During their incredible 2018/19 campaign, Erik ten Hag’s Ajax represented football at it’s most intelligent. Of course, he hasn’t reinvented the wheel; much of his philosophy has been inspired by the likes of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola. However, he isn’t a replica of his role models either and has been brave enough to apply his own ideas. Urby Emanuelson, who played under Ten Hag at Utrecht, made note of this in a 2017 interview with Dutch Soccer.
“In Holland, adapting the 4-3-3 system is almost blasphemy. But Erik ten Hag uses different systems as a weapon. He changes things, challenges beliefs, and wants players to be flexible.”
This article will shine a light on one of Europe’s most promising coaches, focusing on how his teams operate in the ‘established possession’ phase.
Dissecting a famous Cruyff quote
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 the coach make the team better than it’s individual parts?
Cruyff once said that “playing football is simple, but playing simple football is the most difficult thing there is”. While the Dutchman acknowledged the straightforward premise of the game, he also appreciated the complex challenge in creating a system of play that is both highly efficient and easy for players to collectively execute.
The job of the coach, therefore, is to study the game in as much detail as possible, before boiling the information down to a set of core principles that help to manage the complexity. As Juanma Lillo describes it “you have to be able to reduce without impoverishing”. When carrying out this process, it’s important to remain in touch with football’s fundamentals.
Ultimately, the objective in possession is to create quality shooting opportunities by progressing the ball into the spaces near the opponent’s goal. Meanwhile, the out of possession team’s defensive unit is the obstacle. This obstacle can be overcome by creating and exploiting space, free players, and open passing lines and chains.
As we will see throughout this article, Ajax consistently manage to generate these conditions by enforcing intelligent structural, movement, and possession patterns. Furthermore, they enhance the process with individual receiving and passing habits.
When it comes to understanding space and time, Ajax have provided us with a masterclass during the last year. Along with the movement and possession principles we will see in the next section of this piece, the use of different structures also plays an important role in creating space, free players and open passing lines and chains to facilitate progressions into the final third.
Ten Hag’s players are free to change positions throughout the possession phase, and the numbers on each line differ depending on what the situation requires. With that said, their base formation most closely resembles a 4-2-3-1. The decision to reverse the midfield triangle was made with the intention of getting the best out of Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek. Ten Hag explained his reasoning earlier this month.
“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 license 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 to find space in the final third and act as the free man between the lines.
With the fundamental principle of his approach to the established attacking phase focused on the use of possession and positioning as a tool to open spaces for progression, their base structure aims for width and depth. This seeks to stretch the opponents, creating gaps between the lines both horizontally and vertically. The image below illustrates a typical structure, with one of the pivots positioned as a link player between the first and second attacking blocks.
Sometimes, this structure alone will be enough to facilitate penetrative passes through to the attack, where the forward block of players can make use of one and two touch combinations to break the last line and create goalscoring opportunities. The fullbacks are also on hand to arrive and support the attack from out wide.
More often than not, their opponents will focus on retaining a compact unit, shifting according to the position of the ball. In the Eredivisie, Ajax are constantly faced with the task of breaking down a deep defensive block. In Europe, on the other hand, they have been met with a wider variety of approaches.
On occasions where pressure is applied during the first phase of build-up, goalkeeper Andre Onana will regularly play long passes beyond the initial press. This isn’t done without a clear idea of creating and exploiting space, however. The front four will push the opposition’s defensive line back, opening up a gap in the middle of the field for one of them to drop off and receive directly from the keeper’, as shown below.
Where the conditions allow, Ajax will also attempt to play through the press with short passing combinations, before taking advantage of the space left behind the pressure. The image also illustrates this, with two triangles in the first phase formed to create the option of playing out using the third man concept.
On their way to the league title last season, these types of layouts were rare. As mentioned, the general task at hand was to manipulate the opponent’s deep defensive unit, exploiting their reactive stance. Through intelligent ball and player movements, they managed to achieve this with ease, frequently recording emphatic victories.
The key to increasing the spaces in the opposition’s half is to exploit their tendency to react to both the position of the ball and the position of the attacking players. The basic structure, holding width and depth, should separate the defenders to some degree, while fluid movement within that structure will further enhance this process.
Occasionally, however, opponents will be diligent in their defensive organisation, leaving little space for Ajax to break through. 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.
On other occasions, Ajax will intentionally congest one side of the pitch with an overload, creating more space on the far side. In order to execute this strategy and retain possession in tight spaces, they will sometimes form a ‘rondo’ using five players. In the example below, they build the attack down the left, drawing their opponent’s defensive block over in the process. 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 makes a late run into the space on the defender’s blind-side, before being played through to score.
As mentioned, the number of players they use in each phase of the attack is determined by situational factors, as opposed to being pre-set by rigid instructions. This allows them to create the best conditions possible, with no players wasted unnecessarily.
In the first phase, the intention is typically to have one more outfield player than the opponents, ensuring that a free man always exists to progress the play. This is a simple idea, and one that is mirrored by the vast majority of possession based teams.
