Written by Liam Lam
Last week, Ajax hosted PSV Eindhoven at the Johan Cruyff Stadium for the first time this season. Before the game, Ajax was sitting at the top of the league with one-point lead ahead of PSV , while PSV was in an excellent form where they won all past five games (cup games included). Both teams are very attacking-minded and love scoring goals, especially Ajax who scored 52 goals in 14 games. The De Topper rivalries did not disappoint us. Although they ended up with a draw, they brought us an exciting game to watch.
This tactical analysis will explain how Roger Schmidt set PSV up defensively to disrupt Ajax’s build-up and their attacking transition to gain their lead. We will take a look into the importance of Daley Blind in Ajax’s build-up play. We will talk about their counter-pressing and the immediate impact of the new signing, Sebastien Haller.
Ajax put 4-2-3-1 on the paper, which they slightly changed their starting line-up. Starting from the back, Nicolas Tagliafico was on the left, Blind and Perr Schuurs were at the centre, and Noussair Mazraoui, who was back to the starting eleven after missing four games due to injury, was on the right. In the midfield, Ryan Gravenberch and Davy Klaassen were deployed as a double pivot in front of the defensive line, D. Tadic and Antony were at the wide-area and Quincey Promes was deployed behind the striker, Zakaria Labyad who replaced Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was at the front.
The visitor team was playing their usual formation, 4-2-2-2 but with a slight change in the starting eleven. They played their usual back four with Philipp Max on the left, Olivier Boscagli and Jordan Teze at the centre and Denzel Dumfries on the right. Pablo Rosario and Ibrahim Sangaré were sat to protect the back-line. Cody Gakpo was on the right as a wide midfielder to replace Mario Götze who missed the game due to injury while Mohamed Ihattaren was on the left. Eran Zahavi was playing up front with Donyell Malen.
PSV defensive setup
In the early stage of the game, PSV did not press high up in the pitch. Instead, they started their defence near the midfield area with a 4-4-2 mid-block. They could only mildly pressed Ajax with a ball-oriented way and zonal marking as Ajax switched to three at the back by either dropping one of the centre-midfielder or the right full-back. It was hard for PSV’s forwards to press them. In this case, the forwards were trying to force Ajax to go wide by utilising their cover-shadow to block the passing options in the middle. Once Ajax passed it to the wide, they would then try to press more aggressive since there were less passing options on the side. If Ajax passed the ball through the centre to either Gravenberch or Klaassen, PSV would send Sangare or Rosario to press them immediately to stop them turning forward to progress the ball and to force them to make a negative/backward pass.
Apart from that, PSV did very well by pressing high up in the pitch. The way they defended was quite similar to what they did in the mid-block. The below example shows how they pressed effectively which helped them to extend their lead. We could see PSV had a four-upfront to match the number of Ajax’s defenders but they started to defend narrowly in the centre of the pitch by compressing the spaces of the double pivot of Ajax’s centre-midfielder. Whenever Ajax attempted to pass the ball to either Gravenberch or Klaassen in the centre, they would be pressed aggressively by Sangare or Rosario.
This could force Ajax to pass the ball to their full-backs and it would trigger the wide midfielder of PSV to go out and press them. Since the centre area was mostly blocked by PSV’s players, Ajax’s full-backs could only pass the ball to the players who dropped deep to provide options or to clear the ball forward. This could provide a clear target for PSV to press aggressively and increase the chances of Ajax’s players making mistakes.
PSV’s quick attacking transition
Schmidt’s PSV focuses a lot in their attacking transition phase where they prefer a quick and direct way to move the ball forward. As mentioned above, they tends to press on the wide-area of the pitch or near the half-spaces area outside their box. When they have successfully won the ball back, they would try to create a rhombus to maximise the passing options for their teammates.
We could use the below example to demonstrate it. PSV’s centre back, Boscagli recovered the ball on the left side. Two passing options, offered by the Rosario and Malen, were coming close to his both sides. These options pulled the oppositions aside which created spaces for Boscagli to make a vertical pass to the front. Once the passing lane appeared, their wide midfielder, Ihattaren dropped into the half-spaces area to receive the pass. The player who drops deep would act as a third man or an outlet to facilitate the attack. When he gets the ball, he would attract the opposition’s attention which could free his teammates up. He could then pass to his teammates who are making runs. Such attacking movements and passes are more penetrative and direct that allows PSV to have a quicker attacking transition.
