The Hurt Locker: The Old Lady defusing a Dutch bomb

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                 The Hurt Locker. details how U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal members Sergeant J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) coped with the stress of combat differently; Sanborn became distraught and vowed not to live that life. In a weird way, James was addicted. He went back to the battlefield.

Ajax are like a bomb, looking to explode at any minute with their high pressure and fast tempo. Juventus will be going through their own hurt locker when they face off the Dutch. This type of teams have given Juventus plenty of tough times; playing against Atalanta has not been easy. Last season, Tottenham almost suffocated Juventus. But Juventus have learned how to deal with them. Massimiliano Allegri is confident that he can dispose of them if Juventus remain focused and engaged.

Facing Ajax won’t be easy, but Juventus may just know how to stop them from exploding.

A mix of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3

lineup.jpg

Andre Onana (24) / Noussair Mazraoui (12), Matthijs de Ligt (4), Daley Blind (17), Nicolas Tagliafico (31) / Lasse Schone (20), Donny van de Beek (6), Frenkie de Jong (21) / Hakim Ziyech (22), Dusan Tadic (10), David Neres (7)

Erik ten Hag uses a fairly stable lineup. Ajax’s formation shuffles between a typical 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. They have a 2-1 triangle in the midfield. de Jong and Schone form a double pivot. van de Beek starts as a #10 but doesn’t play like one. He moves and attacks like a striker. Kasper Dolberg sometimes starts as the striker and pushes Tadic to the wing. He gives Ajax a typical striker’s presence and physicality. Joel Veltman is a veteran backup defender. If he starts as a center-back, Blind will play as a left-back or a midfielder. Ziyech and Zakaria Labyad can backup de Jong, but ten Hag rarely uses such an approach in the Champions League.

Frenkie de Jong: a midfield maestro

Ajax’s build-up aims to free de Jong and have him dictate the tempo. He doesn’t dribble past multiple defenders like Andres Iniesta, nor run up-and-down to make plays all over the field like Luka Modric. de Jong controls the tempo. He is great at keeping the possession. Everything looks effortless when he controls the ball. He can either dribble away from pressure or release the ball to an open teammate. de Jong buys time for his teammates to move into the proper attacking positions. His passing range, ability to protect the ball, and vision let him excel as their playmaker.

He is indispensable for Ajax: in the games when de Jong starts, Ajax’s average Expected Goal (xG) jumps from 0.008 to 0.21 per possession with his participation, a 2.5 fold increase, 7th highest among all central midfielders in the big six leagues.

The smart build-up

When Ajax want to create a tactical advantage in the build-up, their center-backs and the double pivot will organize into a 3-1 shape:

Ajax’s Back Three from Wan Luk on Vimeo.

There is the usual midfielder dropping alongside the center-backs to form a back-three, but Ajax are flexible when they make this play. de Jong often dictate when and where he will drop. He often sits outside of the center-backs depending on where Blind plays. Putting de Jong and de Ligt/Blind, all of them are great passers, on the opposite sides helps to balance the ball progression. Still, Ajax attack the left more frequently than they do on the right, a chicken and egg with de Jong and Blind usually starting on that side. Placing de Jong close to the ball helps them to recycle the possession. If an opponent’s high press is too solid to play through, they can use the second ball from Ziyech’s header on the right flank to bypass it:

Ajax’s second ball from Wan Luk on Vimeo.

The short and quick attack

Ajax have an explosive attack with their repetitive short passes in the half-space and on the flank:

They attack in a 2-2-6. Ajax often play without a default striker; Tadic, and sometimes Ziyech, take turns to drop to the midfield to collect the ball from the build-up unit. They don’t have an attacking midfielder. Their supposedly #10 –  van de Beek – play like a striker, either occupying the defenders and dragging them away or attacking the empty space when Tadic moves out of the position.

van de Beek as a striker from Wan Luk on Vimeo.

As the ball enters the final third, the front six close in on the ball; the inverted winger on the ball far side moves across to link with the other forwards. The two fullbacks are the widest players but Ajax don’t switch a lot: they make only one switch every 25 passes, 4th lowest in the big 6 leagues. Width isn’t their concern.

The main task of the fullback in the offensive phase is to link up with other players in the half-space:

Ajax’s atypical fullback from Wan Luk on Vimeo.

They spend a lot of time away from the flank. They play like the #8 and often hit the box.  Tagliafico and Mazraoui are not simply inverted but atypical fullbacks:

Tagliafico stays on his flank somewhat frequently because of Ajax focus attacking that side where de Jong operates. The striker and the fullback enjoy a lot of freedom when Ajax attack and always exchange positions and roles. Ajax’s compact shape and flexible positioning of the players create multiple layers and facilitate vertical ball’s progression. Ajax have one signature play:

Ajax’s quick one-two from Wan Luk on Vimeo.

The players make quick 1-2 passes outside of the box, making up more than 5.7% of Ajax’s passes in the final third, 13th highest in the big six leagues. These passes can create screening or triangle combination between Ajax’s players. They are also technical enough to operate in such tight space. If they miss the pass, their teammates are close enough to counter-press the ball.

