While this website has made it’s name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. In this piece, Rishad Bharucha focuses on the Ajax’ highly successful manager, Frank De Boer.
In a quarter final at France ’98, the Dutch were drifting into extra time with the game poised 1-1 against Argentina. Frank de Boer, an elegant Dutch centre half, received the ball deep in his own half, loped forwards, looked up, delivered a 60 yard pass straight into the narrowest corridor where only fellow artist Dennis Bergkamp could provide sublime control and a finish to match. After a decade playing for Ajax and a fine spell at Barcelona, the two were reunited at Ajax in 2011, with de Boer at the managerial reigns and Bergkamp at his side.
As a player, Frank de Boer was influenced by two distinct Ajax stalwarts in Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal, the former while he was a fresh product of the Ajax youth academy and the latter when he went on to be a part of the last Ajax home-grown side to win European honours. Both Cruyff and van Gaal seemed to have influenced his managerial philosophy at Ajax, as another son of the Amsterdam club sought to restore their domestic and continental fortunes. Cruyff’s individualism and van Gaal’s universalism are both apparent in the basis of de Boer’s tactical philosophy.
Attractive football through combination play and individual expression are the key elements to please the Ajax faithful. De Boer incorporates possession in addition to these key elements for most games, although he has proved to be tactically flexible in big matchups, especially away from home where he has opted for a more direct approach.
In the sense of van Gaal’s universalism, this means that every single player is available for support while attacking and in the absence of ball possession, every player presses aggressively in order to transition quickly. Cruyffian individualism is also expressed through their quick combination play to release a man and through dribbling on the wings.
De Boer is true to Ajax’s 4-3-3 with a balance of the tactical ideals of Cruyff and van Gaal. He incorporates van Gaal’s sense of detail in defensive organization and pressing, and Cruyff’s favoured ball circulation and positional interchange in build-up play. He also tends to rely on the intelligence of players to do what the game demands of them and as such his tactics form a framework more than a static system of play. This understandably leads to comparisons with the totaalvoetbal of the 1970s and the contemporary Barcelona abound, but limited finances at the club mean the reliance on youth is their best hope of continuing their domestic revival and initiating one on the continental front.
Offensive Organization: Possession and Interchange to Release the Ball to ‘Direct’ Wingers
Ajax build from the back as part of de Boer’s philosophy to play with possession. They play with positional interchange to draw the opponent out of their spaces, often with the intention of finding a pass to one of the channels. Unlike Barcelona who overload the channels to switch the point of play with their passing, de Boer often employs quick, direct wingers like Anwar El Ghazi, Ricardo Kishna and Lucas Andersen for his midfielders to release the ball to, before they take on defenders in 1v1 or 2v1 situations. This balance is necessary to please the Ajax faithful who are not fond of excessive horizontal passing with no intention to combine and penetrate on the flanks. This is also good management on de Boer’s part to find a balance in incorporating the young, tricky dribblers from the Ajax academy, without being overly direct.
Offensive Transition: Vertical Penetration through the Center
When Ajax get the ball wide, for the most part they are doing one of two things – drawing the opposition out before circulating the ball in midfield to keep possession or playing directly to the wingers as stated previously. In the former case, they are likely seeing the game out against lower ranked opposition who have likely tired after pressing the Amsterdam club for most of the game. In the transition from defense to offense however, de Boer’s team play with directness and verticality to exploit the spaces left by defenders out of position. Their vertical passing allows for quick, direct combinations before playing the ball through the center towards goal.
Defensive Organization: Single Midfield Block Denying Passing Lanes
Off the ball, de Boer’s Ajax tend to defend deep, setting up a compact midfield block with five midfielders behind the ball (4-5-1). This reduces the penetration and tends to be a simpler approach compared that of other young managers like Thomas Tuchel who have variations in the shape of their defensive blocks. De Boer’s simplified approach has proven to be successful domestically, considering the youthfulness and primarily offensive mind-set of the players from the Ajax academy in the first team. The team presses in response to triggers such as pressing a receiving player who is facing his own goal, or when the receiving player is pinned to the touchline.
Defensive Transition: Compact Shift to One Side of the Field
When de Boer’s Ajax concede possession in midfield with numbers behind the ball, they reduce the space and passing options to form a compact block that shifts towards the channel nearest to the player in possession. If they do not have numbers behind, the striker and one of the wingers press in their attacking third while the midfielders behind them recover their shape. With the play forced to one side, the nearest defender to the ball is able to press the opposition player with the ball to reduce his options, potentially forcing the ball out of play or recovering the ball to transition or keep possession.
THREE CAREER DEFINING GAMES
A 2-1 win against Barcelona was vital to send Ajax to the Europa League after being knocked out of the Champions League in the 2013/14 season. On the night, they pressed and harried the Barcelona players off the ball, despite playing most of the second half with ten men. Goals from Thulani Serero and Danny Hoesen gave them a result that would have surely made Johan Cruyff smile.
A year before, de Boer’s Ajax played a key role in knocking Manchester City out of the Champions League and taking a Europa League spot for themselves. Beating a Manchester City team laden with riches with a young team of academy products was no mean feat by the Dutch side.
Rewinding to the 2010-11 season, de Boer capped his first season in charge with a 3-1 final day victory against defending champions FC Twente to secure the Eredivisie title for Ajax. This was Ajax’s 30th title, and securing it on his 41st birthday was a significant moment at the start of a promising managerial career.
THREE KEY PLAYERS DEVELOPED
Frank de Boer led Ajax’s youth academy in 2007, with Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur), Toby Alderweireld (Southampton on loan from Atletico Madrid), and Daley Blind (Manchester United) being some of the major beneficiaries of his tutelage then in the academy, and soon after in the first team when he took over the managerial role in 2010.
During his stint in the youth academy, de Boer spoke highly of Eriksen, “He’s always on the move. Quick thinking. He has eyes in his back. When you think he doesn’t see you, he sees you.” He believes that Daley Blind is best suited as a central midfielder for Manchester United although he began plying his trade as a full back. Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld formed a partnership with Jan Vertonghen that provided a basis for Ajax’s 2010-11 and 2011-12 title successes, but were replaced ably as de Boer’s Ajax extended their run to four consecutive Eredivisie titles.
Blending the talented individuals of Ajax with contemporary team tactics was not Martin Jol’s cup of tea and he paid the price. Discontent with the state of the first team’s affairs, Johan Cruyff pushed for changes in 2010 which resulted in Frank de Boer’s promotion from leading the youth academy to being put in charge of the first team. With the success of four consecutive Eredivisie titles and consistent third placed group finishes in the Champions League, de Boer certainly justified this choice of appointment. He will surely be looking to build on his domestic success, within the club’s limitations, to push on for European success in the coming years.
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