Both goals of PSV were a result of using their forwards as the third man or outlet to make the goal happened. For the first goal, Boscagli had two vertical passing options available for him, Zahavi and Malen. Boscagli made a pass to Malen and Malen made a first-touch pass to the back of the defensive line for Zahavi, who was making run to the back. One of the important things in this goal was Boscagli’s body orientation. He was facing Zahavi but he made the pass to Malen. This pass drew Schuurs out of his position and let Zahavi cut in.
For the second goal, after they regained the ball with their press on the left side, Sangare did not pass to the nearby options but made a forward pass to Zahavi instead. Zahavi attracted the Blind to close him down and opened up spaces behind for Malen to run into.
Counter-pressing of Ajax
Since PSV was focusing on the attacking transition phase, Ajax relied on counter-pressing to stop PSV from progressing the ball quickly. Ajax likes to overload a certain area in their attacking or build-up phase which allows their players to stay close. If they lost the ball during the attack, they could immediately close down the area and the ball carrier to minimise the ball carrier’s spaces and limit his options. They are trying to give less time for the opposition to make their decision. This could stop them from progressing the ball or even recover the possession.
The below picture shows Ajax was dispossessed and the ball was at the Teze. Two of the nearest Ajax’s players immediately press towards Teze to close him and the area down. Their movement limited Teze’s passing options to the only one which is in front of him. Blind read the situation well and he pushed forward to press aggressively at Gakpo’s back, who was receiving the pass. The other nearby players of Ajax pressed towards Gakpo as well. Ajax did not counter-press too well in the early stage of the game and let PSV gained an advantage from it. In the second half, Ajax improved in their counter-pressing and was able to level the game.
The below example shows Ihattaren regained possession on the right, but he was surrounded by three Ajax’s players. They did not close Ihattaren down but blocked all the nearby passing options. They then shepherded him to dribble to the sideline and trapped him. Ihattaren tried to turn and pass the ball to the centre but it was intercepted by one of the three Ajax’s players easily.
Both of Ajax’s goals were happened because of their counter-pressing. For the first goal, Dumfries dispossessed Gravenberch at the edge of the box. The nearby Ajax’s player, Tagliafico, pressed and tackled towards Dumfries to stop Dumfries from progressing or clear the ball forward. To secure the ball back, Klaassen and Labyad continued to run to retrieve the loose ball.
For the second goal, Dumfries retrieved the ball in their box but he was facing their byline. Tadic pressed to stop him from turning and forced him to go wide while Promes marked the nearest passing options. He could then clear the ball forward. However, there were three players in a deeper position waiting for the second ball and preparing to counter-press. Ajax sent 6 players to overload the corner area, making sure that they could stop PSV from counter-attacking.
The importance of Daley Blind in Ajax build-up play
Ajax was known for their build-up play at the back. When they proceed the ball into the middle third, they would either drop one of the centre-midfielders or Mazraoui tugging in to form three at the back. The three of them would spread wide at the back and this allowed them to have a numerical superiority when facing the two forwards of PSV which increased the difficulty for PSV to press. The picture below shows Blind was on the left side, which could let Tagliafico push forward and Tadic could move into the half-space area to provide passing options. Blind had a better angle to make forward pass in this setup.
The passing ability of Blind was excellent that he could find his teammates even in a very tight spot. His body orientation could deceive the oppositions and open up spaces for him to pass. He could also dribble the ball forward by himself to create chances. He read the game so well that he could always position himself to protect and cover his teammates up front.
The immediate impact of Sebastien Haller
Despite joining for less than 5 days in Amsterdam, Haller was substituted in during half time, his debut game for Ajax. His physical presence in the pitch provided a new dimension for Ajax when they were building up from the back and attacking options. Below example shows Ajax was being pressed at the back and Schuurs made a long pass to the right side for Haller. Haller’s dropped deep to contest for the ball. His movement drew the centre-back of PSV out and created spaces for his teammates to run into. He could head the ball to his teammates or slip it to the spaces created by him. He won 5 out of 8 of the aerial duels in this game.
He could hold off the defender and protect the ball well with his physicality and technical ability and, at the same time, spot his teammates to make a pass. He provided the assist for the second goal. Below shows he was receiving the ball in the box while holding off the centre-back. He was surrounded by 3 players but could still make a pass to Antony to score the goal.
Both teams came up with a clear plan before the game. PSV executed their plan well with a solid pressing which stopped Ajax from building up and a quick attacking transition phase in the first half, but Ajax responded quickly after the half time team-talk by improving their counter-pressing and bringing Haller into the game. The pace of this game was so fast where both teams were trying to find ways to attack. However, both teams have to increase their resistance of pressing in their half as there are signs in this game showing that they are mistake-prone when being pressed.