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Ajax FC UCL 2018/2019 - Total Football 4.0 - Part 1

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

Ajax FC was the surprise package in this year's UEFA Champions League competition. Under the leadership of their coach Erik ten Haag, they inspired football fans, coaches and enthusiasts via their attacking brand and style of play that produced impressive results against the giants of European Football.

The aim of this article is to provide the reader with an analysis on the Ajax FC philosophy, style and principles of play to provoke further research on how their performance in the 2018/2019 returned the club back to their ethos of "Total Football". We went with the article name of Total Football 4.0 based on the following generation of Ajax coaches & teams that have influenced this style of play:

Total Football 1.0 - Ajax 70's under Michels

Total Football 2.0 - Ajax 80's under Cruyff

Total Football 3.0 - Ajax 90's under Van Gaal

Total Football 4.0 - Ajax 2018/2019 under Ten Haag

Ajax Total Football Philosophy:

As a starting point, below is some quotes from previous Ajax FC's coaches on their description of the Ajax FC Philosophy and Tactical Approach that are key to implementing the "Total Football" style of play:

"You have to create as many lines as you can. The man with the ball will then always have someone in front of him and someone next to him. The space between the man with the ball and these two teammates should never be more than ten metre's. When their is too much space, it will only increase the risks" - Johan Cruyff

"In Principle, I like to use fives lines, excluding the goalkeeper: The Back 4, a central midfielder player from the back, two wider midfielders outside him pushing forward, one striker playing from deep or up front and two attackers on the wing" - Johan Cruyff

"When the five lines are used correctly and everybody does what he needs to do, it will create triangles on the pitch, which are essential to your tactics. One player focuses on passing the ball, one on receiving the ball and the third will try to move into space to receive the next pass (Third Man). In short, people sometimes make football incredibly complicated, but it works best when we just keep it simple. Attacking effectively is mostly a question of the correct application of Technique, The use of space, defending towards the front (high pressing) and putting pressure on the ball (Upon losing the ball)" - Johan Cruyff

"Total Football was the consequence of my search for a way to break open the enforced defence (Ie - Deep Block). This required actions during the build up and attack that would surprise the opponent. This is the reason that I chose to have frequent changes in the positions, within and between the lines (Ie - Rotational Movement & Positional Interchanges). All players were allowed to participate in the build up (Including the keeper) and attack as long as they also felt responsible for their defensive tasks (Principle of Balance to ensure the counter attack is denied)" - Rinus Michels

"The main aim of the attacking pressure football, the "Hunt" was to regain possession as soon as possible after the ball was lost on the opponents half. The trapping of the opponents on their own half is only possible when all the lines are pushed up ad play close together" - Rinus Michels

"This style of play (Total Football) places high demands on the tactical cohesiveness of players in the centre of the field. It demands that the players in those central positions have a high level of football intelligence" - Rinus Michels

"Dominant Football, in my opinion, means that you are the team that decides the flow of the game. Meaning creating more chances than the opponent, playing offensively and doing this based on technical and tactical capacity, whereby the will to win plays an essential role" - Louis van Gaal

"When you opt to play with a 1-4-3-3 you will, in my perception, have optimal field positioning. You can then decide whether to play with the point (Midfield 3 Structure) forwards (#10 Attacking Midfielder) or Backwards (Single Pivote)" - Louis van Gaal

"Within your tactics you have to increase your chances that your team creates a man more (Free Player) in the correct location/zone" - Louis van Gaal

"It is not about the ball, it is about the space that the ball may be played into and the opponent may come into - you must be able to predict this beforehand (Proactive Football)" - Louis van Gaal

"The attacking team must ensure that the creative players will get as many chances as possible to decide the moment in which to dribble or penetration can be made. These players have the quality (Qualitative superiority) to create something" - Louis van Gaal

"It’s very important to hold on to our own identity in each game, because that’s what we’re good at.  That’s our point of view at Ajax FC" - Erik ten Haag

"We want to win by playing well (Attacking Football) as our shared idea" - Erik ten Haag

Summary on the Ajax FC Philosophy:

