Football Features

Ajax’s playing style explained – and Ten Hag’s five unsung heroes

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 13:51, 11 April 2019

Ajax are not exactly in uncharted waters given their illustrious history.

But so much has taken place since they last played Champions League football in springtime, it feels like Erik ten Hag’s impressionable team are embarking on a new journey of discovery.

The club from Amsterdam are undoubtedly this year’s surprise package in European football’s premier club competition, having become as much with bravado and zero fear of their more experienced opponents. The fact they are a relatively young team – with an average of 24 years and 202 days they are the youngest Champions League team left standing – has in some ways served them well.

There are no expectations that might heap pressure on their shoulders. Given they last reached the semis in 1996 – and football has come a long way since then – the record 33-time Dutch champions have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

And boy are they riding this wave of momentum. At home, they’ve been nothing short of electrifying, with five matches remaining de Godenzonen have racked up a century of Eredivisie goals; no other team across Europe’s major divisions has reached treble figures in their domestic league.

Naturally, their Champions League performances, most notably that stunning 1-4 victory at the Bernabéu, have made headlines at home and abroad, and many of those wearing red and white have become household names.

Though not all have been heralded. While the team is the star, there are those unheralded names who have gone without their fair share of recognition. The unsung heroes if you will. And in looking at their contributions, a clearer picture of Ajax’s playing style under Ten Hag, and the success it has delivered, emerges.

1. The prodigal son

Much of Ajax’s success this season is down to sporting director Marc Overmars and his shift in transfer policy last summer.

The club takes great pride in developing their own footballers, and the current outfit is laced with plenty. But if Ajax are to challenge in Europe, relying on homegrown talents isn’t enough. That would require a mixture of youthful exuberance and wisdom.

Daley Blind, a product of the club, returned from a four-year adventure with Manchester United and has played a pivotal role in guiding those around him.

Before the son of Ajax and Netherlands legend Danny Blind left the Dutch capital, he was an integral part of Frank de Boer’s last championship-winning team, the kernel around which the rest of the side’s panache was constructed.

He is no longer playing in midfield, but the Dutch centre-back – who’s formed a formidable partnership with the highly promising Matthijs de Ligt – is nevertheless fundamental in Ajax’s build-up game. And that was perfectly illustrated in the lead-up to their equaliser against Juventus.

2. ‘Mazrafico’

Width has always been central to Ajax’s game.

The late, great Johan Cruyff, once a guardian of this footballing philosophy, summed it up well. “When you have the ball,” he explained, “make the pitch big; without it, make the pitch small”.

So, in possession, expect to see their full-backs effectively transform into auxiliary wingers. Both have shone this season (even if they are prone to the odd card).

Originally a midfielder – again highlighting the universality of these homegrown players – and one who can still do a job there, Noussair Mazraoui has developed into a capable right-back with creativity and an eye for goal (see Bayern Munich away and Benfica home).

His four goals this season is eclipsed by his opposite number, Nicolás Tagliafico, who has bagged six, including three in the Champions League. He will miss the second leg against Juventus, which is a big blow for Ajax, mainly because of his tireless endeavours.

A bit of a throwback, the Argentine dominates the entire left flank, which allows the winger in that channel (normally David Neres) to move centrally, where damage can be made.

3. The set-piece specialist

Of the starters in their Champions League quarter-final first-leg against Juventus, only five Ajax players were under the age of 25. This balance, as previously explained, has been key to whatever success they’ll achieve this season, though reaching the final eight in Europe already feels like a victory.

At the head is 32-year-old Lasse Schöne, who joined all the way back in 2012, for nothing.

Schone’s signature was a frugal piece of business that has paid dividends. Many had expected the Dane to enjoy a minimal role; he has enjoyed anything but, playing the ‘number six’ role – sitting in front of the defence and recycling possession after retaining – is a pretty big deal in this system and he hasn’t let his manager down.

Aside from his positional duties, there is another reason Schöne is revered by those around him and in the stands. Whenever Ajax receive a free-kick near the area, there’s a near inevitably that he’ll find the net. So far this season, in all competitions, four of his five goals have come this way (including one Thibaut Courtois will want to forget).

4. The Dutch Frank Lampard

The composition of a starting eleven changes throughout a season. What begins a campaign doesn’t necessarily finish it. Donny van de Beek, who broke into Ajax’s first team a few years ago now, was on the outside looking in before Ten Hag became fully onboard. A blueprint for the modern midfielder, Van de Beek acts as Ajax’s ‘number eight’, a position he was born to play.

It’s been apparent for a while, but having such a run in the side has only started to open people’s eyes. What’s made them sit up and take note, though, is his intelligent movement and spatial awareness in the final third, or between the midfield and forward lines.

Frank Lampard might as well be Van de Beek’s reference point. By combining individual skill with stamina, his all-round game reached a new plateau. With 13 goals across 40 matches in all competitions, plus a further 10 assists, it’s no wonder supporters have taken to calling him Maradonny.