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In the Zone: Sporting CP 1-5 Ajax performance analysis

Our new tactical series continues with UEFA's Technical Observer panel dissecting Ajax's comprehensive victory in Lisbon on Matchday 1.

In the Zone: Ajax analysis
In the Zone: Ajax analysis

UEFA's Technical Observer panel looks back over Ajax's 5-1 victory away to Sporting CP in Group C – one of the most eye-catching results from Matchday 1 of the UEFA Champions League group stage.

Erik ten Hag's charges raced into a two-goal lead inside nine minutes and ended up scoring five goals for the third time in five games. It was an unexpected outcome given the Portuguese side – noted for their high work rate and athleticism – had conceded one goal or less in each of their six previous matches this season, following their first domestic championship for 19 years last term.

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Goals

Highlights: Sporting CP 1-5 Ajax
Highlights: Sporting CP 1-5 Ajax

0-1: Sébastien Haller (2)
Antony collected the ball on the right wing, capitalising on disorganisation in the Sporting ranks. He then cut inside Gonçalo Inácio and fired in a shot which was deflected on to the back post, allowing Haller to head in the rebound from close range.

0-2: Sébastien Haller (9)
Sporting failed to cope with Antony's pace throughout and that was perfectly illustrated in the second goal. Wing-back Rúben Vinagre was left trailing when one-on-one with the Brazilian from Remko Pasveer's long kick and Haller slid in to convert the low cross from six metres.

1-2: Paulinho (33)
After a relatively lengthy attack, Sporting demonstrated their willingness and ability to run forward behind the Ajax defence. Matheus Nunes passed the ball forward to the sprinting Paulinho, who finished from a tight angle with his left foot.

1-3: Steven Berghuis (39)

Antony was involved again, drawing in Rúben Vinagre before exploiting Ajax's overload in central midfield by slipping the ball inside to Ryan Gravenberch. He rolled Zouhair Feddal and passed inside to the onrushing Berghuis, whose first touch took him between Luís Neto and Ricardo Esgaio before he swept a left-footed finish inside the near post.

Four-goal Ajax hero Haller reaction
Four-goal Ajax hero Haller reaction

1-4: Sébastien Haller (51)
Ajax gained possession as a result of a successful high press on their right side of the pitch, giving Antony time and space to measure an incisive outside-of-the-boot pass that Haller was able to reach a split second before Antonio Adán.

1-5: Sébastien Haller (63)
Berghuis passed the ball inside to Noussair Mazraoui from out wide on the right. The full-back then ran further inside and released a diagonal pass forward and beyond Sporting's defence to Haller, already on the move, who used his left foot to score with his second touch.

Best Player

Sébastien Haller (Ajax)
Sporting adopted a three-man back line but were unable to keep tabs on the striker. The enforced 21st-minute substitution of Gonçalo Inácio did not help – though they were already two goals down at that point – and they were constantly pulled out of position due to Ajax's threat in wide areas.

Haller played on the shoulder of the last defender throughout the game and three of his four goals came as a result of his advanced positioning. The first two also owed much to his determination to power into central areas and razor-sharp instincts whenever Anthony popped up in dangerous positions.

The UEFA Champions League Player of the Match vote – as decided by Technical Observer Mixu Paatelainen – was hardly a surprise given Haller became the first player to score four times on his Champions League debut since Marco van Basten in 1992.

Features

Ajax never wavered from their 4-3-3
Ajax never wavered from their 4-3-3

There were undoubtedly two key factors in Ajax's resounding success – their overload in midfield and high press.

The visitors adopted a 4-3-3 formation and were consistently able to utilise their extra body centrally to control the contest. Edson Álvarez was key to their dominance, playing an important role in their build-up by linking between the lines while providing balance to the more attack-minded Berghuis and Gravenberch.

Sporting struggled with their game plan to play out from the back as a result of an aggressive five-man Ajax press, with all of the visitors' outfield players in the hosts' half of the pitch. When they did break the press, Paulinho became a threat by making runs in behind the defence or linking up play to bring others into the game.

Their semi-high defence was often exposed by the speed and trickery of Ajax's wide attacking players. Antony, who provided three assists, and Dušan Tadić were equally adept at scheming from out wide or cutting inside and utilising their willing full-backs on overlaps. That in turn opened up greater space centrally for the visitors to further profit from their numerical advantage and get runners into the area.

Team formations

Ajax started with a 4-3-3 formation and two goals in the opening nine minutes ensured they never needed to deviate from that shape. Of the three in midfield, Álvarez was deployed in a deeper role, allowing Berghuis and Gravenberch to join the five-man press.

Paulinho had to drop into midfield occasionally in an attempt to restrict Álvarez but could not lessen his impact. Daniel Bragança tracked the holding player with greater regularity but came on in the 77th minute.

Sporting hoped their wing-backs would create danger
Sporting hoped their wing-backs would create danger

Sporting opted for a 3-4-3 strategy, tasking their wing-backs with aiding their attack while the central duo of João Palhinha and Matheus Nunes only advanced when the ball was on their side, sitting and patrolling when play was switched.

However, Ajax's central overload and effective press allowed them to push the home side – Rúben Vinagre and Pedro Porro in particular – into more defensive areas, creating a back five on many occasions. Coach Rúben Amorim persisted with his formation for the duration.

Coach quotes

Rúben Amorim, Sporting coach: "After conceding in the very first minute, we had to go after them and they were comfortable. We're inexperienced. We tried to turn it around, conceded the third and had one that was offside which could have changed the game. Then we conceded the fourth and we didn't know how to manage. The players are very brave – I told them to play a tighter 5-4-1 and they didn't want to."

Erik ten Hag, Ajax coach: ''It's better to be critical if you won 5-1. But let's be honest: we played fantastic football, especially in possession and on the right. Sporting were on their heels. That was a joy to watch. This was a wonderful team performance. We had a good plan and the players executed it well, both during the build-up and during the moments when the game hung in the balance."