- The club aims to live their identity in every game

- Ajax FC teams play a variation of 1-4-3-3 (Point Forward or Backwards)

- Always play attacking football with possession control in the opponents half of the pitch

- Dominant football is creating more chances than your opponent and playing well (entertaining)

- Frequent changes in positions (Rotational Movement & Positional Interchanges)

- Creation of many lines (5-6) to provide effective passing options and optimal field positioning

- "Hunt" upon losing possession to regain the ball back as soon as possible

- Numerical (Free Player) and Qualitative Superiority (Creative players in key spaces that can surprise the opponent)

- Creation of triangles all over the pitch (Use of the third man)

- All players are expected to be involved during the build up (Including the goalkeeper)

Ajax FC 2018/2019 Tactical Analysis:

Ajax FC used the 1-4-2-3-1 system as the base structure for their attacking and defensive organization throughout this season's UCL campaign.

Within the 1-4-2-3-1 system, their is freedom for positional interchanging and structural adaptations to create "free players" between the lines and exploit key spaces during the building up phase .

1-4-2-3-1 Base System:

This base 1-4-2-3-1 structure would be used at times to initiate the build up - CB's Blind & De Ligt are the main protagonists to build, probe and progress possession. Width from Ziyech and Neres would be maintained until Tagliafico or Veltman (FB's) would position higher in the width, which triggers Ziyech and/or Neres to invert between the lines.

Ajax FC 1-4-2-3-1 Base System

Build up with 3 at the back:

De Jong and Shone are the main link players during the Ajax build up phase with 3 at the back as they have the qualitative superiority and game intelligence to recognize penetrative options and execute line breaking passes. To set this structural variation, Ajax would drop De Jong or Shone between or on the sides of the CB's to create 3 across the back line with the objective during the building up phase to create numerical superiority vs the opponents front line.

The Full Backs push high & wide in this build up structure to establish width and options to play around the opposition pressing system. Tadic or Van de Beek roam between the lines as the Free player and both possess the creative qualities to use this space and make effective decisions during goal creation moments. Ziyech and Neres create a front 2 on the opponents back line and would generally operate between the OPP FB-CB as this position would tighten the OPP FB and leave the width available for the Ajax FB to receive beyond the 1st & 2nd Line.

Back 3 Build Up Structure

Video example of build up with 3 at the back:

Build up with Double Pivotes:

Another build up structure that Ajax would utilize is De Jong and Shone would split and move out wide into the half spaces (Create Double Pivotes) to receive beyond the opposition 1st line of pressure and explore line breaking options. Principle of Triangles & Diamonds to overload the opponents during the 2nd phase of this build up structure is a key concept to open key spaces to penetrate or switch play towards the weak side. Getting Shone or De Jong in possession provides qualitative superiority during the 1st phase build up and can at times get the pivote on the ball beyond the 1st line of pressing. Once the 1st line is broken, the players ahead of the ball would:

1- Exploit depth behind the OPP Back Line

2- Provide options between the lines

3- Maintain width for simple passing outlets in flank areas

Build up with Double Pivotes

Video example of build up with Double Pivotes:

Principle of Rotations and Positional Interchanges:

Rotational Movement can be defined as movement patterns/actions consisting of 2 or more players that interact and link their runs off the ball to interchange positions and/or rotate to clear, open and arrive into key spaces. Ajax frequently utilize rotations and positional interchanges to destabilize their opponents that defend with a deep block (ex. 451).

To utilize this principle effectively, timing of runs, persistent movement and being deliberate with the runs (real intent) are some of the key concepts to efficiently execute rotations and interchanging.

Example video below:

Principle of Split & Verticality:

When possession is secured in the opponents half of the pitch, Ajax would search and probe to find opportunities to execute split passes that are the precursor action to a vertical pass that break OPP 2nd/3rd or 4th lines. Split passes are sideways passes directed to play through two or more opponents and that would provide the next player/teammate with enough time/space to pass forward to an advanced support player between the lines or behind the OPP back line.

Here is two good video examples of this principle in action:

Part 2 will be published in the coming days and will highlight the defensive tactics used by Ajax FC in the 2018/2019 UCL.


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