Since taking over for Marcel Keizer in December 2017, Erik Ten Hag has been a revelation at AFC Ajax. In fact, it would have been difficult for anyone to do a better job. The Dutch manager scraped Ajax back into the title race in his first season in charge, only missing out by four points. Since then, he has won the Eredivisie and gotten his team to the UEFA Champions League semi-final and now looks set to win the league all over again. That has all culminated in an outrageous 74% of his matches won since the tail-end of 2017. This season they're up to 81% of their matches won, sitting eleven points clear at the top of the league. So with their fantastic performances and intriguing tactics along the way, here is RDF's Tactical Analysis of Erik Ten Hag's Ajax in 2020-21.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1
Erik Ten Hag built his legacy off an impressive 2018-19 UEFA Champions League run that saw the team reach the semi-finals for the first time since 1997. Although many of those players have now departed, the tactics have stayed relatively the same. Ajax play what some people would constitute as being a 4-3-3; however, it looks far more like 4-2-3-1 in practice. The central midfielder of the three is far more likely to join the attack or maintain a higher position than being the pivot in front of the defence. Donny van de Beek held that responsibility for most of Ten Hag's time in charge. Since his move to Manchester United, the role has fallen to Moroccan midfielder Zakaria Labyad or Davy Klaassen. On either side, the attacking midfielder is paired with two men who have greater defensive responsibilities and also offer something very different to the team in and out of possession. The right-central-midfielder is typically more of a box-to-box player, previously Lasse Schone and now Davy Klassen if not playing further ahead, while the left-central-midfielder has been one with a bit more poise and class in possession - first Frenkie de Jong and now the next big thing in Dutch football - Ryan Gravenberch. The midfield three's varying movements in never sticking to typical positions of a '6', '8', and '10' is probably one reason why most classify Ajax's formation to be a 4-3-3. This fluidity is imperative to their success, and as will be discussed, makes them all the more tactically complex. It has also been the most imperative to the team's success over the years, linking the excellent build-up from the defenders to the dangerously fluid attack of the front three.
Speaking of the front-three, they've been absolutely on fire since the arrival of Sebastien Haller. Haller never worked out at West Ham but has proven himself to be a cut above the Eredivisie since his arrival. The Ivorian has scored 7 goals with 5 assists in his 12 matches, adding a target-man presence to a team that often lacked a true number nine in the past. Dusan Tadic has frequently played as an unorthodox centre-forward during Ten Hag's time in charge, but he's now gone back to a more natural position on the left-wing - helping his goal and assist tally reach insane heights, with 26 goal involvements in 27 matches. 21-year old Antony has also been a positive addition to the team, having arrived from Sao Paulo for the 2020-21 campaign. The Brazilian forward has scored 8 goals with 8 assists in the league so far but has gone off the boil a bit since the arrival of Haller. Instead, it's been another Brazilian who's picked up the slack, as David Neres has now picked up seven-goal involvements in his last nine games.
At the back, Erik Ten Hag has developed a bit of an odd system, where it's almost become a requirement for their centre-backs to be capable of shifting into defensive midfield. Lisandro Martinez, Edson Alvarez and Daley Blind are all capable of playing in both areas of the field and have been three of the top choices at the back. However, alongside Daley Blind, 21-year old Perr Schuurs is the other favourite at the back, firmly establishing himself in the team this year after making 10 appearances last season.
Nicolas Tagliafico has maintained his place on the left, while Noussair Mazraoui has come back into the fold after losing a starting birth to Sergino Dest last season.
In goal, Andre Onana is one of the few that has kept their place since the astonishing Champions League run a few seasons ago, keeping nine clean sheets in twenty matches so far in the league. Those are the players within the system, but now let's get into more of how this 4-3-3 system comes to life in such a unique way under Ten Hag.
