UEFA Champions League 2020/21: What do Ajax need to tilt the scales against Atalanta? – tactical preview
The upcoming game between Ajax and Atalanta will be the key fixture in the UEFA Champions League group D that will determine the second team qualifying for the next round. Atalanta have a one-point advantage and only need a draw to quality, while Ajax must grab the full package of points if they want to continue their European journey.
There were some impressive displays by both teams, but their vulnerabilities have also been underlined on a few occasions. That led to the uncertainty of who is about to qualify further.
Both Ajax and Atalanta have real chances to join Liverpool as the second team going through to the next round, should they organise well defensively and manage to stop each other’s efforts on the ball.
The teams are very particular in their attacking actions and have all the assets to smartly expose the opposition using both individual skill and well-thought team movement.
How injuries could affect Ajax’s performance?
Both teams might experience struggles due to some of their key players being absent for the game.
Ajax’s coverage of the wide areas might need some readjustments since two of their players David Neres and Noussair Mazraoui are out with injuries. While Neres hasn’t been a regular started in Eredivisie this season, he is still important for the team’s successful attacking actions.
His absence limits Ajax’s options up front, and while their usual front set-up consists of Anthony, Dušan Tadić and Lassina Traoré they might miss Neres’ versatility in attack, especially against Atalanta’s heavy man-marking strategy. Neres could’ve been useful for ball progression and holding on to the ball in the advanced areas thanks to his ball control and creativity.
The right-back Mazraoui will miss out on the important game, and that could cause some struggles for Ajax both defensively and in attack. They heavily rely on ball progression through the wide areas, and he is a crucial part of their efforts. Now that he won’t be available, Ten Hag would have to rely on Sean Klaiber. The Dutch has performed quite consistently so far, and the only obstacle for him to not replace Mazraoui successfully could be the limited playing time he gets, meaning his connection with his teammates might be lacking.
In terms of the team’s defensive performance though, they might even benefit from Klaiber’s presence, since his actions during defensive transitions are better thought, and he has higher success percentage.
That wouldn’t be enough against Atalanta’s unstoppable attacking line though, and he needs to be in sync with his teammates in order to block their creativity and close out space. Klaiber’s ball recovery abilities could be very beneficial against Atalanta’s three-man backline, especially for counter-attacking where La Dea turn out quite vulnerable.
Atalanta’s squad update
That leads to the struggles that they might experience due to the absence of their left wing-back Robin Gosens who tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss the game along with Aleksei Miranchuk. Atalanta’s performance during transitions might be affected since Gosens is one of their key performers and supports both the defensive line and the attacking actions. Ajax wouldn’t usually rely on counter-attacking too often, but this might be a winning strategy for them in the absence of the German. Although Ajax are missing some of their players on the right, they have a better advantage in these areas thanks to Gosens’ absence and they could benefit should they use it smartly.
Johan Mojica is expected to replace him and not that he isn’t successful in his actions, but the team become much more predictable and cross reliant with him. He has a better success rate in some areas but lacks the explosiveness and smart movement off the ball that his teammate has.
Gian Piero Gasperini won’t be able to rely on Pierluigi Gollini again, which leaves La Dea with Marco Sportiello on the goal. The good news is that while Miranchuk’s contribution could’ve been beneficial, especially as a late change, his absence shouldn’t affect Atalanta’s attacking strategy much.
How could Ajax bypass Atalanta’s press?
Ajax need to be very patient and consistent in their attacking efforts against Atalanta to be able to bypass their pressing efforts and find passing lanes for ball progression. La Dea have mastered their high pressing efforts, combining them with a smart man-to-man marking strategy, which could stop Ajax successfully even if they have invaded the opposition half. If Atalanta try to replicate their defensive performance in their win against Liverpool, Ajax would need to involve a lot of movement off the ball and increase their creativity in order to reach the final third successfully.
Ajax need to try and outnumber Atalanta’s midfield who would put a lot of efforts on ball recovery in the central areas and their own half. While committing more players to advanced areas and spending more time on the ball in the opposition half might be typical for Ajax, they need to consider the Italians’ marking strategy. They might need a plan B in case Atalanta increase the press intensity and become more aggressive in their efforts.
That’s where switching to a direct play might come in hand in case they are unable to progress the ball through their usual build-up methods. This means that they’ll have to focus on smart positioning and aerial presence by the attacking players in order for them to utilise any chances.
Atalanta would need to be very careful in their coverage in the defensive third, especially if one of their centre-defenders steps out in aim to challenge the ball carrier as per usual.
Taking advantage of their set-plays
While Ajax have been quite successful in their set-piece efforts this season, they shouldn’t rely only on them for exposing the opposition’s defence. Atalanta’s defensive actions in the box have improved immensely and their aerial presence makes it difficult for their opponents to take advantage of their set-piece opportunities.
Thas doesn’t mean that the Dutch shouldn’t focus on creating danger from them but that they need to outplay La Dea with smart positioning and strong decision-making in and around the penalty area. Having in mind Gasperini’s thoughtful tactical decisions, they would’ve studied Ajax’s set-piece routines, meaning that Ten Hag’s men wouldn’t have their usual advantage in these situations.
How Ajax could expose the opposition is by using Atalanta’s attacking set-pieces as an opportunity to recover the ball and counter-attack. Especially due to their use of the centre-backs in the attacking set-plays which could leave them exposed at the back.
Atalanta should be extra careful in the challenges in the penalty area since the Ajax players could take advantage of any foul play and turn it into a penalty call. Atalanta already conceded one penalty in their previous meeting with Ajax.
Measured movement in the defensive phase
One of Ajax’s main responsibilities and challenges will be stopping the opposition from creating chances. Atalanta are well-known for their creativity in the advanced areas and Ajax would have to be extra careful in their movement during transitions. The Dutch’s main defensive struggles come from their inability to defend against skillful players. Their often fail in their coverage in their defensive third, especially when the opposition attack on speed and use a lot of movement and dribbling.
They need to focus on limiting Hans Hateboer’s movement from the right since it poses a huge threat both for stretching the defence and also cutting inside and exploiting the half-spaces. Ajax need to keep the spaces between the lines tight due to Atalanta’s link-up-play abilities. If they don’t focus on a better coverage and don’t involve the wide players in the defensive actions they risk failing to cover the flanks and the half-spaces, meaning La Dea could easily exploit the free spaces thanks to their attacking triangles that involve a lot of movement and smart passing.
That’s not the only way Ajax could be exposed. They need to pay attention to their coverage of the central areas, especially in terms of their aerial presence. If Gasperini chooses to rely on Duván Zapata in attack, Ajax would need to cover him tightly not only because of his strong off the ball movement but due to his aerial abilities. That’s actually how Atalanta managed to expose them in their first meeting.
Ajax need to do their analysis properly and limit Atalanta’s movement as much as possible. La Dea not only have a point advantage but their weekend Serie A game against Udinese got cancelled and they had extra time to focus on their Champions League preparations. Ajax need to increase their defensive awareness and also their creativity to be able to expose their opponents and grab the three points.