The numbers used in the first progression will directly influence the conditions for the next phase. With this in mind, the Ajax players are constantly calculating the appropriate layout for the scenario at hand. More than just understanding that the presence of a free man is important, they also appreciate the more subtle aspects of numerical superiority.
In the video below, 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 to the situation. 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 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 we’ve seen, Ajax’ structural principles allow them to create and exploit space, free players, and passing chains to progress the attack. When the opponents are well-viced in closing off spaces, Ten Hag’s side have the ability to form structures that help them to retain and advance possession through congested areas.
Movement & Possession patterns
Within the structures we spoke about in the previous section, Ajax use intelligent possession and dynamic movements to generate and exploit space, free players and open passing lanes to progress the play. They achieve this by exploiting the fact that defenders are naturally drawn towards both the ball and the positioning of the attacking players, particularly the first and second man in any given moment. The first man is the ball-occupant, while the second man is the player who appears most likely to receive next.
Having a deep understanding of how to exploit defenders’ natural tendencies in order to move them out of space is one of the most important elements of ‘game intelligence’. Ten Hag’s side display this in abundance, making them an ideal case study.
The strategies outlined in this section include rotations, bounce passes, fake switches, overloads, decoy movements, and many more. The first video below provides an example of how rotations in the 6 position can help to increase the space on the outside, allowing a centre-back to carry the play forward.
Midfielder Lasse Schone is 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.
Notice also as the play progresses how a second lay-off pass is made to supply the winger. These types of ‘chain’ or ‘link’ passes are carried out for a number of reasons. They draw more pressure to the first and second man, leaving the third man with increased space and time. Meanwhile, the use of space and time is further improved because the third receiver can take possession facing forward.
We then see De Jong recover possession in transition before driving into the final third and combining quickly with a 3rd man sequence, all persistent features of Ajax’ game.
The idea of engaging one of the opposing fullbacks 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.
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.
So far, we’ve seen how Ajax use intelligent possession and positional play to increase the amount of space on either side of the opponent’s defensive unit. But these strategies are also applicable when trying to create central openings.
Frenkie de Jong is particularly important in this regard. His excellent close control in tight spaces, coupled with his ability to fool opposing players with disguised intentions, consistently leads to increased levels of separation within the opponent’s structure.
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 necessarily 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.
These subtle ‘decoy’ movements are a common feature of the midfielder’s game. He also uses them when in possession of the ball, dribbling away from the central space before passing to a teammate who can progress towards goal.
The second clip shows him doing exactly that. 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 a teammate to exploit. De Ligt arrives to carry the play through the gap, before firing home from long-range.
Creating these spaces isn’t the only element required to execute Ten Hag’s system, of course. 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 open up.
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.
As we saw earlier, playing bounce passes can be a great way to draw more pressure in central areas, freeing up space on the outside. The 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. More space should now exist in the wide areas. Meanwhile, 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, additional players 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, keeping 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.
Against more well-organised and defensively resilient teams, Ajax will sometimes have to pull out all their tricks in search of openings. But the same basic understanding remains; use the ball and dynamic movement to attract the opponents and create gaps within their structure.
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 shown 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. The opponents are adept at retaining compaction, 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.
As we’ve seen throughout this piece, the Ajax players have a total understanding of how to create and exploit pressure, drawing opponents one way in order to free up space elsewhere. This not only helps them to create better conditions for progression against reactive low-blocks, but can also be used to good effect in the transition from defence to attack.
On the rare occasions where the opponents have progressed into their own established attack, Ajax can also generally be regarded as a proactive team without the ball. They direct the play down the sides before pressing in numbers. Once this has resulted in a turnover, they will often try to play through any counter-pressure that might follow.
Instead of clearing the danger, or even looking for an attacking outlet further forward, they regularly aim to keep possession in the congested space. This usually increases the amount of counter-pressure the opponents apply, opening up more space further forward.
In the example below, Ajax recover possession in their own half, before calmly retaining the ball in a tight space close to the touchline. Ziyech drops deeper to aid the retention, drawing out his opposing right-back in the process. The Moroccan combines quickly with Blind, before spinning off to exploit the space behind his marker.
Overall, Ajax show a deep appreciation for space and time. They use intelligent possession and positional play to manipulate their opponents with ease, opening up gaps through which they can progress the attack. The list below summarises the strategies used;
- 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 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. etc
- Further maximise the use of space and time with positional structures such as ‘Rondos’ and ‘Zig-Zags’. In congested spaces; one and two-touch passing to allow opponents no time for dispossession.
Receiving & Passing principles
Throughout the previous sections, we saw how structural, movement, and possession principles can be used to create space-time, free players, and forward passing lines/chains. Ten Hag’s side also display an excellent understanding of how intelligent receiving and passing principles can be used to further support progress towards the opponent’s goal.
Ajax’ players consistently scan the space around them before receiving. This often allows them to make decisions ahead of time, aiding 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, generally speaking, when receiving on the half-turn, the first touch should 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. 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 principles 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 clamoring for his signature.
Whatever the future holds, Ten Hag has the potential to follow in the footsteps of his role models and become the next great reference point for coaches across the globe.