Total Football 2.0: Ajax & Erik ten Hag


The final match of Group E in this season’s
Champions League will not affect the standings, but there will be a lot of interested parties.
For one, it matches Ajax with Bayern Munich, two sides who won consecutive hat-tricks of
European Cups between 1971 and 1976. Secondly, Ajax boast one of the most exciting young
teams in Europe and, under coach Erik ten Hag, who took over just under a year ago,
one of the most exciting coaches. As a coach, ten Hag exceeded expectations
at FC Utrecht, but it’s perhaps his time working with Pep Guardiola as Bayern’s reserves
coach that has most shaped him. Ajax play with an emphasis on possession, pressing,
and movement between the lines that certainly show the Guardiola imprint – ten Hag has
also shown imagination in the way he sets him team up, and lets them play. As these stats from the OneFootball app show,
Ajax have dominated possession in the Eredivisie – they also have the best passing accuracy
and take more shots per game than any other side in the league. Ajax have lined up in a sort of 4-2-3-1 this
season, but it can also look like a very staggered 4-3-3. The side like to build from the back,
taking two different approaches depending on how much they are pressed by the opposition.
In both strategies, though, the midfielder Frenkie de Jong is crucial. If Ajax are being pressed high, de Jong tends
to drop into the back three but on the left hand side, with first choice centre backs
Daley Blind central and Matthias de Ligt on the right. A central midfielder, either Lasse
Schone [LASS-UH SHER-NER] or Zakaria Labyad [ZUH-CARE-EE-A LUH-BYUD], will drop back to
create a shifting rhombus of passing options. The full backs push high, while the wide attacking
midfielders drop into the half spaces flanking the more advanced central midfielder, usually
Donny van de Beek. Ajax try to keep the ball and push up from the back unless vertical
movement by the midfield allows them to find space, or de Jong is able to drive forwards
from the left cente back position and break the press with his ball carrying. If Ajax are not being pressed high, de Jong
drops centrally and creates a triangle with the two centre backs and they progress the
ball between them, with excellent goalkeeper Andre Onana also an option. The movement ahead
is similar and, again, de Jong is always an option to break forwards with his dribbling
and ability to carry the ball. Both Ajax’s centre backs are comfortable
on the ball. In the tradition of Total Football’s use of the spare centre back as an auxiliary
midfielder to overwhelm an opposition midfield two or three, either Blind or de Ligt will
often push up, leaving the other spare as a sweeper. Both are comfortable carrying the
ball and this sometimes gives Ajax a kind of 1-2-3-4 shape, with the full backs tucking
in or advanced and the wide attackers either high and wide or dropping in. In attack, Ajax push van de Beek high, but
how he plays depends on whether Klaas-Jan Huntelaar or Kasper Dolberg play. Huntelaar
is less mobile, more of a focal point to get on to crosses and chase through balls, while
Dolberg drops off more, allowing van de Beek to run beyond him and offer an additional
attacking threat from deep. The wide players are superb: in David Neres,
Dusan Tadic, and Hakim Ziyech, Ajax have three players for two berths, all of whom are creative
playmakers who can also score goals. Tadic likes to drop in and direct play from slightly
deeper, allowing left back Nicolas Tagliafico to push very high, and playing passes across
for Neres or Ziyech to run onto. Neres tends to stay a bit wider to use his explosive pace
and dribbling, while Ziyech poses a huge threat cutting inside onto his left foot. Tagliafico and right back Noussair Mazraoui
[NOOSE-AIR MAZ-ROW-EE] move high or push up and in, depending on whether the wide attackers
have dropped in or stayed wide. It’s clear that the concept of creating passing triangles
and generating superiority through a spare man are part of the ten Hag way. This is especially
clear on the left, where de Jong tucks in behind Tadic and Tagliafico, but it happens
on the right too. It’s one of the clear ways that Guardiola has influenced his former
colleague. Defensively, Ajax press where possible, triggered
by loose touches or balls played towards the side lines. The front three try to cover passing
lanes as they run back, while the central midfielders harry and snap in to tackles.
Ajax can be vulnerable to counters because they defend so high and sometimes with the
sweeping defender on his own – if the opposition can bypass the initial press, Ajax can be
caught out especially as the full backs push up to provide width. Nonetheless, this weakness aside, and it’s
only a weakness that stems from their desire to attack and control possession in the opposition
half, Ajax are a great side to watch who play a tactically interesting style of football.
While Guardiola’s influence on ten Hag is clear – the pressing, the build-up out wide,
the tactical fluidity and positional use of the defensive midfielder – the Dutch coach
is making a statement in his own right. The last time Ajax were in the Champions League
Group Stages was 2014/15 – the last the time they progressed from the Groups was in
2004/05. Ajax are through already – the question now is how far ten Hag and his vibrant
young team can go.

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