Ajax had two excellent strikers in Kasper Dolberg and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a perfect combination of youth and experience. But, Erik ten Hag in the Champions League group stage game against Bayern Munich decided to pick Dusan Tadic as a False 9. Ajax went onto draw the game 3-3 with some stunning attacking football which convinced ten Hag that playing Tadic as the false 9 was the way forward, especially in the Champions League where defences seem to have forgotten how to deal with a False 9 ever since Messi stopped playing as one.
Ajax’s 4-3-3 formation under Erik ten Hag
Watching the Bayern Munich game, it was clear straightway the advantages Tadic gave Ajax in the final third as a false 9. Tadic mostly moved to his right hand side, combining with de Beek and Ziyech, drawing out the Bayern defenders along with him. This left Neres in multiple 1v1 situations, often with good support from Tagliafico. This movement to create overloads is really effective when the opposition defence plays a high line and is proactive in winning the ball. This explains Ajax’s success in the Champions League, especially when playing away from home. For all his recent failures, Jose Mourinho demonstrated the best way to beat a side like Ajax in the Europa League Final 2017 with Manchester United. United defended deep with a 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 formation and let Ajax have all of the ball. Ajax barely threatened as United stuck to their positioning refusing to come out and completely bypassed the press through long balls.
“This is like a ‘fake striker, I move everywhere, with a little bit of a free role, and I am very happy. But most important is the team, to try to help, and this team can do everything.”
Although Tadic played similar roles in both the away victories against Juventus and Real Madrid, there was a slight difference in how others around him adapted to his movement. Against Real Madrid when Tadic probably played the match of his life, it was Van De Beek who pushed forward into a traditional center forward’s role which allowed Tadic to play a completely free role.
Against Juventus, Ajax were most effective when they created overloads on the right allowing Neres and the overlapping fullback to attack on 1v1 situations, just like they did against Bayern. These subtle variations to Ajax’s attacking structure and strategy is proving to be highly effective in this year’s Champions League.
Tadic is surely going to reprise his false 9 role against Spurs too, it certainly would be interesting to see how differently ten Hag deploys him. Pochettino again is a manager who will seek to attack Ajax rather than try to negate their threats. So, there is plenty of potential for goals and excitement for the spectators.
The era of the Pragmatist manager seems to be over with Jose Mourinho’s decline. The last decade was dominated by the defensive interpretations of the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3 formations. Even managers like Sir Alex were pushed to change after Mourinho’s arrival to the Premier League. Ferguson started several big away games with additional defensive reinforcements, which United fans seem to have forgotten. But ever since Guardiola’s Barcelona thrilled their way to multiple Champions League wins, the game began to get away from the likes of Mourinho. Even though he was still successful in this decade, it looks like he desperately needs to reinvent himself if he ever wants to come back to the top.