2019 Champion’s League semifinalist Ajax broke the rules of classic positional play in 2019. Rather than control and structure, Erik Ten hag based his game model on verticality and dynamism. Analysis of a revolution, made of tight angles, predictable passes, no mans’ land in midfield and offside forwards.
The other positional play
During the last decade, Pep Guardiola’s (and his heirs’) influence made positional play the blueprint of analysis. According to this game model, a team would play out from the back, around a base of 3 players, the rest of the team would open triangles (or rather diamonds) of passes. The main idea would be to open opposition wide, to hide passes, and connect in the halfspaces, with a long time of preparation.
The team in possession takes one step ahead on the playing out from the back (thanks to the numerical superiority, “+1”) and tries to keep it until the moment when they find – between the lines, in the sacrosanct halfspaces – the player that would be able to turn, by the quality of his control. This player would “improve” this time ahead, that rather be a time “late” when it comes to the offensive line, which is actually in numerical inferiority (-1) with opposition’s defensive line.
This player (or another one) would tranform this “-1” in a situation of numerical equality with opposition’s last line. Therefore, there m would be no covering, and the “positional” team could operate the last gesture (assist or shoot).
Iniesta, Xavi, De Bruyne, Silva, Messi, David Villa, and so many players have been at the conclusion of a lot of iconic plays, that would set this game model – in a more or less unconscious way – as the ultimate blueprint in the mind of a lot of football observers, or even actors.
This Ajax’s timing is different.
Double pivot and closed pass angles
As they set in 4213, Ajax would animate the play out from the back / the first phase off their positional (or not!) play with 4 players, rather than 3 or 5.
2 central defenders and two central midfielders.
Forcibly, there is no triangle, and not necessarily any form of numerical superiority at the beginning of the offensive sequences.
Players that are involved in the first phase don’t hesitate to occupy the same vertical lines, or corridor. The echelon (or the “diagonality”) in just few, or even inexistant. Logically, the pass angles are particularly little.
It is very difficult to clearly liberate a player with the ball, facing the play. And this particular configuration (the “+1” mentionnes above) didn’t seem to be Ajax’ aim. Frenkie de Jong, Mathijs De Ligt, Blind noticeably, were going to show themselves as very comfortable players under (total) pressure. Proving mobility and technical excellence in schemas that were particularly dynamic and unstructured with few time and space.
This would be the first breaking point with “2010’s” positional play: Ajax were not looking for “+1” at the time of playing out from the back / initiating the offensive sequences. They even deliberately look for a situation of numerical equality.
Once one of the members of this « square » if reached (more or less) free facing the play, the rest of the unit also behaves differently from what we can regularly see in the « classic » positional play.
In that game model (the classic one) fullbacks would « fixate » or « attract » an opposition winger, asking for the ball in their feet.
In Ten Hag’s animation, the fullbacks would constantly attack the depth, or at least be oriented to do so.
The offensive unit would split in two sides, and Tagliafico and Mazraoui would by force of circumstances be relatively isolated from the « square » of preperation. 3-1-6. Or even 4-0-6. As the fullbacks would join the 4 offensive players [ Neres (LW), Van de Beek (CM), Ziyech (RW) et Tadic (Fake center forward)].
Triple run / Ziyech Maestro
The 4 offensive players would also behave accordingly. Complementarily to the « deep » role of the fullbacks, Ziyech would come to the ball (rather than wait for it) to ask for it in feet. Facing a laterally compact team, it’s therefore from the wing (not the halfspace) that the Moroccan would look for the so-called 3/4 orientation, in order to find the depth by his precise passes.
Facing a pressing that would take him outside, De Ligt actually looks for the wing, reaching Ziyecg outside.
The 3 other attackers would trigger a “triple run”, in diagonal way toward the ball-side half-space.
Therefore, we would often find the opposite winger in the same (vertical) half as the ball carrier. Or even in the very center.
Reached on the wing by Blind in the feet, Neres has 3 passes options towards the ballside halfspace, plus the possibility for Ziyech or Van de Beek to be the “4th” man.
Unable to cope with those multiples deep runs, opposition (the players, on their own initiative?) sometimes chose to submit all the unit. That’s what happen with French champion Lille, outclassed by Ajax in EL. Or more recently Besiktas and their very reactive 4141 low block in Amsterdam (23 shots to 4)
As we can see here with benfica, the principle of “3rd man” is to offer 3 solutions to the ball holder, which freedom is provided by the numerical superiority at the back.
Ajax also apply this principle, but unlike the “classical” positional play, the ball holder’s 3 options are orientated toward the depth.
Often, we would find a 4th one, orientated to get the ball in feet. We could call this “the 4th man”. This 4th man would also be relatively “predictable” – at leats the only solution in feet – and an “exclusive” creative option. Unlike the “dispatched” and “shared” creativity of the traditional positional play, that we saw above with Man City in 2019.
Two years later, it is not necessarily surprising to see some elements – more or less attached to the task of attacking big spaces – particularly Van de Beek, struggle to reach their former level of performance, in this Taylor made game model.