The defensive sandwich

Ajax defend in a signature “sandwich” with the first and second/third line. Their primary line of confrontation lies in the mid-third in the opponent’s half:

There is the usual running at the ball handler when pressing high, but Ajax have another unique setup:

Ajax’s sandwich from Wan Luk on Vimeo.

The first line starts marking zonally but the second/third line marks manually. The forwards sit in-between the four defenders, blocking the passing lane toward the flank and directing the ball through the middle. van de Beek marks the deepest central midfielder, usually the playmaker. He and the central forward also guard the center against the opponent’s build-up players, preventing them from gradually playing out from the back. Once the ball reaches their confrontation zone, Ajax’s first and second/third line compress the area. Their strong man-marking prevents the ball receiver from turning. The forward closes in. Everyone tackles the ball and attack in transition.  They press aggressively: Ajax attempted one pressing defensive action per 16 opponent’s passes, 2nd highest in Europe this season.

Ajax’s high-pressure and explosive gameplay

Erik ten Hag shapes Ajax into an explosive team that can ignite at any minute. In the attack, they initiate with a preparatory phase with the careful 3-1 build-up with the center-backs and the midfielders. Once they enter the final third, their game erupts. The quick short pass not only pushes the tempo but should facilitate their counter-pressing, resulting in waves of attack that overwhelm the opponents.

The same principle applies in the defensive phase; the first line starts out zonally, using the strategic positioning of the players to create a sandwich trap. Once the ball reaches the confrontation zone, Ajax’s attack on the ball explodes, forcing transitional opportunities that they can take advantage of.

Once Ajax detonate, they become unstoppable. Juventus’ goal is to stop them from exploding.

Defusing the bomb

Ajax’s pressure cooking defense is a double-edged sword; the opponent’s fullback is often open; their players in the first line need to stay compact for their sandwich to be efficient. They can’t stay too close to the opponent’s fullback. Using only the cover shadow of the wingers to guard them doesn’t provide any guarantee. It leaves Ajax’s fullback having to defend the whole flank. If he stays with the opponent’s wingers he gives the opponent’s fullback freedom in the build-up. If he moves out to attack the opponent’s fullback then Ajax’s backline becomes exposed.

They don’t have enough counter-pressing; Ajax attack 5.9% of their failed touches, more than 73% of the teams in the big six leagues. They are above average but not good enough to maintain the pressure. The strict man-marking scheme is risky. Ajax’s players rarely defend in compact line and often get stretched. They lack defensive shape when they sit deep. The defenders get pulled away from their positions easily. They don’t have enough size and physicality. Juventus can take advantage of these weaknesses.

Juventus’ approach against Ajax needs to be different from that against Atletico Madrid. They both prey on the transition, but Diego Simeone has always taken a safety-first approach that builds on a solid defensive block. ten Hag has an opposite take. He uses the intensive man-marking to force the transition. Juventus need to manage how they build up from the back.

Allegri’s back three with Emre Can worked so well against Atletico Madrid partly because of Simeone’s tactics;  he was too passive. Atletico sat and waited for Juventus to make a mistake and rarely pressure the build-up. Juventus’ back three created a tactical advantage against Atletico’s front two. It forced them to sit in front of the midfield. Juventus could push the full-back deep, pass and switch the ball comfortably, and probe for an opening. Things will change against Ajax. Passing out from the back is a battle point.

Ajax are not going to be passive. They always pressure. They were going for the same ping-pong style even after leading two goals in Bernabeu. They will hit Juventus’ build-up. The timing of the formation of the back three will be important. Using another center-back can force Ajax to adjust their press shape. Having Can drop early can pull de Jong out of his zone and give the right-back even more freedom than he would have. The full-backs need to offer consistent release routes for the ball handler in the first phase. Once Juventus transform into the back three with proper connections with the wing-backs, Ajax will have a hard time to pressure the ball. Juventus can dissolve their line of confrontation and then explore Ajax’s defensive weakness. This tie resembles the one they played against Tottenham last season.

Managing the tempo is critical; Ajax’s aggressive approach is going to expose their defense. Should Juventus pounce on every one of these opportunities? Bentancur suits this type of game. No one in Juventus offers better tackling and turning the defensive-to-offensive transition in the open area than he does. But does playing that way suit them? Ajax thrive in this situation. They are faster and more reactive than the Old Lady. They will out-run Juventus. The transitional opportunity may be tempting, but Juventus need to avoid playing an unbalanced game and getting out-run.

ted Han has more questions to answer to than Allegri does. Even though they beat the host by three goals in Bernabeu, the score exaggerates the difference between them. Real Madrid had created many chances before the result was settled. They just couldn’t convert them. Is this situation gonna repeat if the shooter is Cristiano Ronaldo? How confident are you in containing him when you are forced to sit deep but defend without a shape? What about those crosses? Can you prevent Juventus’ big players like Can, Ronaldo, Bentancur, Mario Mandzukic and Blaise Matuidi from connecting with the header? Juventus may not stop Ajax from playing their game for 180 minutes. They are too good to be contained. But how long can Ajax maintain their pressure? Tottenham did that for 120 minutes last year and they still lost. Ajax will need to step up to an even higher level than Tottenham did because Juventus have also improved drastically since that tie.

Ajax will try their hardest to ignite. Juventus need to put out the fire.

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