Ajax – Juventus: Ajax Fail To Fully Capitalize On Their Tactical Superiority (1-1)
Ajax dominated large portions of the game thanks to their mastery with and without the ball. If their final pass would have been slightly better, they might have blown Juventus away. Instead, Cristiano Ronaldo kept the game alive and put his team in front before Ajax equalized.
Tactical analysis and match report by Om Arvind.
Ajax have always been a competitive side in Dutch football, a feat that stretches back as far as memory serves, but it has been sixteen years since they last made waves in Europe. Beating holders Real Madrid in early March changed all of that, making Ajax a legitimate dark horse for the 2018/19 edition of the UEFA Champions League.
Manager Erik ten Hag has implemented a Cruyffian style of play this season. Ajax’s players are stocked to the brim with technical ability and athleticism, allowing them to dominate possession, string together sequences of passing genius and maintain defensive solidity. Every player in the team is expected to attack and defend and everyone has the ability to do so.
Perhaps slightly unfairly, Massimiliano Allegri and Juventus’ run to the Champions League quarter-finals has not been perceived in the same fashion. Sides from Italy are almost uniformly viewed as “grind it out” teams thanks to the history of catenaccio – the most anti-Cruyffian style of football if there ever was one.
Contrary to the narrative, Juventus are a bit more dynamic than that. It is certainly true that Allegri has cautious instincts, but he has demonstrated multiple times that he can do a lot more than just “park the bus.” The round of sixteen second leg against Atlético Madrid was a great example of this.
In that specific game, Allegri switched to a back three with Emre Can, enabling cleaner ball progression and greater width. From that basic platform, he ensured that passes were funneled into his wing-backs so that a measured crossing system could exploit Cristiano Ronaldo’s and Mario Mandžukić’s abilities in the box. The result was a three-goal comeback.
Not needing to be so aggressive for the first leg against Ajax, Allegri went back to something more traditional – his 4-3-3 formation. Most regulars made the eleven, such as João Cancelo, Alex Sandro, and Miralem Pjanić, but Daniele Rugani replaced Giorgio Chiellini due to injury.
Erik ten Hag, who has had little reason to doubt his system for most of the season, stuck with his nominal 4-2-3-1 shape. He also started almost every single player that knocked out Real Madrid, missing only right back Noussair Mazraoui due to suspension.
Ajax’s pressing smothers Juventus after some testy opening minutes
After a couple of minutes – which saw both Juventus and Ajax get off a single shot from range – the high press that so thoroughly dismantled Real Madrid came into full effect.
Ajax’s patented high press asphyxiating Juventus’ buildup
It started off in a 4-2-3-1 structure, with Lasse Schöne, Frenkie de Jong, and Donny van de Beek marking Juventus’ midfield man-to-man. Striker Dušan Tadić would position himself slightly ahead of, and between, Leonardo Bonucci and Rugani, while Hakim Ziyech and David Neres replicated Tadić’s ambiguous positioning between Juventus’ fullbacks and center-backs.
When Juventus passed to the wing or one of Bonucci and Rugani looked to make a foray forward, Tadić closed in on the relevant center-back. The near side winger reacted by tightly marking the fullback closest to the ball. In order to guard against a switch of play, the far side winger would join Tadić up front by marking the remaining central defender.
The compression of the playing space and, first and foremost, the intensity of the press made proceedings a nightmare for Juventus. Before the receiving player could look up and take in his surroundings, he was heavily hounded and all his passing options were cut off.
Ajax’s counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. made things even tougher for Juventus. This was enabled by Ten Hag’s organized 2-2-5-1 / 2-2-6 attacking structure. Fullbacks Joël Veltman and Nicolás Tagliafico kept the width, wingers Neres and Ziyech occupied the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. and Tadić and Van De Beek roamed through central areas. Thus, whenever Ajax lost the ball, the attacking players were already in position and well-spaced enough to immediately apply pressure in a cohesive fashion.
Ajax fail to make their dominance pay and Ronaldo makes his impact
Juventus were rarely able to counterattack against this kind of scheme – the one exception resulting from a poor pass from Veltman, which was mopped up by an incredible sprint by Frenkie De Jong. This put Ajax in the perfect position to threaten Juventus’ goal, but they were unable to create good shots consistently.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying, mind you, as Ajax’s attacking play was gorgeous. Their neatly spaced offense allowed them to create triangles down the wings, where Neres and Ziyech dazzled with their close control and dribbling. However, every time Ajax looked close to making a breakthrough, Juventus’ defenders were able to execute last-ditch interventions. There was also the fact that Ziyech took on shots too early and from too far out, possibly killing moves before they could develop.
