Ajax in dominant Klassieker victory
Peter Bosz’ Ajax side hosted Feyenoord in De Klassieker on Sunday afternoon. Ajax came into the clash in 2nd place, 6 points behind Feyenoord, knowing that victory was necessary to keep alive their title hopes with 6 games left afterwards.
Beating Feyenoord’s man-marking
In typical Dutch fashion, Feyenoord defended in a highly man-oriented manner. From a base 4-3-3 shape their man-orientations meant they defended in a 4-2-3-1. In order to keep a 2v1 overload at the back against Traore (Ajax’s striker) they pressed with a 1v2 underload against Ajax’s first line. The intensity was generally quite low which encouraged dribbles from the Ajax centre backs. However Jorgensen would eventually work across to press the ball carrying centre back, approaching from a sideways position to prevent passes to the other centre back.
The main method that Ajax used to beat Feyenoord’s man-marking was to open the direct passing route from the ball carrying centre back to Traore, with Klaassen and Ziyech (the two 8s) moving wider and Schöne (the 6) dropping deeper. Interestingly, the fact that both centre backs were responsible for marking Traore meant it was easier for him to get free, with an element of co-ordination required as to who was responsible for picking him up. Asides from this the rest of the players had clear direct opponents making for easy and clear reference points.
The effect of opening direct passing routes and accessing them against a man-oriented opponent is often to create a free man in deeper areas. Since the focus is on the ball, the initially marked players become free to move off their opponents’ blind side and receive lay offs. However, Bosz’ side initially had some issues in making these lay offs effective. When playing to Traore in the centre, a lot of pressure accumulated with Feyenoord’s centre backs moving up to press as well as the midfielders dropping back on top of the ball, as such the central ‘corridor’ became very congested. A number of these lay offs were initially made to Schöne in this central corridor, and as such the pressure that accumulated around Traore could easily be transferred to the Danish midfielder, causing a number of turnovers.
However, later on in the game Traore made these lay offs to one of the half spaces where Ziyech or Klaassen could act in space created by the opponents collapsing on the ball. These lay offs were possible due to effective movement from the two 8s, who moved out of their opponents’ cover shadows with curved runs. With the vertical progression to Traore, Ajax could force Feyenoord’s full-backs to move into more central positions. This created better conditions for the wingers, and when Klaassen or Ziyech received in the half space they could play the wingers through into space either inside or outside the Feyenoord full-back. This was a stable and consistent method for Ajax to get the ball into the final 3rd.
Of course when an action pattern is repeatedly utilised, particularly with success, an opponent will begin to anticipate it leading to adapted behaviours. A particular strength that Ajax displayed was the ability to adapt this pattern to the anticipatory actions that Feyenoord displayed.
At times Feyenoord’s ball-near central midfielder would anticipate the pass to Traore, moving more centrally in an attempt to anticipate the pass. However, this movement meant they left their direct opponent free and Ajax’s centre backs would respond by playing into the free 8 in the half space.
On a couple of other occasions Feyenoord’s central midfielders would stick with their opponent in the half space to avoid the lay off pass. However this meant less pressure on Traore, who could then use his individual skill to turn his opponents and advance towards goal.
Later on, Nieuwkoop would at times move higher alongside Jorgensen as Feyenoord defended in a 4-4-2 shape for quicker access to Ajax’s front line. Initially, the ball-far striker would drop in to cover Schöne, however after a couple of switches between the Ajax centre backs, both Nieuwkoop and Jorgensen would stay high preventing circulation across Ajax’s first line. However, in these situations Ajax could overload Feyenoord in midfield 3v2, at which point finding a free man became a simple task.
Moving the ball forwards is of course fundamental to scoring goals. It follows, therefore, that a team’s structure should aim to keep as many forward passing options open as possible. This was the main strength of Ajax’s structure. By playing with 2 players in each of the 5 corridors, the Amsterdam side ensured they did not block any passing options. By doing this they had variable options in moving the ball forwards.
This was particularly useful against their man-marking opponents, with their effective spacing opening large spaces within Feyenoord’s block they could quickly attack once they were able to find a free man who would invariably have large space to operate in.
Small flaws in the early build-up
On a few of occasions, the home side were forced to recycle possession through their goalkeeper and eventually forced to play long, this was the result of a number of flaws. When the centre backs had the ball they had a certain time frame to access Traore before Jorgensen (Feyenoord #9) and Nieuwkoop (Feyenoord #28) worked across and could block the passing lane. As such, the midfielders ahead of them needed to perform their space opening movements efficiently. On the occasions that they failed to do so quickly enough, Sanchez or Viergever (the centre backs) would be left without forward passing options and no option to switch across to the other centre back.
The goalkeeper was then the natural recipient. Ajax were structured with fairly deep full-backs, almost in line with the centre backs. This meant that the centre backs played in quite narrow positions. As such, they had quite large distances to make up to get into good positions to receive the ball when it was played to Onana (the goalkeeper). When under pressure from Feyenoord’s forwards, Onana was thus forced to play longer.
