Ajax – Liverpool: Ten Hag’s Gameplan Narrowly Falls Short (0-1)
Ajax made some tweaks to their usual system to deal with the threat posed by Liverpool. Their 4-3-1-2 arrangement against the ball was fairly successful in limiting Liverpool’s attack, but they conceded through an unfortunate Nicolás Tagliafico own goal. Going forward, Ajax were much more direct than usual, and the quality of attacking game deteriorated somewhat as the game went on, despite getting more of the ball. In the end, they were unable to find the breakthrough they needed, and Liverpool took the win.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
Two of Europe’s most historic clubs met in Amsterdam on the opening matchday of this season’s Champions League campaign. Erik ten Hag’s side have begun the season with three wins from four Eredivisie games. The transfer window saw them lose key players in the form of Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech, but any disappointment has been offset somewhat by the encouraging form of young summer signing Mohammed Kudus from FC Nordsjælland, who has contributed a goal and three assists in his first three appearances for the club.
Liverpool’s start to the season seemed to be going very well as they won a potentially tough first three Premier League games against Leeds, Chelsea and Arsenal. Then, before the international break, Jürgen Klopp’s side fell to a rather ridiculous 7-2 defeat at Villa Park, before being held to a draw in last weekend’s Merseyside Derby at Goodison Park. Worse than the result for Liverpool was the serious injury to Virgil van Dijk, which sees him likely to be side-lined for the rest of the season.
For this game, ten Hag switched away from Ajax’s usual 4-2-3-1 system and instead lined his team up in a 4-3-1-2 shape to start the match. Daley Blind played at the base of midfield, with Davy Klaassen and Ryan Gravenberch ahead of him. Kudus started as the number ten, with David Neres and Dušan Tadić as the forwards. One could also call this shape a 4-3-3 with a false nine; A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. we’ll leave that one for those in love with semantics.
In the absence of Liverpool’s key man at the center of defense, Fabinho was the player to partner Joe Gomez at center-back. In midfield, Georginio Wijnaldum played as the deepest midfielder in their 4-3-3 system, with Curtis Jones and James Milner either side of him. Up front was the usual super trio of Mohamed Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mané.
Ajax’s adapted defensive scheme
The home side’s approach in this match was perhaps not what one might expect from Ajax. This was firstly seen in the defensive strategy, in which Ajax mostly played in their own half with a fairly low defensive line, and with a shape specifically adapted to that of the opponent.
Liverpool in possession against Ajax’s 4-3-1-2 shape.
The number ten in this system at the start of the game was Kudus, however he was forced off through injury before ten minutes. He was replaced by Quincy Promes, and Tadić moved into the number ten role. Ajax’s shape could just as easily be denoted as a narrow 4-3-3 arrangement, but it will be described as a 4-3-1-2 formation here, because of the role of the number ten, who was tasked with shadowing Liverpool’s holding midfielder Wijnaldum.
When Ajax pressed, Neres and Promes would approach the Liverpool center-backs from outside, adjusting their runs to try and prevent the first pass from going to Liverpool’s fullbacks, as these were the zones with least cover from Ajax’s system.
This was somewhat effective, although the service to the fullbacks could not be prevented altogether. When the ball did reach the Liverpool fullbacks, it was often the job of Ajax’ own fullbacks Noussair Mazraoui and Nicolás Tagliafico to close them down, while the paths to play inside were squeezed by Ajax’s midfield and the backwards pressing of the forwards.
This was somewhat bold in the sense that when Ajax’s fullbacks went out to press, this left the center-backs with the responsibility of dealing with Salah and Mané in the channels, where they could end up in one-versus-one situations against Liverpool’s dangerous forwards.
This occurred more for Perr Schuurs on Ajax’s right, where he found himself dragged into wide areas to confront Mané. Generally, he dealt with this well despite the risk of being outplayed by Mané’s speed and skill.
The one time where Schuurs was beaten by Mané was in the buildup to Liverpool’s goal, where the Liverpool attacker managed to turn him after receiving with his back to goal, before cutting inside to shoot. Mané’s shot was poorly struck but ended up hitting Tagliafico before the fullback could move his feet, and the ball deflected past André Onana to put Liverpool 1-0 up.
