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Ajax – The Johan Cruyff Way Part One

This is a piece written by guest author Ö-zil to the Arsenal! off the SI forums. You can check him out and his posts here Ozil’s profile

Following the sad passing of Ajax & Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff I’m sure I am not alone in enjoying a Cruyff-inspired Ajax save.

I always enjoy a save with Ajax. Developing the club’s youngsters and creating a formidable team of home-grown talent. At the outset of this game, I actually intended to move towards the classic Dutch 4-3-3 – which I did actually play briefly – however the lack of inside forwards and abundance of wonderful central midfielders, ball playing defenders and wingers meant a Johan Cruyff’s legendary 3-4-3 diamond was actually a better option. After much experimentation I have found a system which I am happy with and has brought great success, perhaps some may be interested and we may prompt some interesting discussion.

Real-Life* Resources on the 3-4-3
*Not that FM isn’t real life..

Theory

According to Spielverlagerung’s excellent analysis, this is the shape we are trying to create.

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Beautiful, isn’t it?

As part of the legendary ‘Total Football’ Holland team of the 1970s, Johan Cruyff’s tactical approach follows the same concepts:

  • Positive, proactive, football
  • Complete footballers with strong technical ability, intelligence and fitness
  • Attacking & defending as a team
  • Intelligence & creativity
  • Fluidity & movement
  • Possession

Formation, Shape & Mentality

Formation, shape and mentality go hand-in-hand as the backbone of your tactic. I don’t think there’s much sense talking about one without the others so I’ll cover them all at once.

As you’re probably aware by now, in Football Manager your formation refers to your defensive shape. So after a much experimentation, I settled on a 3-5-1-1 shape.

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Very Fluid: For me, the description below describes word-for-word exactly what we’re looking for here. Complete footballers, attacking and defending as a team in a fluid shape playing free-flowing football with high creative freedom. Perfect.

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Standard: Balance is the key word here. The temptation here would be to select control, or attacking. The reason I went for Standard is that playing a Very Fluid shape means that my team will attack and defend as a unit. This means that selecting a more aggressive mentality would make my entire team more aggressive. In other shapes, such as rigid or balanced, this is balanced out by reducing the defenders mentality but not in Very Fluid shapes. In my experience, Very Fluid shape does not mix well with Attacking mentality. I am sure it could work but in my experience it is simply not balanced.

Team Instructions

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Note on Passing

You’ll notice that despite wishing to play a possession-based game, I don’t alter my passing options. There are two reasons for this:

  1. My team consists of intelligent, technically talented players and my instructions give them good movement, passing options and creative freedom. I want to allow these players to pick the best option, rather than the one closest to them. Much of the time the best option will be a short pass, but occasionally they could rip open a defence from range, if it’s on. I don’t think Cruyff would say ‘no’ to that!
  2. Want to avoid possession for possession sake. We want to dominate possession but also make sure we’re creating chances and moving forward.

Player Roles & Instructions

As per wwfan’s influential 12 Step Guide on How to Play Football Manager, in order to successfully play a Very Fluid shape I need to limit my team to 0-1 Specialist roles i.e playmakers, ball-winners or anything with a fancy name.

Sweeper Keeper (Support): Distribute the ball to Playmaker, Distribute Quickly
Central Defender (Defend): N/A
Central Defender (Cover): N/A
Central Defender (Defend): N/A
Right Winger (Attack): N/A
Central Midfielder (Support): Player specific*
Deep-lying Playmaker (Defend): Close down much less
Central Defender (Defend): Player specific
Left Winger (Attack): N/A
Attacking Midfielder (Attack): Hold up Ball
Complete Forward (Support): Move into Channels

*by ‘player specific’ I mean that I alter the instructions based on the strengths or weaknesses of a particular player. Using the starting XI above as an example, Klaassen is a great, aggressive central midfielder so I have him Get forward, close down more, dribble more and play more direct passes, whilst Van de Beek on the left is more of a patient passer, so I have him hold position, pass shorter and fewer risky passes. I try to balance the two so one more aggressive and the other sits helps recycle possession.

Analysis of the Shape

The screenshot below comes from the Home Leg of our 2020 Champions League Quarter Final tie with an aging Barcelona side.

