The first Eredivisie topper of Super January culminated in an interesting football fight on Sunday, without a winner (2-2). What were the plans of Erik ten Hag and Roger Schmidt and how did this work out during the game?
By Evert van Zoelen
Advantages and disadvantages of Ajax tacticHow does Ajax capture the outermost midfielders of PSV? That was the biggest tactical question before kick-off. Cody Gakpo and Mohamed Ihattaren often travel to the center, allowing them to make life miserable for opponents. Ajax often defends from couples at the same time. If the outdoor players of PSV are followed, it may happen that the defenders of Ajax come out of position.
The plan Ten Hag came up with on this: putting Zakaria Labyad at the tip of the attack. Defensively, he dropped a line back to cover his opponents Pablo Rosario and Ibrahim Sangaré together with Quincy Promes. As a result, Davy Klaassen and Ryan Gravenberch were released to receive Gakpo and Ihattaren.
Ajax plays with four couples on the midfield. Source: ESPN.
The front two Ajax players, Dusan Tadic and Antony, hit the central defenders of PSV through the back. In this way they were able to put pressure on the central duo, while trying to cover the pass line to the back. The back of Ajax stepped on the back of PSV when the Eindhovenaren managed to reach Philipp Max or Denzel Dumfries.
The back of Ajax continues on the back of PSV. Source: ESPN.
With this way of defending, Ajax created one-on-one duels everywhere on the field. This had advantages and disadvantages for the people of Amsterdam. On the one hand, Ajax managed to get so constant pressure on the ball. PSV had to handle the long ball more often than usual and, perhaps most importantly, the backs of PSV were reduced. Tadic and Antony were able to stay in front, making it very risky for Max and Dumfries to make walking actions forward. Add to that the messy possessions of PSV and it explains why we didn‘t see a player like Max on half of Ajax.
On the other hand, this tactic also has disadvantages for Ajax. The midfielders all followed their direct opponent, which often left the center open. In addition, Perr Schuurs and Daley Blind became involved in direct duels with Donyell Malen and Eran Zahavi, without an extra player to cover their backs.
Early in the competition, the disadvantages of this system came to the surface. All midfielders of Ajax moved along with their direct opponent, leaving the center open. Schuurs and Blind came two-on-two with Malen and Zahavi, after which Malen put the Israeli for Andre Onana with a brilliant ball: 0-1.
Moment of the 0-1: Ajax midfielders walk along with their direct opponent, after which the center opens and the central duo of Ajax has no back cover. Source: ESPN.
PSV keeps lines short on each otherAfter the 0-1 is Ajax had the ball possession, but PSV remained the parent team. The Eindhovenaren withdrew on their own half to a 4-4-2 formation and managed to cover the centre completely. Unlike Ajax, PSV defended precisely from zones. Rosario and Sangaré were mainly focused on keeping the pass lines through the city centre closed.
At vulnerable moments PSV did put a lot of pressure, and then try to get out of it via the switchover. Malen was particularly keen: he constantly tried to enter the space behind Noussair Mazraoui and Schuurs.
Just before the 0-2, Mazraoui decided to play a straight ball on Antony. The Brazilian stood with a man in his back and had no play, because PSV created an overnumber around the ball. After the interception of Sangaré Malen was immediately sent away, after which Zahavi could shoot into the 0-2.
PSV has an overset around the ball at the moment Mazraoui Antony plays in. Source: ESPN.
Ajax takes matters in Handenna the 0-2 was it Ajax that attracted the game more and more to itself. The Amsterdammers had difficulty playing through the busy centre, but through the wings the space was often found. The pattern that often came back was that the outdoor player moved inward and took the back of PSV, after which the back of Ajax went deep on the side and received the ball.
Especially on the right side, Ajax was dangerous with this. Antony was Max constantly the boss in one-on-one duels and the defensive alignment between the German and Ihattaren wasn’t always perfect. Several times we saw Mazraoui rise on the right side, after which a stroke followed.
In the center, Promes was often the free player, but he had visibly difficulty choosing the right positions to be released. When he could be played, the central defenders of Ajax did not dare to pass the pass between the lines, not even Blind. However, Promes was in the right place to shoot in the 1-2 for rest.
Promes is often thefree player on the Ajax midfield. Source: ESPN.
Ten Hag‘s conversion after RustNA rest put Ten Hag some things into. Record purchase Sébastien Haller joined the team for Labyad, which brought Ajax back to play with a real striker. That’s where the players around Haller reaped the benefits. Now it was defensive Antony and Haller who put pressure on the central defenders of PSV. On the left, Tadic fell along with Dumfries, which allowed Nicolás Tagliafico to offer more support to the central duo.
Tadic collapses with Dumfries in the second half. Source: ESPN.
PSV doesn‘t hold the weather where Ajax started playing better during the match and made the 2-2 pretty quickly, PSV dropped further and further away. As we often saw in the first half of the season, the Eindhovenaren were unable to maintain the playing style twice for 45 minutes. In the second half PSV also undertook offensive very little. And also the pressure on the ball became less and less, making Ajax easier to play through the block of PSV.
In the end, PSV was lucky that it didn’t turn 3-2. In Rotterdam and Arnhem people will have watched happily. At the beginning of Super January, PSV and Ajax immediately left both points, so both Feyenoord and Vitesse have the lead position in their sights.