Liverpool to use this space, as it is easier to defend against them in this area, simply by blocking crosses into the box.
We can also see how spaces are left in between the different ranks, which is a risk for Ajax, but, because they force Liverpool to play the ball out wide, they can then trap the ball in these little pockets of space.
This is what we can see in this image. Here, Liverpool have the ball wide, looking to cross the ball into the box, but Ajax have moved towards the ball together, trapping it in this space. Now, Liverpool’s only option is to pass the ball backwards, because the chance they have of getting the ball into the box and shooting at goal has been lessened. Therefore, we can see how Ajax look to set up defensively, forcing their opponents into playing the ball into the wings, rather than attacking centrally. This makes it easier to defend against, and will be something Liverpool will need to be careful of, as they won’t be able to attack in their usual free-flowing way if this happens.
The other interesting thing about Ajax’s defensive tactics is that their players are flexible, and all work together to cover gaps. In this image, for example, we can see how they have a good solid structure, with four players in the back line. However, one of the midfielders moves back into the line, allowing another to then come out and cut off a passing option in a different area; this process is shown by the two arrows.
We have already seen how Liverpool in attack are flexible and have good spatial awareness, but Ajax are just as good in defence, which was likely the reason that both teams almost cancelled each other out in their first round game. This flexibility also shows how all of the Ajax players are instructed to watch what their teammates are doing, and to position themselves accordingly. This makes them very difficult to play against, because when it looks like there is space available, and Liverpool look to use it, there actually isn’t.
That is not to say that Ajax’s defence is perfect, however. In this image, we see an example of when it isn’t so good, and a mistake is made which could have been costly. Here, Ajax have attacked forwards, but the ball has come back to the two players further back. As one looks to pass to the other, he hasn’t noticed that Liverpool are looking to close him down, and an interception attempt is made. Therefore, this shows how good Liverpool are in the forward line, but also how Ajax need to be careful with their passes, especially in these situations when Liverpool have tracked back and are looking to counter-attack, using their natural pace.
If you remember how Ajax’s defence worked on players working together to cover gaps and allow each other to run out and close down passing options, we can see how they do a similar thing in attack.
Here, they are looking to create space for each other. One player drops backwards, looking to take the defenders with him, and that then creates the space behind for the second Ajax attacker to run behind and receive the ball from former Manchester United defender Daley Blind. This allows Ajax to get the ball behind the Liverpool defence, and is a tactic we can expect Ajax to look to use against Liverpool at Anfield. With Liverpool’s defence decimated by injury, it is likely that Ajax will look to put as much pressure on it as possible.
Another thing we can expect to see from Ajax is that they will press Liverpool in their own third. This image shows how they have got their forwards and midfielders into Liverpool’s third, all choosing and closing down a Liverpool player, as shown by the red lines. They can do this together because of the number of attack-minded players in their team, including those who perhaps start a bit further back in the lineup, such as former Everton midfielder Davy Klaassen.
This makes passing very difficult for Liverpool, as they have to play the ball out of danger with a long ball, as there are no short options available. Alexander-Arnold is in the process of making a pass, but this pressure from Ajax makes it difficult for Liverpool to make their pass accurate. With Liverpool’s defence depleted at the moment, this pressing tactic is something Ajax will likely try and do, because it will force Liverpool to rush decisions, leading to mistakes being made.
However, arguably the most notable thing about Ajax’s attack is the fact that they constantly look to get behind their opponents’ defensive line, regardless of who they are playing. Here, we can see how, once Quincy Promes came on for Mohamed Kudus early on, he and Tadic formed a front two which looked to use the space behind Liverpool’s defence as much as possible. Liverpool naturally play with a high back line, looking to get forward and attack as much as possible, and that means that if any team wants to keep them back, they have to play behind them as much as possible; this is what Ajax are doing in this image. Having two attackers making the run behind makes it doubly hard for Liverpool to stop the run, because there are two passing options in the space behind.
We have seen in this section how Ajax have the players and tactics to hurt Liverpool at the back, and Liverpool will need to watch that, when they get forward to support the attack, they don’t leave so much open that Ajax can get behind them as they did in their last meeting.
We expect that both teams will look to play their strongest sides, given the quality both have and the importance of this game.
Liverpool are really struggling when it comes to players fit for this game, with key players such as James Milner, Naby Keita, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez and Xherdan Shaqiri all joining the injury list in recent weeks, whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is still in recovery from a knee injury suffered last season, and Virgil van Dijk is still recovering from surgery. It is certain that Jurgen Klopp will look to use youngsters in his team to fill in the gaps, with Rhys Williams being tipped to start alongside Joel Matip, who was rested against Brighton and Hove Albion at the weekend. However, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane could both start, as Liverpool look to take a step closer to qualification for the knockout stages.
Ajax will be without Mohamed Kudus, who suffered a knee injury in the first-round meeting between these two sides, whilst Daley Blind is also likely to miss this game with injury. Winger Antony could play in some way after featuring in their last game on Saturday, and would be a welcome return for Ajax, with his creativity adding a lot to their attack, and he is a player who would cause problems for Liverpool.
In conclusion, we have seen in this tactical preview the tactics that Liverpool and Ajax could both use against each other in this week’s clash between the two sides. Both sides have plenty of players who can cause problems, with Liverpool likely to use all they have to get forward and create as many chances as possible. However, with the tactics we have seen from Ajax in attack, coupled with Liverpool’s makeshift defence, the one thing that we can definitely expect is that Ajax will look to attack and score with every chance they can create.