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Analysis: An early tactical look at the Ajax threat

After Friday's draw picked out Ajax in the Europa League quarter-finals, our columnist takes an early look at the Dutch side - and where their major threats lie...

After comprehensively defeating Shakhtar Donetsk 5-1 on aggregate in the Europa League last-16, Roma's next challenge is Ajax in the quarter finals.

Set to be an enthralling match up between two brilliant teams and two exceptional coaches in Paulo Fonseca and Erik ten Hag, this tie is a European match-up of undoubted pedigree.

Possessing a nice blend of youth and experience, this, in combination with how tactically astute ten Hag is, will mean Roma will need to be at their best to overcome the Dutch outfit.

Although hardly any players remain from their unforgettable Champions League semi-final run from two years ago, the club deserve immense credit for continually making smart signings and bringing through youth players to ensure they remain a force to be reckoned with.

Currently sitting top of the Eredivisie standings and fresh from ousting Young Boys 5-0 on aggregate, ten Hag has instilled many strong mechanics to ensure they're strong both defensively and offensively.

To start with the offensive side of their game, and they typically deploy a base 4-2-3-1 formation that often morphs into differing shapes, with a keen eye on dominating the ball and building out from the back with incisive passing and movement.

A usual feature of their play is forming a back three in build up, which allows them to stretch the opposition's first line of pressure and create overloads. As a result, they can use this to their advantage to beat the press with quick circulation to the wide splitting defenders, who can then dribble upfield.

From here, they'll attempt to lure out a presser from midfield to then form a 4v3 or 3v2 out wide to find a free man using the third man principle.

It's interesting to note that they mix up who'll form the back three, with the keeper, a dropping midfielder or a deep full-back all doing so at various stages, which causes dilemmas for the opposition on who to mark depending on the situation.

Experts at causing dilemmas for markers, it's been notable how nominal right back, Devyne Rensch, will sometimes push infield and act as an extra midfielder. In doing so, not only can he help give his team positional and numerical superiority to break the press, but also so his team can control counter attacks better once possession is lost.

In addition, as the ball progresses higher, electric winger Antony will regularly pull wide so he can be 1v1, which subsequently opens spaces in the channel for Rensch to maraud forward with crafty underlapping runs that can catch defences off guard.

Seeing as one of the double pivots in midfield will typically drop deeper, the other will stay higher and offer a passing angle to progress and form a 4v3, hoping to lure out an opponent to open pass routes and spaces between the lines for attackers to receive.

Having so many players occupying different heights and depths in his positional structure that sees their shape transform into 3-1-6/3-1-4-2 and 3-1-5-1 variations, opponents are faced with persistent issues in their tracking assignments when pressing high or in a mid block.

The movement of their attackers compounds issues for their foes, for they regularly rotate positions and execute opposite movements, where one will drop deep and the other will counterbalance this by bombing forward into the space manufactured by their colleague.

They heighten their deep threat by charging forward by exploiting the blindside of opponents and when they're caught ball watching or preoccupied.

Moreover, their use of quick combination play in close quarters has been another viable avenue to manipulate defensive units.

By often being positioned within close proximity to one another, this means they can play rapid interchanges between each other, which customarily draws out defenders, so they can then make the most of the spaces in behind to find a free man.

In such cases, the up-back-through principle has been implemented shrewdly to give the runners a dynamic advantage over forward oriented defenders who are stepping out to apply pressure to the ball receiver or holder.

The aforementioned approach with many numbers in and around the box sees them be well placed to attack crosses and cutbacks into the area too, with many players positioned on different lines to be options.

Boasting a frontline that can hurt opponents in so many ways, stopping the likes of David Neres, Antony, Dusan Tadic, Davy Klaassen, Brian Brobbey and Oussama Idrrissa will be a big challenge for Roma.

Possessing such elite ball progressors and immense firepower, it'll be interesting to see how Fonseca, who's so adept at setting up astute pressing schemes, goes about limiting Ajax's multifaceted menace going forward.

Their statistics duly accentuate their danger, for Ajax lead the Eredivisie in terms of goals scored (78), average possession (62.1%), shots per game (17.81), crosses pg (20.59), dribbles pg (34.01), touches inside the box pg (34.80) and key passes pg (5.78).

Switching the focus to their defensive output, and they'll be eager to impose themselves on Roma with their high pressing and counterpressing.

When pressing opposition build up, they do a good job of harrying their foes in a coordinated fashion. This is evidenced by how they angle and curve their pressing to block passing lanes while attacking the ball holder to limit their options. Furthermore, this means they can handle being overloaded and funnel opponents to pass away from the centre to then use the touchline as an extra defender to hem in opponents to force mistakes.

Well-versed in the aforementioned dual roles, on top of controlling spaces effectively, they respond sharply to triggers like an opponent receiving with their back to goal or in an open body posture, plus if they are about to inherit a sloppy or underhit pass.

Roma will need to especially be awake to their fierce counterpressing, which sees them immediately press the ball holder and surrounding options, keen to regain possession rapidly to attack again vs. unset defences.

By the numbers, the fact they've faced the fewest shots in the Eredivisie (224), have the best defensive record (only conceded 19 goals) and are the most intense pressers (only allow 8.39 opposition passes per defensive action) depicts their stopping prowess.

When asked on the draw, Fonseca, who is clearly relishing the confrontation with Ajax, spoke insightfully on the challenge ahead.

“Ajax are a very strong team, among the best in the Europa League," he said. "They have a good European pedigree, a very difficult tie awaits us.

"Theirs is the most established football school in Europe, but we will have our chances. Now we have to study them well, I think it will be a balanced confrontation.

"With Shakhtar we played two great games and they were a difficult opponent. The team played well and confidently, we are very motivated to face Ajax."

With Ajax currently on a 22-match unbeaten streak in all competitions and having won 14 of their last 15, the Giallorossi will need to produce a tremendous effort to outfox them.

But after brushing aside Shakhtar comfortably while playing some excellent football in all phases of the game, Roma will be confident they can compete, in a tie that's guaranteed to be a tactically sophisticated and hugely entertaining feast of football.

 
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