Consequently, Ajax managed only one shot in the box in the first half, when Van De Beek sent a effort just wide of the post, struck with his weaker left foot.
Ronaldo made Ajax pay for their inefficiency. In the first 45 minutes, he was one of the few players effectively using his movement to help Juventus move up the field. He dropped into deep pockets, quickly played wall passes, A one-touch pass that quickly sends the ball back to sender. In the meantime the sender has quickly moved into free space, and he momentarily escapes pressure. and sprinted into free space. His actions would have been more effective had Mandžukić helped out, but the Croatian is much more accustomed to playing as a target man and was thus a true non-factor in this game.
Regardless, Ronaldo got his reward at the end of the first half, when he received the ball between the lines after a throw-in, sprayed a pass out wide, and charged into the box to convert a free header.
Ajax respond instantly and become even more dominant
Before the fans could get sit down for the second period of play, Ajax scored the equalizer. It came off of a long ball from the back, which fell to Cancelo. The fullback miscontrolled the ball and Neres capitalized, stealing possession and zooming off toward goal. For a second, it looked like Cancelo had recovered, until Neres calmly shifted the ball inside and curled a shot past Wojciech Szczęsny, equalizing the game within thirty seconds of play.
Juventus tried to stem the oncoming onslaught with the renewed application of a high press, something they had been toying with all game.
Juventus’ asymmetric high press versus Ajax’s buildup
In the first half, it had been a man-to-man system with a variety of combinations up front. Sometimes Mandžukić would mark de Jong, who dropped between Daley Blind and Matthijs de Ligt, and other times it would be Blaise Matuidi or Rodrigo Bentancur. In the second half, the responsibility of marking de Jong mainly fell on the shoulders of Juventus’ central midfielders. This created an asymmetric look to the press, but it helped slow Ajax’s progression to the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. where Juventus morphed into a 4-4-2 defensive structure.
Nevertheless, Juventus’ issues against Ajax’s pressing and counterpressing remained, prompting Allegri into an early substitution. In the 60th minute, he subbed off Mandžukić for Douglas Costa, hoping to create an extra attacking outlet. Unfortunately for Allegri, it was at this time that Ajax decided to take it up a gear and play their best football.
Schöne, whose movements as a roaming number six were difficult enough to track already, began to lose his man and get on the ball. This helped Ajax cut their opponent’s press apart and quickly flood forward in transition. Juventus struggled to reorganize themselves into their 4-4-2 block and got battered down the wings, forcing last-ditch defending to save them once again.
Allegri makes a smart substitution and plays for the draw
From minute 63 to 70, Ajax managed six shots, before Allegri called off the high press and made another substitution; Paulo Dybala for Matuidi. Juventus’ defensive organization got better as a result – the Bianconeri only allowed three shots for the rest of the game – and the introduction of Dybala helped Juventus’ ball progression.
Though Dybala himself did not make that much of an impact, his presence up front shifted Costa out wide, where the winger dribbled past players with ease and struck the woodwork in the 84th minute.
That was all the threat Juventus provided in the second half, however, as Allegri seemed content with the draw. In stoppage time, a shot by Tadić with his toes was blocked, and as the resulting corner kick was fruitless, the game ended in a 1-1 draw.
Daley Blind was the only outfield Ajax player that did *not* have a shot vs. Juventus:
7 x Ziyech
3 x Veltman
2 x Scöne
1 x Ekkelenkamp
1 x Van de Beek
1 x Tagliafico
1 x De Jong
1 x De Ligt
1 x Neres
1 x Tadić
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 10, 2019
Ajax will be disappointed despite outplaying their opponents for most of the game. For all their tactical cohesion, brilliant passing patterns, and pressing, they created few clear-cut chances and left Ronaldo unmarked on the opener. Allegri will learn from this leg and will likely devise a better tactical scheme for their game in Italy, where Juventus tend to be more attacking and more dangerous. Due to those two facts, one cannot help but feel that Ajax missed a big opportunity to put themselves in the driver’s seat of this tie.
Allegri is probably happy with the draw despite the fact that the reaction among Juventus supporters has been more mixed. Though Allegri is an excellent tactician, there is no guarantee he makes all the right changes for the second leg. Hence, it is a worry that Juventus looked so incapable of producing offense outside of Ronaldo and a couple of runs from Bernardeschi, Bentancur, and Costa. While Ajax are still at a disadvantage based on the scoreline, you would be a fool to count them out of reaching the Champions League semi-finals.
Match plots will be added to the article later.
117 – Frenkie de Jong (21 years, 333 days) is the youngest player with at least 117 touches in a Champions League game from the quarter-finals onwards since Sergio Busquets in 2010 v Inter. DNA. pic.twitter.com/GhSjCzwkUI
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) April 10, 2019