Another interesting aspect of the Ajax system was that Blind had been seemingly instructed to man-mark Firmino where possible. This led to some flexibility in Ajax’s shape whereby they could form a temporary back five if Blind was dragged deeper by Firmino.
Uncharacteristically direct Ajax
Under Ten Hag, Ajax have been known and appreciated by many for their flexible possession game focussed on small-scale combination play and excellent use of third man runs. In this match, this was sporadically visible, especially closer to Liverpool’s penalty area where some slick football was played occasionally. However, they were also a lot more direct in their buildup, going direct to Tadić on many occasions.
Starting from their aforementioned 4-3-1-2 shape, there was often a bit of asymmetry in the way the central midfielders Klaasen and Gravenberch played. Klaassen would operate slightly deeper, sometimes dropping to form a double pivot Two central midfielders next to each other. with Blind, while Gravenberch often played further forward, getting close to the front three.
Ajax in possession.
When they had those scenes with Klaassen deeper and Gravenberch pushed forward, they could often form 4-2-2-2 structures, the likes of which have seen some success against Liverpool’s pressing system in the past.
In this circumstance, Gravenberch and Tadić were the two attacking midfielders, while Neres and Promes looked to exploit depth with runs into the channels between Liverpool’s fullbacks and center-backs.
These runs were essentially one of Ajax’s main attacking outlets. They often looked to play over the Liverpool press with long passes in behind the defense for Neres and Promes to run onto. Tadić could also get involved in supplying these runs, as he did for one of Ajax’s better chances in the first half, before his lob over Adrián was cleared off the line by Fabinho. The other main chance Ajax had was Promes’ point blank effort which was saved by Adrián, although it’s unclear whether VAR may have ruled Promes offside if the ball had indeed gone in.
Ajax fade in second half
Klopp made use of the continued allowance of five substitutes in the Champions League within fifteen minutes of the second half beginning. Firstly, Jones was replaced by Jordan Henderson during the break, which saw Wijnaldum pushed forward slightly as Henderson took up the deeper midfield role. Then just before the hour mark, Klopp made a triple substitution, replacing all of his front three as Xherdan Shaqiri, Takumi Minamino and Diogo Jota replaced Salah, Firmino and Mane respectively.
As the second half progressed, Ajax’s possession share increased, and Liverpool increasingly played closer to their own goal to protect their lead, which made it harder for Ajax to use the space in behind the defense as they wanted to do. Although Ten Hag’s adapted game plan had worked to a satisfactory level in the first half, it was lacking in cutting edge when it was required to break down Liverpool’s own defensive scheme in the second half.
Ajax’s performance level essentially dropped as the game went on. With just over fifteen minutes left, Ten Hag made his first changes, bringing on Jurgen Ekkelenkamp and Zakaria Labyad for Klaassen and Neres. These changes did not make much positive impact, especially questionable was the decision to bring in Labyad in place of a player with Neres’ attacking flair and runs behind the defense, though it must be said Neres is on the way back from a heavy knee injury and has not played a full match since November 2019.
Ten minutes later, Ten Hag decided to go all in to try and get a goal back. Schuurs and Blind were sacrificed for two strikers, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Lassina Traoré. Ajax now nominally played with a back three and committed a high number of players forward. However, they were often reliant on hopeful long passes and crosses, to make high quality entries into Liverpool’s defensive block.
If anything, Liverpool were the more likely team to score in the closing stages with their counterattacking threat. Eventually they saw the game out to walk away with the 1-0 win.
Ajax set out a gameplan designed to play against Liverpool’s system, with some calculated risks included. Overall, it was fairly effective in limiting the away side’s attacking output, and they were rather unfortunate to concede in the way that they did. With possession, it was not the most positive or ambitious plan, nor one which gave them too much stability with the ball, although it had promise in exposing the space behind Liverpool’s defense in the first half. In general, as the game progressed, there was a decline in the appropriateness of the gameplan for the situation, as well as the quality with which it was executed.
For Liverpool, it’s not the most spectacular result or performance. However, considering their away form in recent Champions League group stages, plus the negative events of the last couple of weeks, bringing three points home from the Johan Cruijff Arena is just what Klopp’s side needed.
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