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Ajax Total Football 4.0 Part 2 - Defensive Analysis

Our earlier post this week outlined the global philosophy that has been long rooted within Ajax, which is based on the principles of "Total Football". Part 1 focused on the Attacking elements of Ajax Total Football 4.0 (Ajax 2018-2019 UCL Campaign under the leadership of Erik Ten Haag).

We will now provide an analysis of the Defensive approach and principles that encompass the total football philosophy and defending effectively as a collective unit is a key component to successfully implementing the Ajax style of play.

Below is an overview on the fundamental defending principles that we analyzed from Ajax during the 2018-2019 UCL:

1 - Regain Possession as high up the pitch as possible "HUNT"

2 - Immediate pressure once the ball has been lost

3 - Win the ball back as quickly as possible

4 - Double/Triple Teaming the opponent in possession "PRESSING TRAPS"

5 - Intensive & Aggressive Pressure

6 - Compact Team - Short & Tight

7 - High Press or Medium to Low Block

Below are some videos that highlights the above Principles in action. In the second section of this article , we share our match analysis (defending moment only) from the matches between Ajax v Juve (2nd Leg) and Ajax v Spurs (2nd Leg).

Example of Ajax High Pressing vs Real Madrid

Example of Ajax Defensive Transition - Immediate Pressure once the ball is lost - Win the ball back as quickly as possible:

Example Ajax Defending in a Low Block - Principle of Short & Tight Team (Compact):

Tactical Analysis from UCL Campaign:

The 1-4-2-3-1 is the base structure for Ajax's Defensive Organization (Same with Attacking Organization). Like any structure, it has mechanisms built into it to manage and solve the problems that the opposition pose.

Below is an example of Ajax Defensive Tactics vs Juventus in the Quarter Final 2nd Leg:

Ajax vs Juventus - UCL Quarter Final 2nd Leg:

Tadic was the first line of Ajax high pressing vs Juventus - His role was to press the first pass to either CB - When Pressing the CB, Tadic would direct the CB to play wide, which is where Ajax sets their pressing traps. When the CB passed back to the Goalkeeper, Tadic would continue the High Press and force long passes or high risk passes into congested pressing zones that favoured Ajax. The High Press strategy disrupted Juventus from establishing any sort of attacking rhythm.

Ziyech & Neres (Wingers) would stay tight with Van de Beek to deny central penetration passes through the Midfield and were both ready to engage any passes into the ball side OPP FB (Pressure arrive as the ball travels - Aggressive pressing on the OPP FB). Juve deployed a 442 Diamond shape at certain moments in this game with the aim to achieve superiority in Midfield - This strategy makes sense as the heartbeat of Ajax is the Midfield (Juve Strategy.......Win the Midfield battle!).

Juve's Attacking Triangle (Front 2 + Attacking Midfielder)

Ajax solution was to Shift across De Jong or Shone to nullify the Attacking Midfielder

Ajax for the most part nullified the Juve 4v3 Midfield Threat by having the Weak-side Holding Midfielder (Shone or De Jong), protect the space in front of the CB's (Deny space & entry passes into Pocket players - Pjanic or Dybala) - The Ajax Ball Side Holding Midfielder would step onto Matuidi or Bernardeschi when either showed low on the ball side to receive from their CB or FB. Ziyech & Neres would then balance the space and opponents on the weak side (Ready for counters or to press any square passes).

Also, the zonal marking tactics of the Ajax central box (De Ligt - Blind - De Jong - Shone) was compact, which simplified the tracking & passing on process of the Juve Attacking Trio as Juve attempted their offensive movement patterns. As the match progressed, Ronaldo started to drift wide (Ajax Right side) to attempt his inverted cuts inside (Dribble / Runs). Veltman limited Ronaldo from Turning, which meant he didn't have the opportunity to cut inside plus Shone covered the interior space to double team Ronaldo when he did invert.

