With their comeback victory over Beşiktaş in İstanbul, Ajax did something they had failed to do since 1995 – win their Champions League group.
They created history three weeks ago when their 3-1 success against Borussia Dortmund meant that they were the first Dutch side to win each of their first four games in the competition.
This has been a brilliant Champions League group stage campaign for Ajax, and easily among their best-ever given all the records they have broken.
At a time where most of Europe’s historic clubs such as Barcelona, Milan, Manchester United and Real Madrid are operating at a sub-standard level, de Godenzonen are enjoying the best of times.
Their manager, Erik ten Hag, is also being touted as one of the best tacticians around at the moment, so let us take a closer look at how he has set his side up for such success.
First of all, we need to understand the formations and personnel the 51-year-old Dutchman favours. Ajax have lined up in a 4-2-3-1 in each of their Champions League games this season, and these are the players who he has deployed:
In possession, Ajax’s shape changes quite a lot as it transitions into a lopsided 3-3-4 of sorts, with Edson Álvarez dropping deep and splitting the centre-backs, Noussair Mazraoui moving infield towards the right half-space as Antony holds the width on the side, Daley Blind getting moderately forward on the left, and Dušan Tadić and Steven Berghuis operating on either side of Sébastien Haller, with the latter slightly deeper.
With an average of 61.4% possession in the Champions League so far this season (the fourth-best figure behind only Chelsea, Liverpool and Real Madrid) which is backed up by a fourth-lowest PPDA (Passes Allowed per Defensive Action – a metric used to measure high pressing where a lower figure indicates a more successful press) figure, Ajax clearly have the ability to control matches.
Additionally, their 215 touches in the penalty area so far (only better by Manchester City) show the ability to turn dominance into a threat.
It should not be a surprise, therefore, that they have accumulated the highest xG in the competition with 14.0, and are third overall in terms of xGD (Expected Goal Difference) behind only Manchester City and Bayern Munich with +8.7.
The third-highest scorers in the Champions League do most of their damage through high-quality shooting.
Only Paris Saint-Germain have a higher npxG/shot (Non-Penalty Expected Goals per Shot – a metric used to measure chance quality) than their 0.16, and as the shotmap below depicts, all but one of their goals have come from shots taken inside the box.
To understand why Ajax are so successful, we must first explore how they progress the ball.
The back-three in possession are all very technical players who can retain possession very well, which is why they have the highest pass completion rates in the side.
Of the trio, Álvarez is the most conservative with his passing, while the centre-backs rank second and third in terms of progressive passes completed per 90 in the Ajax squad among players who have spent at least 270 minutes on the pitch. The best in that category, Daley Blind, also tops the whole competition with 11.8.
Naturally, therefore, Ajax prefer to progress the ball down the left, with Blind often picking out Ryan Gravenberch in the half-space or Tadić further forward and sometimes out wide too.
That is not to say, though, that there is no progression done via the right flank. Jurriën Timber is responsible for most such work on this side, and he usually looks for either Berghuis in a central area, Mazraoui in the half-space or Antony out wide.
The two more central men in the midfield line, namely Gravenberch and Mazraoui, are then responsible for doing most of the forward ball carrying. They make up the top two for carries into the final third against their teammates with 14 and 13 respectively.
Mazraoui tends to drift wide with the ball at his feet (where he typically finds relatively open space), but Gravenberch (being the more centrally positioned of the pair) is especially threatening to opponents in this regard as he takes the ball to very dangerous areas with him.
Moving on to the chance creation phase, Ajax quite like to play silky one-touch football and generate most of their shooting opportunities through cut-backs and crosses. That should explain why most of their key passes originate in the wider areas, especially higher up the pitch.
In this style of play, the pre-key pass is just as important as the key pass. The two men most responsible for those sorts of passes are Tadić and Berghuis as both have 12 each, which places them joint-top with Karim Benzema in the competition.
Berghuis has a lot more positional freedom in his role (which is also more central), which is why his pre-key passes have come in a more diverse area…
Another creative outlet for Ajax while getting forward is Antony. As aforementioned, his primary responsibility in their structure is to hold the width on the right flank, which is why he receives most passes quite close to the touchline.
Another relevant thing that we previously discussed is how the Dutch champions prefer to progress down the left more because of Blind’s role, so with play concentrated more on that side, Antony often finds himself isolated against opposition left-backs or left wing-backs.
The Brazilian can then cause a fair bit of damage thanks to his one-on-one ability by either cutting inside and shooting or helping create chances for his teammates.
Each of this trio is among the top 10 players in the competition as far as xA (Expected Assists) is concerned, so Ajax have an excellent supply chain with numerous creative outlets.
The man benefitting from this most is their striker Haller, who joined the club from West Ham in early January. He could not feature in the 2020/21 Europa League campaign because someone forgot to include his name in their squad for the knockout stage.
The ex-Eintracht Frankfurt striker made his return to continental football with a vengeance, becoming the first player to score a hat-trick on his Champions League debut since 1992 and going on to become the only one to find the back of the net nine times in his first five matches, meaning that he currently is the joint-top in the scoring charts with a certain Robert Lewandowski.
The Ivorian international has the highest xG tally for a player in the competition with 7.2, which is greater than what over half of the competing teams have managed this season including sides like Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona and Atalanta.
Do not scratch your eyes; you read that right. Haller’s shooting has been incredible as his npxG/shot reads at a whopping 0.40.
Having had a comprehensive look at the statistics and data, there can only be one logical conclusion with respect to Ajax’s Champions League campaign so far – they are going toe-to-toe with Europe’s most elite clubs on merit.
Yes, they haven’t faced the best of sides yet, but the ease with which they have ripped the second-best teams in Germany and Portugal (at least according to their league standings) is a real statement of their tremendous quality.
Although the personnel has changed drastically since their memorable 2018/19 Champions League knockouts run, they still have top class players all over the pitch.
Therefore, there is every possibility that Ajax and ten Hag will be able to create similar memories once again with a bit of luck in the draws and possibly even go that one step further this time.
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