The final match of Group E in this season’s Champions League was for all intents and purposes a dead rubber, with both Ajax and Bayern Munich having already qualified for the knockout stages before their meeting in Amsterdam. Still, it paired together two sides who won consecutive hat-tricks of European Cups between 1971 and 1976 and, thrillingly, produced a 3-3 draw. It also demonstrated what many already know: that Ajax boast one of the most exciting young teams in Europe and, under coach Erik ten Hag, who took over just under a year ago, also one of the most exciting coaches.
As a coach, ten Hag exceeded expectations at FC Utrecht, but it’s perhaps his time working under Pep Guardiola as Bayern’s reserves coach that has most shaped him. Ajax play with an emphasis on possession, pressing, and movement between the lines that certainly show the Guardiola imprint – ten Hag has also shown imagination in the way he sets him team up, and lets them play. They’ve dominated possession in the Eredivisie – they also have the best passing accuracy and take more shots per game than any other side in the league.
Ajax have lined up in a sort of 4-2-3-1 this season, but it can also look like a very staggered 4-3-3. The side like to build from the back, taking two different approaches depending on how much they are pressed by the opposition. In both strategies, though, the midfielder Frenkie de Jong is crucial.
If Ajax are being pressed high, de Jong tends to drop into the back three but on the left hand side, with first choice centre-backs Daley Blind central and Matthias de Ligt on the right. A central midfielder, either Lasse Schone or Zakaria Labyad, will drop back to create a shifting rhombus of passing options.
The full backs push high, while the wide attacking midfielders drop into the half spaces flanking the more advanced central midfielder, usually Donny van de Beek. Ajax try to keep the ball and push up from the back unless vertical movement within the midfield allows them to find space, or de Jong is able to drive forwards from the left cente back position and break the press with his ball carrying.
If Ajax are not being pressed high, de Jong drops centrally and creates a triangle with the two centre backs and they progress the ball between them, with excellent goalkeeper Andre Onana also an option. The movement ahead is similar and, again, de Jong is always an option to break forwards with his dribbling and ability to carry the ball.
Both Ajax’s centre backs are comfortable on the ball. In the tradition of Total Football’s use of the spare centre back as an auxiliary midfielder to overwhelm an opposition midfield two or three, either Blind or de Ligt will often push up, leaving the other spare as a sweeper. Both are comfortable carrying the ball and this sometimes gives Ajax a kind of 1-2-3-4 shape, with the full backs tucking in or advanced and the wide attackers either high and wide or dropping in.
In attack, Ajax push van de Beek high, but how he plays depends on whether Klaas-Jan Huntelaar or Kasper Dolberg play. Huntelaar is less mobile, more of a focal point to get on to crosses and chase through balls, while Dolberg drops off more, allowing van de Beek to run beyond him and offer an additional attacking threat from deep.
The wide players are superb: in David Neres, Dusan Tadic, and Hakim Ziyech, Ajax have three players for two berths, all of whom are creative playmakers who can also score goals. Tadic likes to drop in and direct play from slightly deeper, allowing left back Nicolas Tagliafico to push very high, and playing passes across for Neres or Ziyech to run onto. Neres tends to stay a bit wider to use his explosive pace and dribbling, while Ziyech poses a huge threat cutting inside onto his left foot.
Tagliafico and right back Noussair Mazraoui move high or push up and in, depending on whether the wide attackers have dropped in or stayed wide. It’s clear that the concept of creating passing triangles and generating superiority through a spare man are part of the ten Hag way. This is especially clear on the left, where de Jong tucks in behind Tadic and Tagliafico, but it happens on the right too. It’s one of the clear ways that Guardiola has influenced his former colleague.
Defensively, Ajax press where possible, triggered by loose touches or balls played towards the side lines. The front three try to cover passing lanes as they run back, while the central midfielders harry and snap in to tackles. Ajax can be vulnerable to counters because they defend so high and sometimes with the sweeping defender on his own – if the opposition can bypass the initial press, Ajax can be caught out especially as the full backs push up to provide width.
Nonetheless, this weakness aside, and it’s only a weakness that stems from their desire to attack and control possession in the opposition half, Ajax are a great side to watch who play a tactically interesting style of football. While Guardiola’s influence on ten Hag is clear – the pressing, the build-up out wide, the tactical fluidity and positional use of the defensive midfielder – the Dutch coach is making a statement in his own right. The last time Ajax were in the Champions League Group Stages was 2014/15 – the last the time they progressed from the Groups was in 2004/05. Ajax are through already – the question now is how far ten Hag and his vibrant young team can go.