Several teams use their full-backs to provide offensive width with overlaps and/or wide and high positioning. Ajax however, use their full-backs deep in early build-up and in more central positions as the attack reaches the final 3rd. As such their final 3rd game is heavily based around the relationships between the interiors and the wingers.
As explained earlier, by acting high in the half spaces the interiors were able to create good situations for Neres and Kluivert (the wingers) to attack their direct opponent in isolated situations. At times they were able to attract Feyenoord’s ball-near full-back into challenges freeing the winger down the line.
On other occasions they would pass out wide to the winger and make a straight run through the half space, giving either the option for the pass down the line or opening the half space for the winger to dribble diagonally infield. This was often met with Traore making a diagonal run for a through ball. This could also create space at the far post by sequentially dragging Feyenoord’s back four towards the ball-near side. This was evident in Ajax’s 2nd goal.
Stability against turnovers
Perhaps the most immediately impressive aspect of Bosz’ Ajax in the early parts of his tenure was the strong instincts in reaction to losing the ball, this was an important aspect in Ajax’s dominance of the game.
One part of this stability against turnovers, was an impressive level of box cover. When in the final 3rd, Ajax created a 3 chain to cover the width of the box with the full-backs moving infield to the half spaces and Schöne protecting the centre. This gave them consistently high access to win any clearances and/or loose balls to restart their attacks. This half space positioning also gave them access to control any wing focused counter attacks, with short distances for Veltman and Sinkgraven (the full backs) to make up.
This was paired with instinctive backwards pressing from the players attacking the box. With the players on the edge of the box assisted by backwards pressing from the forwards, Ajax counterpressed intensely forcing Feyenoord to go long early. In addition, Sanchez and Viergever defended on the front foot very aggressively, making several early interceptions and winning headers to end Feyenoord’s counter attacks.
There were some issues from the away side that harmed their ability to be a threat in these situations. Firstly the gradually deeper positions they defended in meant they recovered the ball in situations where they had to be risk-averse to avoid giving the ball away in dangerous positions. This led to them hitting early long balls.
Furthermore their defensive shape was often quite flat, with the midfielders often dropping on top of the defence early. This meant their only options for escape were to search for the striker in depth early.
Feyenoord issues in possession
Throughout the game van Bronckhorst’s side had severe issues in possession, which limited their attacking threat as well as creating instability.
Conservative 1st half
In the first half, this was mostly due to their unwillingness to build attacks from deep positions, as such the midfield players acted in high positions, making no attempt to drop and support the defenders to build. Their build-up situations were hastily executed, with the centre backs often hitting early long balls. However, with Feyenoord’s midfielders playing high, they failed to stretch Ajax’s shape to reduce their control of 2nd balls. As such, Ajax were able to pair their dominance of initial aerial duels with control of 2nd balls to launch counter attacks.
Poorly co-ordinated 2nd
In the 2nd half, Feyenoord made more frequent attempts to build attacks from deep as they sought to come back from 2-0 down. They faced a similar conundrum to Ajax, in trying to evade man-marking to advance their build-up, however their movements were very poorly co-ordinated.
Opposite movements are an effective tool to create space against man-marking since they can create confusion as to who covers the deep and short opponent. However, Feyenoord’s players often moved in the same direction, this meant they created space but lacked a free man to take advantage of it.
At times, the ball-near central midfielder and full-back would both come deep, meaning the angle between the two was easy to cover for Ajax’s ball-near winger. On other occasions the ball-near players would all move up, leading to poor support for the ball carrier, and again a failure to take advantage of the space they created.
Improvements with quick wing-focus
In the latter stages of the game van Bronckhorst’s side had more consistent progressions by focusing on creating space on the wings early. On one or two occasions they used the ball-near central midfielder to run between the Ajax full back-centre back channel. The effect was to make the Ajax full-back defend in a narrower position, in turn creating more space for Kuyt or Berghuis (the wingers) to receive the ball. These 3rd man runs could also be used to play the midfielder through if Ajax’s full-back focused on the Feyenoord winger. When reaching the byline however, the away side’s crossing was poor, wasting a number of good positions.
Ineffective long ball strategy
In their desperate attempts to get a goal back in the final few minutes, Feyenoord played long with a high presence against Ajax’s back line. However, this high focus on the last line led to a poorly staggered shape, giving Ajax space to counter attack through after winning the first aerial duels.
This was a very dominant and convincing win for the home side and the 2-1 score line does not reflect their vast superiority. There were several impressive factors in Ajax’s performance particularly their control of defensive transitions and adaptable behaviour in possession. Victory maintains their outstanding run of form going, Bosz’ side are unbeaten in the league since early December with the vast majority of these clashes ending in victory. In addition, they have a Europa League quarter-final to look forward to, in what appears to be an increasingly promising first campaign for Peter Bosz.
Defeat reduced Feyenoord’s lead at the top in half, however a more concerning factor was the underwhelming manner of their performance. One problem was the failure to react to going a goal down, by the time Feyenoord began trying to play they were 2-0 down.