As would be expected of a team that is far and away the best in the league, Ajax have a strong desire to keep possession of the ball and play out from the back. Unsurprisingly, no team has kept more possession, completed more short passes, or a higher percentage of their passes in the Eredivisie. Daley Blind is often the orchestrator of their moves and the one that all others look to get on the ball in the build-up's initial stages. However, Ryan Gravenberch is starting to step into Frenkie de Jong's shoes and will often drop to Blind's left or right, remaining nearby as the two combine and look to advance up the field. Lisandro Martinez and Perr Schuurs are also both very capable with the ball at their feet, aiding in Ajax's desire to play out through the centre-backs. But as evidenced by their 85 goals in 27 matches, Ajax don't just look to keep possession for the sake of it. Instead, their build-up is systematic in breaking the opposition down. They can build up in various ways, to varying degrees of width, depth and patience as they look to create the exact right pockets of space to advance as a unit.
Other than second-place PSV (4-2-2-2) and Vitesse (5-3-2), all Eredivisie teams favour a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. This allows Ajax to operate with a relatively similar set of principles when playing out from the back match to match. Playing against a 4-2-3-1 would likely be their preferred choice to play against, as it can become easier for the team to create the 4v2 structure at the bottom end of the pitch that they enjoy.
This 4v2 shape can involve either the goalkeeper at the base or a second central midfielder at the top, as the number six drifts wide alongside the two centre-backs. Since most 4-2-3-1 teams press in a 4-4-2 shape, Ryan Gravenberch, in particular, is often afforded time and space to receive in between the lines of the opposition and drive the ball forward. The opposition central midfielders cannot push up to mitigate this issue, as Ajax has two other midfielders that warrant detailed attention. If the opposition press in more of an Ajax styled 4-2-3-1 and track the movement of the number six, it can then become easy for the centre-backs to circulate the ball and look for the right moment to play in either the fullbacks or the central midfielders further up the field. What's more is that now with a target man in Seb Haller, de Godenzonen can also take a more direct approach when they want, knowing they have a player capable of holding up the play and bringing others into the mix.
In all phases of possession, including the build-up, it is also important to note that Ajax play very short, quick passes on the ground, with few touches in between each pass.
Further up the pitch, they will often use a zig-zag shape to exploit the wide areas through these one-touch combinations. With a slight edge to the left side where Blind and Tagliafico operate, Ajax will often attempt to overload one side of the pitch in a 4v2 situation in the zig-zag shape pictured. By maintaining this staggered shape, Ajax cause chaos for their opposition in stopping them from adequately marking or tracking the quartet's movement.
In the example shown, Ajax's left-centre-back may be unable to find the central midfielder with the first pass, but by going to the fullback first instead, space becomes available to continue the move. Once the central midfielder is on the ball, the opposition right-back has a tough decision to make. If they pressure the ball, space opens up for the left-winger. And if they stay with the left-winger, the central midfielder has time and space to advance and drive toward the box at speed.
The strategy of overloading one side of the field is particularly useful against teams that operate in a low to mid-block, as it forces the opposition to adapt their structure and abandon their rigid positions. Ten Hag's centre-backs will often come close together on the same side in these moves, as the opposite fullback and central midfielder remain high and wide for switches of play. Daley Blind's excellent ability in possession will frequently overlap his left-central midfielder and engage higher up the pitch in attacking moves. This makes it even more difficult for the opposition to adjust, as the forward responsible for tracking Daley Blind typically won't actually track his movement up the field, allowing Ajax to have another free player in possession. With the variety to which the team can play out from the back both through the creation of diamonds in a 4v2 structure and simultaneously through overloads on one side of the field, Ten Hag's men have no issue playing out from the back and breaking their opposition down.
FINAL THIRD COMBINATIONS
Ajax are one of the most exciting attacking teams in Europe. This isn't just down to the sheer volume of goals they score, but the manner in which they score goals and create chances. Ajax's one-two-touch play continues beyond just the build-up, as the team frequently use a variety of lay-offs and bounce passes in the final third. Their players will repeatedly receive with their back to goal, drawing out defenders with them as they come to meet the pass. That player will often then play it back to the one that passed to them as new space becomes available for a "third man" to advance into.
