During their incredible 2018/19 campaign, Erik ten Hag’s Ajax represented football at its most intelligent. Despite their entire squad costing less than Cristiano Ronaldo, Ajax managed to overcome the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus on their run to the Champions League semi-finals last season.
It wasn’t a typical underdog story, however. They continually took the game to their opponents, stunning them with elegant, dynamic football. Youngsters such as Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt controlled more illustrious opponents with relative ease. But was it all just down to talent? Or did the underlying principles enforced by Ten Hag make the team better than its individual parts?
This article will shine a light on one of Europe’s most promising coaches, focusing on how his team operates in the ‘established possession’ phase.
Solving the Problem of a Low-Block
Former Spain midfielder, Xabi Alonso, recently said that for him, the possession phase revolves around two key questions “where is the space?” and “who is the free player?”. If these conditions exist, progression of the play can take place and the ultimate objective of creating shooting opportunities close to the opponent’s goal may be realised. But what if neither of these conditions exists in an immediate sense?
At least in the Eredivisie, Ajax constantly faced opponents who sat deep in a compact block, closing off the space between and behind lines. In these instances, the focus turned to *creating* space and free players.
Space and free players can be created by exploiting defenders’ natural tendency to be drawn towards both the ball and the positioning of attacking players. If the team in possession can attract opposing players towards the ball and/or decoy players, they can open up previously blocked off spaces and, consequentially, create the conditions to progress the attack.
Throughout last season, Ajax provided us with a masterclass in this department, making them the ideal case study for the established possession phase.
Before exploring each of the strategies Ajax used to create space, we should also take a look at the positional structures that enhanced their ability to break their opponent’s down.
Erik ten Hag’s players are free to interchange positions throughout the possession phase, and the numbers on each line differ depending on situational factors. However, their ‘base’ shape most closely resembles a 4-2-3-1. Ten hag’s decision to switch from a 1-2 midfield lay out to a 2-1 was made with the intention of getting the best out of both Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek.
“One system doesn’t add up in football anymore. Take Frenkie, he’s an adventurer, always en route with and without the ball. Can you put him at 6 just to switch the play? He’s away too often for that. Eventually I decided to play with two number 6’s on the pitch.”
This slight tweak has freed up De Jong, allowing him to express his talents to the full. He can engage in the first phase of build-up with intelligent passing and positional play, while also having licence to dribble into the attack from deep, knowing that a second pivot will be there to cover for him (usually Lasse Schone). Van de Beek, meanwhile, can make use of his clever movement in the final third and act as the free man between the lines.
Ajax attacking structure aims for width and depth, with at least one player in each wide channel and a number of players threatening the opponent’s last line of defence. Along with the aim of providing passing options wide and in behind, this lay-out seeks to stretch the opposing block of players and as a result, create space between the lines both vertically and horizontally. The scene below illustrates this.
If the opponents are sufficiently stretched, Ajax will attempt to play penetrative passes into the forward players. If the centre is closed off, they will instead look to link the play via the fullbacks. Once the attacking block receive possession, they try to combine with one and two-touch passing sequences in order to break through the back line and finish the move. If the back line is too narrow, they will instead feed the advanced wings where a fullback will arrive to deliver a cross or cutback.
In the above image, you may have also noticed that within the first block of players, Ajax maintain a numerical advantage over their opponents. This is a basic principle for many teams, ensuring that a free player exists to facilitate retention of possession. However, the number of players used in the first phase of the attack will directly influence the conditions for the final phase. With this in mind, Ajax look to ensure that no player is wasted in build-up.
The video below helps us to understand this idea. Lasse Schone sits in front of the two centre-backs, creating a 3v2 against the opposing strikers. Instead of simply maintaining this structure, Schone realises the lack of value he is providing. One of the defending players is tasked with following him, meaning that he is unavailable to receive the ball.
To serve possession in a more productive manner, he moves off to influence the play further forward. His marker follows suit, leaving a 2v1 scenario for De Ligt and Blind to control. As the move progresses, Blind plays a lofted pass towards the strikers. Schone is now in a position to recover the second ball, eventually facilitating the creation of a quality goalscoring opportunity.
Had he remained part of the 3v2 structure initially in place, he would have effectively brought no value to the team. His awareness of this fact is representative of the understanding that Ten Hag’s players have when it comes to making the most of possession.