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Ajax are in possession of the ball in midfield with Bazoer playing a short pass towards Klaassen. Here, you can clearly see a wide back 3 with a diamond midfield ahead of them and a centre forward, flanked by two wingers.

You can also see the problems this shape is causing for a deep 4-2DM-3-1. Look at the space our our midfielders have. We won this game 4-1 and achieved almost 60% possession.

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If heat maps are more your thing, here is our Average Position with the ball.

Match Analysis
AJAX vs PSG
2020 Champions League Final

We faced up against Laurent Blanc’s PSG side. It was the collision of two very different footballing philosophies. PSG has spend more than £560m since the game began, whilst 7 of the Ajax starting 11 come from the Toekomst academy. PSG lined up in a formidable looking 4-3-3 and I played the system exactly as outlined above, no special tweaks.

I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal – Johan Cruyff

Analysis without the ball

The main reason for choosing to play a 3-6-1 system is it’s strength off the ball. The numbers in midfield mean you can press aggressively without worrying about leaving gaps.

I’d strongly recommend reading the following article for more insight into the strengths of the shape – 3-6-1: A Logical Step, by Spielverlagerung (I don’t work for them, honestly )

Key Instructions:

  • Very Fluid – Defend as a unit, compact mentality structure
  • Close Down Much More
  • Tight Marking
  • Prevent GK Distribution

The High Press

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Here you see PSG in possession at the back and you can immediately see how much pressure they’re under. Mbemba narrowly managed to get the ball away to his fullback before my centre forward pounced on him. Now look at the options open to the fullback. Nada. My left winger is up and on him before the ball lands at his feet.

Pressing is very simple.

  • You need a formation where your player will be close to the opposition player with ball, i.e no gaps in formation, for example it’s difficult to press opposition fullbacks with a 4-4-2 diamond as you have no width.
  • You need players who get there quickly Close Down Much More TI/PI, high Work Rate, Pace and Stamina
  • You need to support that player by covering the gap he leaves, and cutting off passing options, i.e 5-man midfield offers great cover (see article above), and tight marking.

Wining the ball instantly with a high press is great, but difficult. The real objective of the high press is to force the opposition into a long ball, when we have 3 mobile defenders and a holding midfielder.

The Deep Press

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Now you can see our defensive structure when PSG have possession in a threatening position in the attacking third.

In the absence of Fullbacks, players in the MR/ML strata drop deep and defend as slightly advanced fullbacks creating a very solid back 5-3-2 shape. Bazoer will drop into the defence if anyone is out of position to kill any gaps. This is the premise of my defensive structure.

One of the things I like about generalist roles vs specialist is their defensive work-rate. Look at #10 – that’s Odegaard, my attacking midfielder still getting tight on Daley Blind, cutting off any passing option there.

Analysis with the ball

Now for the fun part..

Build up from defence

As you expect from a Total Football-inspired team who attack and defend as a unit, our defenders and indeed goalkeeper are the first stage of our build up play.

Key Instructions

  • Very Fluid – More movement, creative freedom and defenders encouraged to get involved with play.
  • Higher Creative Freedom
  • Standard Mentality – players pick the best passing option, unbiased as to whether it is a short or direct option.
  • Generalist roles – with the exception of the DLP, players will not be biased towards finding a ‘playmaker’, again simply choose the best option.

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This image shows that our formation is essentially two diamonds, with a front 3 ahead of them. Almost all opposition formations will find it difficult / impossible to put pressure on each point in both the diamonds, so you’ll almost always have a ‘free player’ in the build up phase.

This is an easy example, as PSG are not pressing at all.

There are two key points to the diamond:

  1. Deep Lying Playmaker
  2. Attacking Midfielder

If you missed the link above, Cryuff explains it himself, here:


The Deep-Lying Playmaker – Bazoer

You may notice I have Bazoer highlighted in a lot of the highlights. The reason for this is that he is my point of reference. Bazoer is the pivot between the two diamonds and always needs to be available for a pass. The reason for having him highlighted is to see instantly if he is being marked out of the game.

Bazoer will regularly drop into the back 3 to pick up the ball and distribute forward to my midfielders, wingers or attackers.

Key Instructions

  • Playmaker – only playmaker in the team, so he attracts the ball more and has the most passing options.
  • Very Fluid – finds space himself and team mates offer good movement. In addition, higher creative freedom.

