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Ham Mpanga writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Europa League semi-final second leg that finished Lyon 3-1 Ajax.


A youthful Ajax side (something they’ve got a knack for doing) managed to reach their first European final since 1996. With an average age of 22.8 years old, Peter Bosz and his side seemingly killed off the tie with a resounding 4-1 in the first leg against Olympique Lyon in France the week prior.

With the Eredvisie title race going down to the wire and Lyon not being involved in their domestic race for the top, it was as if Ajax could take this game as a ‘rest day’ but as the score line proves, it couldn’t have been anything close to one.

Line ups

Lyon (4-2-3-1): Lopes; Rafael, Nkoulou, Diakhaby, Morel (Rybus 74’); Tolisso, Gonalons; Cornet, Fekir, Valbuena (Ghezzal 77’); Lacazette

Ajax (4-3-3): Onana; Veltman (Tete 65’), Sánchez, De Ligt, Viergever; Klaassen, Schöne (Van De Beek), Ziyech; Traoré, Dolberg, Younes (Kluivert 82’) áSánchezSánchez

Space Oriented Pressing stifles Lyon

In attack, Ajax would set up in a 4-3-3 shape with the midfield 3 adjusting the roles depending on the situation but in defence, they were organised in a 4-4-2 medium-high block. This was done to limit space centrally, increasing the risk should a Lyon player attempt to pass vertically.

The traditional high block often pushes forward in an attempt to cause mistakes and win the ball back from the opposition. In this case, they showed the usual signs of a high block but they picked their moments carefully when moving forward hence it being a medium-high block as opposed to it being the conventional high block.

Lyon attacked with a 4-2-3-1 shape but they deviated from this frequently. The left-back Morel would push up high and stay wide, whilst Valbuena would cut inside, taking residence in the left half-space. Gonalons would drop deep to create a back 3, which temporarily gave them a 3-3-3-1 shape. This multi-layered system would allow Lyon to have enough time to find space but not long enough to use it effectively as Ajax’s defensive aim was to cut out space between their lines of pressure.

Due to Ajax’s pressing being space oriented, it left Veltman with a tough decision regarding Morel. If he left Morel to keep the shape of the pressure, he would leave a free man but if he went and tracked Morel he would further open up the left half-space for the likes of Valbuena, Fekir and Lacazette to expose. Fortunately, Bertand Traoré was switched on defensively meaning he used his cover shadow effectively as it shut off any passes towards Morel. This meant they could keep their shape and mark their corresponding player with ease.

It was an intelligent piece of observation by Bruno Génésio to target Ajax’s fullbacks’ lack of speed but it also negatively affected them. With most of their play aimed wide it was easier for Ajax to shift across, cutting out space for Lyon should they wish to attack centrally and as quoted by Pep Guardiola, ‘The touchline is the best defender in the world.’

Ajax’s defenders would also step into midfield to sweep up the danger when appropriate, making their job more manageable in the process.

As the game grew Lyon found this tactic less effective, as they wasted energy making runs which were relatively hard to spot, leaving them to rely on having to bulldoze through Ajax to score their goals.

Key Contrast in the Playmakers

Although Ajax’s midfield shape varied throughout the game, Schöne was often the deepest of the 3, with Ziyech and Klaassen ahead of him. When pressing in a 4-4-2 shape Ziyech or Klaassen would partner Dolberg up front, depending on which side of the pitch it was on. All 3 did a good job of carrying the ball from one half to the other with Ziyech in particular perfecting the late run.

Conversely, Nabil Fekir of Lyon had a poor game. Arguably equal to Hakim Ziyech in terms of quality, he failed to leave any imprint on the game as he ended it with a yellow card and a couple of wild shots in anger. Fekir’s movement was limited and quite rigid as he rarely left the central areas of the pitch. Ziyech meanwhile, ventured continually into the left half-space which meant Ajax could easily turn an attacking 4-3-3 into a defensive 4-4-2.

Ziyech’s movement made him harder to track, due to the fact that possession can be won or lost at any time so sending a particular player to mark Ziyech could leave them a man light should they reclaim the ball. His spatial intelligence allowed the likes of Dolberg, Younes and Klaassen to benefit from these pockets of space which helped the creation of the goal, as he filled the space Dolberg vacated to occupy Gonalons.

Fekir virtually locked himself out the game as his (lack of) movement meant Valbuena, Lacazette and Cornet all had to adjust their runs which negatively affected Lyon’s attacks. Ziyech, on the other hand, caused more havoc. His ability from long-range meant that he was a danger if left alone outside the box which meant that Ajax knew they’d be a man up whether Ziyech was marked or not.

Poor Marking Costs Ajax

One cause for concern Ajax in the final could be how they defend crosses in their own box. With all 3 of the goals they conceded being a result of a defensive mistake, this is something Ajax will have to improve on in the final. A relatively tall defence, it is also slightly worrying they were out jumped by the significantly smaller Alexandre Lacazette.

These three incidents do again raise the debate on ‘man-marking v zonal marking’ but there’s no vastly superior option as both systems carry their pros and cons although if one system is to be used instead of the other, errors such as these must be eradicated.

The first goal caused by a sloppy penalty being given away, the second goal conceded (pictured) just seconds later and a third goal being scored by Rachid Ghezzal who was unmarked at the back post. With Manchester United likely to use the aerial prowess of Marouane Fellaini at some point during the final, this is something Ajax should work on and prepare for on the big day.

With Lyon coming outside Ligue 1’s top three, winning the Europa League was the only way they could’ve secured a place at Europe’s top table next season but they simply left themselves with too much to do.

This tie should represent a positive step in Ajax’s plan to re-immerse themselves among Europe’s elite and a final against Manchester United is an excellent way for two of Europe’s biggest names to go at it.

Stockholm, 24th May 2017 will surely be fine dining for any football connoisseur.

(All credit to @11tegen11 for the pass maps used)


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Ham Mpanga

Ham Mpanga

Ham Mpanga is 15 year old an aspiring coach and qualified referee who is obsessed with tactics and has numerous books on the likes of Bielsa, Klopp, Guardiola and Anchelotti. He also thinks that the Bundesliga has the best young midfielders in the world.
Ham Mpanga

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