These layoffs are essential to the way Ajax attack and can be found in nearly every goal they've scored this season. Another crucial element to their ability to combine in the final third involves positional rotation. Since the width they desire can be maintained via the fullbacks, the wingers frequently invert and drift inside. Hakim Ziyech was known to be a master of the art during his time at the club. Dusan Tadic also has a fantastic reputation as a creator from central areas. This means that the movement of the wingers and outside central midfielders remains very fluid, constantly rotating and creating chaos for the opposition.
If, for example, a central midfielder cannot receive a pass due to diligent covering from the opposition, a winger can drift inside and take up that position as the central midfielder moves away. This movement draws the covering player with the central midfielder, allowing the winger to receive the ball in the same place as the midfielder once stood. As a result, the fluidity of the movement between the wingers and central midfielders allows new space to constantly be created in between the lines, even if none appears to be available at first.
The drifting inside of the wingers also allows for the fullbacks to make their way up the field and aid in the team's attack. The league leaders have made more crosses per game (23) than any other team in the league. But rather than the fullbacks being the ones to do all the crossing, they're often involved in the pass before the cross, as a player like Tadic or Antony delivers from wide. Finally, when Tadic plays as the number nine instead of out wide, Ajax have an extra man to use in their positional rotations, wide overloads and even in the build-up, as the Serbian floats around the pitch as he pleases. Ten Hag used this to his advantage to a great extent in the team's Champions League run back in 2018-19 while operating most of the team's league play that year with a target man like Kasper Dolberg or Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Now that they have a genuinely great centre-forward, this may change, but in the past, Ten Hag might have utilized his diamond in the rough in different ways depending on the size and stature of the opposition. He often opted for another creative on-the-ball presence against higher quality teams. He utilized Tadic as a false nine for the range of advantages. It offered the team deeper on the field. Meanwhile, against lower quality teams sitting very deep, he spiced things up by adding greater attacking variety in the form of a target man.
Not only does this demonstrate great tactical flexibility from the Dutch manager, but also a deep understanding of his players and how to get the best out of their attributes to the benefit of the team.
Although what Ajax accomplish in possession and attack remains most impressive, they are also an excellent defensive unit. De Godenzonen have conceded just 20 goals in their 27 league matches so far this season, contributing to an outrageous goal difference of +65. In the likes of Blind and Tagliafico, they have very sound defensive ball-winners. But much of their defensive structure actually comes as a direct result of what they attempt to accomplish in attack. Due to their attempts to overload one side and play in close proximity, they are often well set up to win back possession right away and restart their attacks. The team also ensure that through all of their positional rotation, they never become unbalanced. For example, if Daley Blind darts up the field, Ryan Gravenberch may cover his position, and Nicolas Tagliafico may even stay back rather than bursting up the field himself. This is a mechanism for counter-pressing, essentially how the team set up to defend if they lose the ball.
Ajax also press aggressively to win the ball back immediately after losing it. This press is often more geared towards the movement of the ball than the opposition players' movement, although both are important. This means that they often swarm the player in possession like a pack of bees, particularly when the ball is close to the touchline. If they fail in winning the ball, their shape will again resemble more of a 4-2-3-1 than 4-3-3, as Labyad plays in front of the midfield pivot. In this shape, they remain compact, stopping passes into central areas and looking to force their opposition out wide. When they succeed in doing so, they will use the touchline as an extra defender and reignite their aggressive press.
Erik Ten Hag has revolutionized Ajax into being one of Europe's most exciting teams. His side may be unlikely to reach the UEFA Champions League semi-final again anytime soon, but blowing Eredivisie away is still a massive accomplishment for any manager. Further, the fact that the team play such an intriguing style of football makes Ten Hag himself one of the most sought after managers in world football. For now, Ten Hag is all in on the project he started at Ajax a little over three years ago and has them flying on all cylinders.