As mentioned, the basic structure of width and depth should separate opposing defenders to some degree, creating gaps for Ajax to play through. Sometimes, however, their opponents will be diligent in terms of defensive organisation, leaving little space for Ajax to progress. In these scenarios, other structures are applied to ensure progress of the play can still occur. For example, when the opposition manage to effectively shut off the centre, as well as shifting to close off the wings, Ten Hag’s side will form a staggered ‘zig-zag’ shape made up of four players, with the intention of combining past the defenders using one-touch passing.
In practice, this creates something of a ‘pin-ball’ effect. The video below provides an example of the strategy. With the direct passing options to the attack shut off by the opponent’s cover shadows, De Jong and three teammates create a zig-zig shape next to the touchline.
This allows them to progress the play with one-touch diagonal passes, evading the defenders and allowing progress through to the advanced wing. With such limited space, Ajax will always look to make full use with quick combinations, allowing no time for the opponents to dispossess them.
As we have seen throughout this section, Ajax make use of intelligent macro-structures to stretch their opponents and provide quality passing options ahead of the ball, while micro-structures help them to retain and progress possession through congested areas.
Moving the Opponents
Earlier, we discussed how using the ball and player movement to attract opposing players towards one area, can open up space in another area. This section will focus on the range of strategies that follow this basic idea.
The first strategy we will examine is commonly referred to as ‘overload to isolate’. In order to create space and free players down one side, Ajax will orientate their possession towards the other flank, drawing the opponent’s defensive block across in the process.
In order to execute this strategy effectively and retain possession in tight spaces before the switch of play, they will sometimes form a ‘rondo’ using five players. In the example below, they build the attack down the left, with the opponents moving over to close out the space around the ball. They successfully retain possession with their rondo structure, further increasing the amount of pressure drawn to that zone.
Once sufficient space has been opened up on the far side, Ajax exit the pressure and shift the play to the free man arriving on the right. Winger David Neres engages the ball-far fullback before dragging him further infield. Van de Beek, meanwhile, makes a late run into the space on the defender’s blind-side, before being played through to score.
Another way in which Ajax look to create space to progress down the outside involves the use of ‘bounce-passes’. An attacking player will sometimes drop off the front to provide a passing option for the players in build-up. His initial movement is likely to draw a defender out of the last line, but more importantly, his receiving of possession should invite increased pressure centrally. This opens up the wide channels to allow for the play to progress.
In the video below, the home team are struggling to create space. They initially attempt to shift their visitor’s defensive block with a ‘fake switch’, but it ultimately proves fruitless. Their second attempt to open the flank sees Daley Blind play a bounce pass off the dropping Dusan Tadic. The defenders are drawn towards Tadic as he receives possession, before the Serbian returns the ball to Blind immediately. The former Manchester United centre-back can now feed the wide player, who has more space to receive and deliver a cross.
The ‘bounce pass’ strategy can also be used to create gaps and free men through the middle. One of the front four will often drop off with their back to goal, intending to provide lay-offs for their teammates. If his marker doesn’t follow him, he can simply receive between the lines and combine with the other attackers in the final third. If the defender does stick with his man, a gap should open up in the last line.
The defensive line’s next response is often to move infield, returning to a compact unit, albeit with one less man. As we saw with the previous example, more space should now exist in the wide areas. However, if they don’t respond by narrowing their line, the attacking team can simply exploit the central gap with a through ball.
All these knock-on effects stem from one basic dropping movement, and the impact doesn’t end there. Because of defender’s ball-orientated nature, more than one player will likely be drawn towards the receiver in the midfield zone, opening the spaces up between the central midfielders and wingers. This can allow for a central progression, as shown by the next video.
De Jong plays a bounce pass off the dropping Hakim Ziyech, with four opposing players drawn towards the ball. This creates a lane for Blind to progress through, before he eventually loses possession. Ajax recover the ball out wide and keep the move alive. Schone recognises the value in playing another bounce pass, this time on the edge of the penalty area. The move again draws pressure towards the ball, freeing up space for Ziyech to receive and get a shot off.
The next strategy we will look at is the ‘positional rotation’. Simply put, rotations involve players swapping positions during the possession phase. The aim is to disorganise the opponent’s defensive scheme, thus providing just enough space for one of the attacking players to receive and progress the play.
