14.11.19

BLOG: Replacing De Jong – how Ajax have refined their approach in possession

Article by Andy Cooper

Key takeaways

– The number of passes per 90 completed by Ajax this season has increased from 490.5 to 545.5, with their average passes per sequence increasing from 3.7 to 4.1.

– As well as moving Ajax out of build-up, Daley Bind is now very influential in moving them into the attacking phase. On average he is completing 20% more phase changes per 90 than any other Eredivisie player this season.

– For the second season in a row, Hakim Ziyech has contributed the highest net contribution of Possession Value Added (PV+) for Ajax, however his 19/20 contribution is slightly lower.

– Two of Ajax’s new signings, Lisandro Martinez and Quincy Promes, also feature in the club’s top five PV+ contributors this season.

 

Having recouped over €200 million in transfer revenue following the departure of nine players in the summer, Ajax faced a major challenge entering 2019/20 of maintaining performance levels which resulted a league and cup double, in addition to being minutes away from a Champions League final.

Now thirteen games into the new Eredivisie campaign, Eric Ten Hag’s side are not only outperforming their points tally compared to the same point last season (35 to 33), but have also generated a 30% increase in their attacking xG output, highlighting how they are creating more high quality chances in the final third. They are also well placed to progress in Europe, sitting level on points with Chelsea and Valencia in their Champions League group.

Three of their summer departures, Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Lasse Schöne, all featured in at least 70% of on-field minutes in the league last season and as highlighted by OptaPro’s Phases of Play framework, De Jong was particularly instrumental in possession. He moved his team into the attacking phase, which is defined as being in controlled possession in the attacking third, more than any other player in Europe last season, which meant that Ajax would need to identify another outlet to regularly move the ball into advanced areas of the pitch.

In this blog, we apply Phases of Play and Stats Perform’s new Possession Value framework to highlight key changes in Ajax’s approach so far in 2019/20 and the key players who have stepped up to increase the team’s overall probability of creating goalscoring opportunities on the field.

Evolution, not revolution

Despite the changes of personnel, Ajax have continued to set-up this season in the 4-3-3 shape they utilised in 2018/19.

After missing most of last season due to injury, Joel Veltman has settled into central defence in place of De Ligt whilst three summer signings, Lisandro Martinez, Edson Álvarez and Razvan Marin, have all been utilised in central midfield.

Another notable signing, Quincy Promes, has been utilised as an attacking midfielder as well as in his more familiar position on the left wing, which has seen Dusan Tadic operate more centrally in place of the departed Kasper Dolberg.

Ajax’s possession share this season has increased by 1.5% to 64.9%, but more significantly the number of completed passes has increased from 490.5 per 90 to 545.5, with fewer crosses being delivered into the box. This emphasis on retaining the ball is also reflected in the sequence framework, with their average number of passes per sequence increasing from 3.7 to 4.1. However the speed they move the ball up-field remains similar to last year (1.57 metres per second).

As highlighted by the graphic below, Ajax’s overall phase distribution remains roughly the same as it was in 2018/19, however they are spending less time in build-up and more time in the attacking third.

An enhanced role for Daley Blind

During 2018/19, Daley Blind had a key role at the back in relation to moving Ajax out of the build-up phase, with De Jong being more responsible for moving the team into the attacking phase higher up the pitch.

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Blind started the opening three matches of this season in central midfield before reverting back to the left side of central defence and following De Jong’s departure, his role in possession has evolved significantly. He now not only moves his team out of build-up, but is also involved in moving them into the attacking phase, completing 20% more phase changes per 90 than any other player in Eredivisie this season and increasing his own output from 2018/19 by over a third.

Blind’s volume of passes ending in the opposition half this season has also increased from 46.3 to 58.1 per 90, further reinforcing his increased involvement in possession further up the field.

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Whilst Martinez has made a decent start to the season in central midfield, recording similar numbers to De Jong in relation to moving Ajax out of build-up, perhaps unsurprisingly he has not been able to match the Barcelona man’s outputs higher up the pitch, which has meant that Blind and Hakim Ziyech have had to increase their involvement in the middle third to move the ball into the attacking third.

Quantifying the threat of Ziyech

The influence of Ziyech and Blind in relation to creating goalscoring opportunities is also reflected in their respective Possession Value Added (PV+) contributions so far this season.

More details on how Possession Value is attributed to players, based on their positive and negative contributions to the probability of their team scoring from an individual possession, can be found here.

For the second season in succession, Ziyech has contributed the highest net contribution of PV+ for Ajax, however his contribution this season is slightly lower than in 2018/19. Perhaps as a result of seeing more of the ball, Blind’s positive contributions have increased this season whilst Dusan Tadic continues to provide a strong net output from a more central position.

Two of Ajax’s new signings also feature in Ajax’s top five contributors. Martinez ranks third in net output, recording the lowest volume of negative contributions amongst midfield and attacking players whilst Quincy Promes is providing an additional threat down the left. Whilst not recording as many progressive contributions per 90 as Ziyech, the 27-year-old has a lower volume of regressive ones relating to loss of possession.

If we break down each player’s progressive outputs per 90, we can get a better understanding of the threat they pose to Ajax’s opposition. Compared to last season, we can see an increase in Blind’s PV+ as a result of his passing, whilst Ziyech is recording less PV+ from winning back possession.

Tadic’s new role has also resulted in a change in his team contributions – he is now generating less PV+ from regaining possession and dribbling, but has seen an increase in progressive contributions resulting from his passes. Fortunately Ajax possess two wingers in Promes and David Neres who have been able to take up Tadic’s position on the left and generate progressive PV+ through dribbling, ensuring they can continue to increase their overall goalscoring probability from both sides of the pitch.

Behind Blind, Martinez is the standout performer in terms of increasing Ajax’s goalscoring probability as a result of winning back possession, however by comparing his breakdown to De Jong’s from last season we can see a key stylistic difference in their respective styles – De Jong was more productive dribbling with the ball, something which is further reinforced by this analysis on his progressive carries last year.

Successfully managing change

Despite losing key players during the summer, Ajax have been able to utilise the attributes of other key players in the squad, notably the ball-playing abilities of Blind and dribbling skills of Ziyech, to refine their playing style and maintain their position at the top of the Eredivisie.

Supported by new recruits providing positive possession value contributions, the club are now retaining the ball for a longer period of time as well as creating a higher volume of high quality chances in the final third.

This is all after securing a net profit on transfers in excess of €150 million – highlighting how the club have been able to successfully negotiate their way through a potentially challenging period of change and coming out the other side stronger for it.

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