Ajax’s Success Explained

Alex Ross – RSAC Writer

When the UEFA Champions League started in the fall, Ajax Amsterdam was seen as a team that might make it past the group stage, but would go out when they had to face one of the titans of Europe, such as Ronaldo’s Juventus or Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric’s Real Madrid. Well, we’re in May, and Ajax have beaten both of those teams, and are currently 1-0 up against Tottenham, well on their way to the final in Madrid. Many say that their playing style is reminiscent of Barcelona, with beautiful passing buildup followed by quick runs into the box that wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Just how good is Ajax? How have they managed to go on their miracle run? How long will it last? These are some of the questions that we will explore in this article.

What makes Ajax so special is the patience the team exhibits. They average 53% possession, which is in the top ten of all of the teams in European competition. Sure, that number may not be as high as you might think, but the elite teams that they have played, Tottenham, Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, all tend to dominate their opponents. As Ajax neared the end of the group stage, they played Bayern for a second time and managed an astounding 576 passes, with 511 of them coming in play in the middle area of the field, not close to either goal. Bayern managed almost 100 fewer. This has been a theme throughout the tournament. Only three teams rank higher in terms of total passes in the tournament, and Ajax have the most total successful short passes as well.

What effect does this short passing prowess have on Ajax’s ability to capitalize on their chances? A team could, after all, just pass around the back and time waste the whole game. This is not the case with Ajax, as they actually rank in the top ten in shots per game. At first glance, this might seem to indicate that a team is more impatient. However, if we look at where their shots come from, we see a different story. Ajax are sixth in shots on target per game, meaning that they are a very accurate team. They are also sixth in shots out of open play, meaning that they don’t rely on quick counter attacks, but on passes leading to open chances. It is clear that Ajax’s passing leads to better chances, which means more goals: they have scored 20 in the UCL, the third highest of any team, and the second most out of the teams remaining, behind only Barcelona.

It is most likely that Ajax will make the final. In each of the past four tournaments, the teams that won in the first leg advanced. While the majority of soccer fans will be cheering on Ajax as they attempt to win the tournament, the odds are heavily in favor of Barcelona (given that they beat Liverpool over two legs, which seems probable.) Barca average 63% possession. They are only 0.6% less accurate than the best passing team in Europe, Manchester City, completing 89% of passes. They have the highest rated player of the tournament, Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, who has 10 of his teams 23 goals and is in the top 10 in UCL assists rankings. As a team Barcelona also averages more shots per game, more accurate shots, passes per game, and accurate passes per game. Overall, Barca is just a statistically better version of Ajax, with the ultimate x-factor player, Messi, who I believe will end Ajax’s cinderella story in the final in a few weeks.

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