The video below shows midfielder Lasse Schone being surrounded by three opposing players, preventing him from receiving possession from De Jong. The positional defending put in place by the opponents also means they can retain access to De Ligt. With these two short passing options representing little value, something must change.
In order to facilitate a lay-off, and to draw more pressure centrally, Schone initiates a rotation with David Neres. The attacker drops in to receive from De Jong, with the defenders attracted to the arriving man and the ball. The increased pressure centrally opens up more space on the outside, allowing De Ligt to receive the lay-off and progress the play.
The idea of engaging an opposing fullback with the intention of having a free man arrive unmarked on the outside is another consistent sign of the situational intelligence we see from these Ajax players. In the build-up to the goal shown below, Van de Beek moves between the opposing left-back and left centre-back. Striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar has occupied the latter, meaning that the former has no choice but to follow Van de Beek. This opens up space for the free man on the outside, allowing him to receive unmarked and with time to supply a cross to the box.
Had the fullback on the defending team stuck with the wide player, he would have left a clear gap for Van de Beek to receive in behind. It’s a lose-lose scenario created by intelligent movement, and the presentation of these kinds of dilemmas is a crucial component of Ten Hag’s possession model, an act he refers to as ‘stressing the opponents’.
The use of subtle decoys is a regular feature of Ajax’ game, and Frenkie de Jong consistently shows his intelligence by moving opposing players away from space to allow his teammates to progress.
In the first clip below, De Jong is penned in by three defending players, making him an unviable short passing option for Blind. The 22-year-old doesn’t always need to receive the ball to have a significant impact on the play, however.
On top of the fact that the pivot is closed off, the further passing option to Van de Beek is also prevented by the opponent’s cover shadows. De Jong recognises this, moving off to one side while dragging his marker with him. The passing lane through to Van de Beek is now open, allowing Ajax to progress the play and exploit the space behind the first line.
The second clip shows him using the ball to generate more space for a teammate. Having scanned the middle of the field, he moves off towards the wing to receive from left-back Nicolas Tagliafico. He then takes the ball further away from the centre, increasing the amount of space for De Ligt to arrive in. The Dutch centre-back takes full advantage, receiving the ball before driving forward and finding the bottom corner from range.
As seen with De Ligt’s goal, it is also important that players are constantly scanning the field, ready to take advantage of any spaces that are created.
Interestingly, It isn’t important who takes up these spaces. Oftentimes, Van de Beek will recognise a gap in the opponent’s last line before arriving into it. On other occasions, Tagliafico might be the man to exploit the opening. Centre-backs Blind and De Ligt equally have license to get forward should they spot an opportunity to do so.
The next video highlights this principle. On two occasions within the same sequence, Blind identifies space further forward, moving into it to receive and progress the attack. It’s also likely that his teammates have left these spaces open, intentionally occupying defenders elsewhere. A typical attacking layout is arguably easier to defend against, and so Ajax will regularly create asymmetrical shapes and overloads in order to disjoint the opponent’s block and leave spaces empty.
Notice how the eventual goalscorer receives free at the far post. Blind’s free man run from deep causes chaos, forcing defenders to leave their original markers in order to deal with the immediate threat.
Against more well-organised and defensively resilient teams, Ajax will sometimes have to pull out all of their tricks in search of openings. But the same basic understanding remains; use the ball and dynamic movement to attract the opponents and create spaces within their structure to progress possession.
Their composure in possession and technical proficiency clearly supports this approach, with Ten Hag’s side capable of circulating the ball continuously for long spells. Each failed attempt at increasing the separations and progressing the play is also backed up with intense counter-pressure, allowing them to recover the ball quickly and maintain their control over the game.
As seen earlier, they will often look to create dribbling lanes for the many players that possess the qualities to exploit them. De Jong is undoubtedly the most talented in this regard, and so a big part of their build-up centres on facilitating him.
In the video below, Ajax keep possession and move the play from side to side in an attempt to increase the gaps between individual midfielders. The opponents are adept at retaining compactness, however, preventing passes or dribbles through the centre while also shifting across to close off the sides.
De Jong’s initial effort at carrying the play through midfield is blocked off, forcing him to try and execute the ‘pin-ball’ effect down the left. The structure is created, but the space is slightly too congested for it to represent a quality option.
