Juventus 1-2 Ajax: Ajax consistently work overloads down the right

April 18, 2019

Ajax followed their historic win at the Bernabeu in the previous round with a similarly impressive victory away at Juventus.

There were two major themes from the first leg in Amsterdam, a 1-1 draw. First, Ajax used Donny van de Beek in a man-marking job on Miralem Pjanic, which badly hurt Juventus’ passing from deep positions. Juve seemed surprisingly troubled by this relatively simple tactic, and there was little sign of Leonardo Bonucci stepping forward to become the deep playmaker, as he used to do so effectively.

Second, Ajax had a very consistent approach in the final third. They would overload the right flank, bringing four or five players towards that flank, before quickly switching play to the left, usually by looking for attacking full-back Nicolas Tagliafico. He, however, was suspended for this game. In his place, Eric ten Hag was forced to use three players. He started with Noussair Mazraoui, a right-back, who got injured early on. He was replaced by the more naturally attacking Daley Sinkgraven, who later gave way to Lisandro Magallán, a centre-back by trade.

Max Allegri, meanwhile, brought in Mattia De Sciglio for Joao Cancelo at right-back, Emre Can for Rodrigo Bentancur in the middle, and upfront Paulo Dybala returned – as captain – in place of the injured Mario Mandzukic.


But this was all about Ajax. After a cautious opening period to the game, Ajax went 1-0 down when they lost Cristiano Ronaldo at a corner. They got back into the game quickly with a slightly fortunate goal, scored by Van de Beek, and from then were dominant.

Overloading the right

Having caused Juventus such problems with this approach in the reverse game, Ajax did exactly the same thing here. Right-winger Hakim Ziyech was a consistent threat against Alex Sandro, who remained in a more conservative position than he’s accustomed to, and there was sporadic support from right-back Joel Veltman. But more notable was the fact Ajax regularly piled others into that zone, too. Both Van de Beek and Lasse Schone, two of the three central midfielders, would regularly make runs there, while David Neres would often cross from his left-wing position into the inside-right channel too.

The best example came after 19 minutes, and created Ajax’s first real chance. A passing move featuring Veltman, Ziyech, Dusan Tadic, Frenkie de Jong and Neres ended with a sixth player, Van de Beek, shooting off-target from close-range. Each of those six players were located towards right.

Blaise Matuidi appeared unsure about his positional responsibilities. Notionally playing on the left of a four-man midfield, he often found himself dragged inside to become a third central midfield and cope with Ajax in that zone, before being forced to sprint out to the flank again. If there’s any player you want playing this role, it’s Matuidi, but he found himself unable to cope against so many opponents.

Wingers inside

For all the talk of the current Ajax side following the principles of the classic Ajax sides – which is true in many ways – there’s a major difference in terms of the wingers. Whereas the legendary Ajax sides used touchline-hugging wingers down both flanks, this iteration has a completely different interpretation of wingers.

It’s not just that the wingers come inside, or that they’re inverted wingers deployed on the ‘wrong’ flanks – which is pretty much standard in modern football – it’s that the wingers don’t remotely hold their positions. They don’t merely move inside into the channels, they move inside into the opposite channels. Ziyech and Neres repeatedly combined together on the same wing, generally with Neres moving to the right. Their passing combinations are below – they’re often short passes in the same channel, rather than genuine switches of play.

The positioning of these players was also interesting in terms of Ajax’s pressing. When the ball was on the opposite flank, they would aggressively hold a position between the centre-back and the full-back on the far side, rather than moving goalside of the full-back. This meant that, throughout the first half, Juventus were repeatedly able to switch play out to the overlapping De Sciglio, who was always the out-ball and carried the main attacking threat for the home side. Notably, this happened in the build-up to the corner Juventus won for the opener. Pjanic had time in midfield to receive the ball from the left and switch it right, and De Sciglio advanced in behind Ziyech, who had temporarily swapped wings with Neres.

This is risk-and-reward, of course, and the second half featured a positive benefit of Ajax’s approach. Pjanic received a throw-in from Alex Sandro, saw De Sciglio was unmarked and attempted to play the ball over, or around, Neres. Instead, he hit it straight to the Brazilian, who launched a 4v4 attack which ended with Ajax switching the ball from left to right, where the unmarked Ziyech’s shot produced an excellent save from Wojciech Szczesny, who clawed the ball away from above him while going to ground.

Ajax’s press worked particularly well in the second half. 10 minutes after half-time, they won the ball deep inside the Juventus half twice within the space of a minute, ending with Van de Beek having a long-range shot tipped over. While Juventus pressed aggressively at Ajax goal-kicks, they didn’t offer anything comparable in open play.

De Jong

Frenkie de Jong was an injury doubt for this game, and probably played more conservatively than he would have liked – in the first leg he stormed forward at times, whereas here he remained in position.

This was an important part of Ajax’s approach, however. In the first half he dealt well with Dybala, and after the break he readjusted after Allegri brought on forward Moise Kean in place of the injured Argentine, often dropping back to almost become an extra centre-back. One crucial interception, from left-wing cut-back just in front of his centre-backs, showed his positional intelligence, and the value of him playing so deep, in a typical Ajax defender-midfielder role.

Embed from Getty Images Tadic Another star was Tadic, who produced one of the greatest performances of recent times in the 4-1 victory at the Bernabeu in the previous round, and did something similar here. Bonucci and Daniele Rugani were unable to cope with his movement towards the ball, as Tadic helped overload Juve’s midfielders, while he also has a wonderful knack of receiving the ball with his back to goal and producing clever backheels into the path of midfield runners going in behind. He played a superb backheel for Neres in the first half, for the move that ended with a close-range Van de Beek shot, and did something very similar on 50 minutes, again in a move which ended with Van de Beek shooting, a little tamely, from the right flank. A little later, Tadic switched play expertly to Ziyech, completely unmarked on the left – he tried to pass when he should have gone for goal – and also moved into a false nine position for a move which ended with Ziyech chipping the ball over the top for Neres, who failed to properly connect with a volley. The fact those two were always running in behind was, of course, precisely why Juventus found it so difficult to cope with Tadic’s movement into deep positions, as there was always a threat going in the other direction. Embed from Getty Images

Man-marking

There were only two concerns for Ajax. First, their decision-making in the final third wasn’t great – they could have won this far more comfortably.

Second, their man-marking caused problems. The obvious example was Ronaldo’s goal, when he escaped the attentions De Ligt, and used eight players – four teammates, four opponents – as the screen to get a free header.

But it was also an issue in open play, when Juve attacked quickly with multiple runners – Ajax often left someone free, sprinting through the middle. Ronaldo’s goal in the first leg, rounding off a quick counter, came because various Ajax players were attracted to other opponents and left a gaping hole in the centre of the pitch. Here, there was an incident when Emre Can stormed through the centre of the pitch from a deep midfield position, and went to ground on the edge of the box appealing for a free-kick. It’s unusual to see a team opened up so readily through the middle, and intelligent opponents might be able to drag Ajax’s system apart with clever decoy runs.

Still, Ajax thoroughly deserved this win, and the nature of their goals – a fortunate first, and then De Ligt’s header from a set-piece – don’t accurately summarise the intricacy of their combination play.

I’ve written a book – imaginatively titled Zonal Marking – about the development of modern European football. It’s out May 30th!

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