The depth, in order to reach the short pass
Of course, this game model is not rigid. And it depends on the defensive proposition / adaptation of opposition, like their response during the game.
Versus Juve, in the second leg of the 1/4 final, Ajax seems to play more in feet, and more inside then usual. But it is precisely the threat in the depth that make them step back, to eventually spread vertically opposition block and open space between the lines.
That night, the fullbacks were reached in feet. This fact does not prevent the rest of the attack to apply the principle of 4th man, when one of them is reached, more or less motionless.
Below, as the fullback (Sinkgraven) is reached, we see 3 players attacking the depth (Neres, Tadic Ziyech), as a forth one is going to offer a short pass solution (Van de Beek).
Besides, nothing prevents van de Beek and Ziyech to switch their run at the last moment. Typical exemple of the 4th man.
Sooner in this sequence, we can clearly see that the « numerical superiority » witch Blind seems to be the beneficier is none.
He doesn’t look for the halfspace to occupy, rather the central corridor. Once served in feet, it is the very wing he’s looking for, carrying the ball. We could see Blind as the “free man”. He’s in fact going to challenge the right winger. The ball-side winger.
He looks for the 4v4 situation from the first phase, as Sinkgraven was ready to attack the depth. And if it was not for Sinkgraven, another player would have done so. With van de Beek higher, the defensive line was already handling a 4v4 situation.
Ajax’s passmap vs Juve (2nd leg): we can see the the inside connexion does not exist. This graphic data rather be misleading in the sense that offensive players are not reached in that zone (halfspace).
It’s from the very wing that they are served in depth, and in the wing that they are served in feet. This graphic does not provide this information.
Numerical equality at the back, and also in front. Like Gnabry a few months before, Bernardeschi is forced to stepback when he senses the vertical threat.
Even without occupying the halfspace, Ajax control the halfspace.
Against Tottenham’s “Joker pressing” 5 man at the back, sliding laterally, once again, Ajax adapt, in their own way, to opposition’s pressing. Maybe with a part of instinct. The idea of constantly challenging opposition’s back line might have been printed in players’ subconscious.
As Tagliafico (LB) asks for the ball in his feet on the wing, attracting Trippier (RB) the four attackers are challenging the rest of the defense.
5 against 5 at the back, and the same in front.
No numerical superiority / from the ball-side to the ball-side / without switching the play / without connection in the half space.
A few seconds later, we found Ziyech (opposite winger) in a (central) position to finalize. Once again, there are not 3, but rather 4 options for the ball holder, inside 15m width.
Present, or rather threatening, by his attitude and orientation – in the opposite halfspace – Veltman (RB) “spreads” Rose (LB) on just the right amount of space outside so that Ziyech could find a perfect tight pass angle to van de Beek. Which first touch is far from clinical.
The defensive line being orientated frontally, and going up to play offside, van de Beeks meets Lloris 1v1 (or even 2v1) and easily executes him.
In the opposite halfspace, the diagonal run by Neres makes Trippier step back, just enough to cover van de Beek.
In the precedent offensive sequence, Neres had been called offside, as Ziyech chose to shoot. Yet, van de Beek was using Neres’ run to be onside.
Some principles, sacred by positional play’s aficionados, like 3/4 orientation, take on their full meaning in this context.
Ziyech’s orientation (above) offers him the chance to hide his intentions, to finally find the 4th man. Van de beek’s orientation helps him to see in the mean time the goal and the ball.
Thanks to this so-called orientation Tadic, Ziyech, Neres (as they are reached in the wing, not the halfspace) offer themselves the chance to “cross in the depth” toward one of the three player attacking the box/the depth.
In this matter the three solutions in the depth are Neres, Tagliafico and Van de Beek. As Ziyech stays a bit lower. Finally, the 4th man will not be Ziyech, but Neres, served in the half space, more or less in the feet.
The depths helps the short passes.
Not the other way around.
Influence and evolution – desecrate the halfspace
In this interview with Bleed Oranje, Ten Hag serms to report a certain type of confrontation inside Ajax at the time of implementing his more or less iconoclast ideas.
“The characteristics of the players determine the game plan. Not the other way around.” This radical statement of Ten Hag hints the major role that individual talent – wild and arbitrary – plays in his game model.
In some way, his Ajax rehabilitates the number 10, just like Gasperini did with Papu Gomez. Or even Zidane with Isco, that would move with freedom from left to right, as CR7’s madrid would build, with their characteristic verticality.
Direct or not, we can sense a certain influence of Ten Hag’s creative winger trough some players tgat shined or emerged those last years/months. Jack Grealish, signed at a high price by Guardiola, witch Man City multiplies crosses at the far post since a few months.
On other levels, Payet’s role in AVB’s OM or Insignés in 2021 European champion Italy also echo this flexible game model. And in a certain way, desecrate the halfspace. A interior corridor zone which the non penetration / occupation would often be interpreted as a poor and predictable offensive game model by a lot of observers.