They move the play towards the right once more, further supported by the decoy movement of Schone. A combination of these factors opens up just enough separation between the opposing right central-midfielder and right winger, allowing De Jong to dribble through to the attack.
Overall, Ajax show a deep appreciation of space. They use intelligent possession and positional play to manipulate their opponents with ease, opening up gaps through which they can progress the attack.
In order to exploit space in the most efficient manner possible, Ten Hag also places emphasis on certain passing and receiving habits.
Ajax’ players consistently scan the space around them before receiving. This allows them to collect information on the positioning of teammates and opponents, and the location of space, therefore helping them to plan their future actions in order to aid the rhythm of the play. Furthermore, they always look to keep a number of players in the ‘line of pass’, giving the ball-occupant multiple options to advance the attack.
Thinking one step ahead by using the 3rd man concept is also an important principle of their game. As the player on the ball(1st man) is passing to a teammate(2nd man), a third player is expected to prepare himself positionally to receive from the second man. This further aids the flow of the play and means the receiving player will typically have an immediate passing option ready.
They also look to receive on the ‘half-turn’, ensuring that they don’t need to turn a full 360 degrees on the ball, which would give their opponents time to close in on the space. This, of course, only applies to scenarios where the receiving player intends to carry the play forward. As shown with the bounce passes earlier, receiving with your back to goal is beneficial when the intention is to act as a ‘wall player’, because it can provoke pressure from the nearest opponents.
Players are also asked to take the ball on the ‘back-foot’. This simply means that when receiving on the half-turn, the first touch should generally be made with the foot closer to the opponent’s goal. Again, this is done in order to prevent any loss of space and time.
The passer is expected to facilitate this by aiming for his teammate’s back-foot. Additionally, when shifting the ball horizontally, the idea is to play the pass in front of the receiver where possible. This allows him to come on to the play, once again ensuring that the space can be exploited quickly before the opposition have the chance to halt progression.
Ten Hag spoke about the importance of these details during his time at Utrecht, also providing us with an insight into how he influences the psychology of his teams.
“I think teambuilding is done on the pitch. We do a lot of positional games and I put the benchmark higher & higher. I want them to demand more from one another. I ask for focus, the right weight on the ball, playing into the right foot, the right movement. If they’re not focused, these practices fail. So, you’ll see that players start correcting, coaching, & motivating one another.”
It’s interesting to hear Ten Hag speak about the Ajax squad getting to a point where they begin ‘coaching one another’. Rather than simply acting as physical vehicles for their coaches’ knowledge, It’s clear that his players have a deep understanding of the game.
He lays the foundations, allowing his teams to control and manipulate their opponents at will. Whatever situation they are presented with, they have the fundamental game intelligence to exploit it effectively.
Based on recent comments, it appears Erik ten Hag will remain at the Johan Cruyff Arena for at least another season. Unfortunately, he will be without Barcelona bound Frenkie de Jong, while the likes of Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech are also expected to depart.
It will be interesting to see how the young manager copes with these losses, but you sense that his ability to adapt will serve him well. Should he pass this latest test, Europe’s super clubs will no doubt be clamouring for his signature.
Whatever the future holds, Ten Hag has the potential to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola by becoming the next great reference point for coaches across the globe.
The list below summarises the strategies that Ten Hag’s side use to break down mid-low blocks:
- Fluid positional structure with the basic intention of achieving width and depth, creating space between the lines.
- Vary the number of players in each phase in accordance with the situation at hand. Look to achieve numerical advantages throughout, creating a free man to progress the play.
- Players in all positions expected to identify spaces in the final third before arriving late as the free man. If the opportunity is there to do so, this means that even fullbacks and centre-backs can roam into the central attack to exploit gaps.
- Use the ball and player movement to draw pressure to one zone of the attack, creating space elsewhere: rotations, decoy movements, bounce passes, dropping movements, engaging fullbacks to create free man outside, overloads to isolate, fake switches of play, horizontal shifting of possession.
- Further maximise the use of space with positional structures such as ‘Rondos’ and ‘Zig-Zags’. In congested spaces, use one and two-touch passing to allow opponents no time for dispossession.
- Exploit space efficiently by applying the following passing and receiving habits: scanning, constant adjusting of positioning to remain in the line of pass, half-turn receiving, passing to and receiving on back-backfoot, 3rd man movement.
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