Ajax high pressing strategy worked very well and Szczęsny eventually stopped playing out from the back and went direct. With Mario Mandzukic not in the Juve Starting line up for the 2nd leg, forcing Juve to go direct worked very well. Ronaldo became the target for Direct play and Pjanic/Dybala would fight for the 2nd ball (Both Pjanic and Dybala lack the height and combativeness to win the 2nd ball). Eventually, Direct play would come back to haunt Ajax's defensive organization vs Spurs (explained later)...

Ajax 4-2-3-1 vs Juve 4-4-2 Diamond

An example below of the shifting movements that Ajax deployed vs Juventus 442 Diamond:

Ajax were relentless with their immediate pressure once the ball was lost and took a real hold of the match in the 2nd half. Culminating into one of the most impressive performances of this years UCL season and making a real statement across Europe on the reemergence of Ajax as a European Powerhouse.

Ajax vs Tottenham - UCL Semi Final 2nd Leg:

The second match that we analyzed was the 2nd leg of the Ajax v Spurs UCL Semi Final. Ajax stuck with their high pressing strategy in their 1-4-2-3-1 shape which was effective during the first half of the 2nd leg. Spurs set up with the 442 Box Midfield structure and attempted to play through the Ajax High Press (Alli & Eriksen played at the top of the box midfield with Son/Moura as the front 2).

Without Ajax changing much of their tactics/approach from the Juve 2nd leg, Ajax disrupted the Spurs Build Up and were able to establish territorial advantage in the first half (prevented Spurs penetration into key attacking areas - Spurs only had 4 shots in the first half vs 15 shots in the second half).

Ajax set their pressing traps to occur in the wide zones and the challenge for Ajax was to neutralize the Spurs Box Midfield, which they had two solutions on how to deal with Alli/Eriksen between the lines:

1- The Ajax Full Back would step onto Spurs Ball Side Attacking Midfielder & the Ajax Holding Midfielder would drop to cover the channel or the Ajax CB would cover the channel

Ajax 4-2-3-1 vs Spurs 442 Box Midfield

2 - The Ajax Ball Side Holding midfielder would mark the Spurs Attacking Midfielder, which kept their Back 4 in shape. To compensate for the Holding midfielder stepping out, the Ajax weak side Holding Midfielder and Winger would narrow inside to balance the space and opponents

Shone or De Jong Deals with the AMF - FB Controls the space / wide channel

Ajax looked to be in full control from the Attacking & Defensive perspective heading into the 2nd half. However, the match took a complete turn of events in the second half with Spurs introducing Llorente (Wanyama was subbed out) into the game and changing their possession tactics/patterns from build up to more direct play. The Spurs structure in the 2nd half shifted into a 433 with the Wingers Inverted - Full Backs pushed high in the width - Alli-Sissoko-Eriksen as the Midfield 3 (Diagram Below).

Spurs Tactical Adjustment with Llorente entering the game

Llorente was the direct target and Son/Moura/Alli/Eriksen would position to win the 2nd ball, Combine off Llorente and/or Exploit Depth from any Flick On's.

Below is some examples of the change in style from Spurs (Direct Play) and the impact that Llorente brought into the game to win 1st Balls:

- Hold up the ball to link with supporting teammates

- Flicks/Knock Downs

- Son & Moura would work off the next phase of play from Llorente (Both with pace to get behind Ajax Back 4)

This is a similar challenge that Ajax faced vs Manchester United (Defending Direct Play into Fellaini) during the 2017 Europa League Final:

Against Juventus, the direct play was nullfied as I felt their was a lack of strategy behind this tactic from Juve. This was the reverse scenario with Spurs as it was clearly part a of strategic shift that Pochettino and his staff prepared in advance of the match.

Ajax stuck with their philosophy and did not change tactics/approach in the 2nd half and were unfortunate to lose the match at the 96' minute mark (Lucas Moura scored his 3rd goal of the match).

In Conclusion, this brings a hypothetical question:

- Do you always stick with your philosophy and play your way?.....or

- We adapt to the state of game and adjust tactics based on our opponents?

I'm not sure if one approach is better than the other and their is positive examples of both methods bringing success. One thing is for sure....the Ajax of 2018/2019 will be remembered for their expansive, attacking and fluid football that captured the hearts and minds of football fans across the globe.

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