The Attacking Midfielder – Odegaard

Best player on the team. Odegaard is an attacking pivot. Odegaard has two responsibilities:

  • When the ball is behind him, he has his back to goal, finding space for a simple pass and then playing another simple pass to an onrushing midfielder.
  • When the ball is ahead of him, making forward runs and acting as a playmaker or secondary striker.

Key Instructions

  • Hold up ball.
  • Get Forward (automatic).
  • NOT Roam from Position – none of my midfield diamond roam from position, as if they roam too much then I lose my diamond.
  • SOMETIMES Swap position with ST, if your ST is a playmaker.

Possession in Midfield

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Here, you can see how we line up as Bazoer enters the opposition half, and plays a short pass to Klaassen. This illustrates:

  • Bazoer’s positioning in the centre circle – I want him staying in/around here as a passing option and foil for opposition counters.
  • Odegaard has his back to goal, open to play a connecting pass to an on-rushing midfielder before making an attacking run himself. <- we score a lot of goals from this.
  • Back 3 spread wide in possession of the ball, all in plenty of space.
  • Midfield diamond in an advanced position, ready to transition to attack.
  • Wingers are wide, stretching the defence.
  • Complete Forward is dropping deeper, adding an extra passing option and creating space.

Entering the Attacking Third

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Here, Riedewald finds Nunnely in an attacking position. As we enter the attacking third, you can see:

  • Our shape becomes a 3-3-4.
  • Odegaard is now facing goal, making an attacking run and creating a 2v1 on the opposition centre back.
  • Our back 3 and midfield 3 remain reasonably in-tact, acting as cover to counter attacks and passing options.
  • At times, Klaassen will make a later run into the box.
  • Wingers make attacking runs into the box.

I really like the positional play from MR/ML Wingers in a Very Fluid system. They allow us to transition from 5-3-2 without the ball in our half, to 3-3-4 with the ball in attack.

The Result

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We won the match comfortably and this was perhaps the defining match of this Ajax team. We destroyed PSG 5-0, recording 58% possession and preventing a single shot on target whilst a youngster from the academy was Man of the Match and scored a bicycle kick.

This side also won the Eredivise, unbeaten and scoring a record number of goals. Odegaard, Nunnely, van Leeuwen and Patrascu all managed >20 goals in all competitions. Nouri, Ayew and Klaassen all achieved goal tallies in the double figures.

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If you’re interested in the background & development of this team, I have been posting regular updates in the Ajax – de Godenzonen thread in the Player & Team Guide on SI Games.

14 thoughts on “Ajax – The Johan Cruyff Way Part One”

  1. A super article like this just shows the kind of top notch articles that can be done, and shows how bad and lazy my work is.

  2. great article ! just started an ajax save myself and i am wondering do you use the same tactic for home and away games ? im using a similar tactic based off of yours and ive noticed that im struggling away to some of the stronger teams in the eredivisie

    1. I only ever use one tactic, so I always use the same one. I might drop the mentality in the odd game or add a different TI based on how the game is going but that’s it.

      In the system you are using you need to understand how it works and how it doesn’t work, if you don’t know the ins and outs of it then you will struggle at times.

  3. I am trying this with a sweeper, dropping the CD-C back as a Libero Support – just because I really want to make it work. It’s been a slow go in pre-season and I’m training a player there as well. I tried to match the instructions for the Libero as well as I could – the only main difference is that he’s forced to hold position. I could drop him back into a straight sweeper, which I imagine is important for the very fluid 0-1 rule, right? Libero + DLP makes it 2? Wondering if you have any thoughts on this.

    1. Is the issue that the CD-Ds don’t play wide enough with the Libero-S back there? Would setting a team instruction to play wider or very wide help? Or is that going to through the balance off somewhere else?

      1. I’ve tried a few things here … I went back to the CD-C (no sweeper) but Jagielka gets burned by the opposition striker at least 2x a game. I mean the guy just flies by him and gets a point blank shot on my striker? What can I do to stop this?

        The other thing I did to make this more defensive – because I was just getting killed by better teams – was to make the wingers defensive wingers with defend duty and had them not going extra wide also in the individual instructions. Then I made the better of the two MCs (McCarthy in my case) a MC-A instead of S. This really helped but Jagielka still got burned a few times.

  4. Amazing post! Only one question: how could I set a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 with the exactly same philosophy?

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