On Tuesday evening Ajax will visit FC Midtjylland in Denmark. The team from Amsterdam will have to win the third group match in the Champions League to stay in the race for wintering in the billion dollar ball. In this tactical analysis attention is paid to opponent FC Midtjylland, which has been making an impressive advance in recent years in an ultra-modern way.
FC Midtjylland – the club where former Ajax player Viktor Fischer played in the youth academy between 2009 and 2011, Rasmus Kristensen broke through from the youth academy in the first team in 2016 and Rafael van der Vaart was under contract from 2016 to 2018 – is a relatively young club . FC Midtjylland was founded in 1999 after a merger between Ikast FS and Herning Fremad. A year later FC Midtjylland was promoted to the highest football level in Denmark, where it subsequently grew into a worthy second-tier. In the Superligaen it even became second and third several times, but the real success only came in 2014, after Matthew Benham took over FC Midtjylland for just under seven million euros.
Benham, who also owns Brentford FC, a hard-hitting England company, is a man who shares the principles of the famous American film. Moneyball try to put into practice. Benham wants to optimize and perfect the playing style of FC Midtjylland on the basis of data and statistics and the transfer market is looking for players with specific qualities that fit within the playing style of FC Midtjylland.
At every match that FC Midtjylland plays, several data analysts from the club are present in the stadium. During matches, the number of passes in the last part of the field, the average positioning of each individual player and the average distance of the goal attempts are considered, among other things. The achievements of FC Midtjylland are captured by the club in an innovative Expected Points Per Gamesystem, something FC Midtjylland attaches more value to than the position in the rankings. Owner Benham believes that good results will follow automatically by optimizing the playing style. Winning three Danish league titles and the Danish Cup since the takeover in 2014 show that Benham’s philosophy is indeed a successful way of running a club. Before the takeover, FC Midtjylland has never won a prize at the highest level, but since the entry of Benham the club has reached the knock-out stage of the Europa League twice and thus won four national prizes.
Under 43-year-old trainer Brian Priske, who was appointed head coach of FC Midtjylland in 2019 after many years as an assistant coach, the club plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The starting points within this formation are offensive backs, a strong block of two controlling midfielders for the defense and a mobile trio under a physically strong striker, who in turn must act as a starting point.
The strength of FC Midtjylland does not lie in the build-up of backwards. In Danish league FC Midtjylland normally tries to build up, but last Saturday, for example, this went terribly wrong several times against FC Nordsjælland. FC Midtjylland lost 4-1 and opponent FC Nordsjælland could have made the result even bigger by taking advantage of three major errors in the build-up, but this left FC Midtjylland’s somewhat sloppy opponent in the completion last weekend.
In the Champions League, FC Midtjylland usually does not really choose to build from behind anyway. The goalkeeper, defenders and midfielders of the team make many mistakes and wrong choices under pressure, so that in the Champions League there is almost always a direct long ball in the direction of the strong striker Sory Kaba.
After playing the long ball on Kaba FC Midtjylland tries to get the creative and ball-skilled players to the ball. This concerns the trio Anders Dreyer (ex-player of sc Heerenveen), star player and former Ajax target Pione Sisto and Awer Mabil. Dreyer and Mabil play from the right and left flank respectively, while Sisto acts in the back of striker Kaba as an attacking midfielder. The attacking game of FC Midtjylland is given shape by this trio under Kaba, who only scored ten goals in 44 games for FC Midtjylland.
Dreyer is an agile dribbler who loves pulling in from the right flank. On the other hand, the lightning-fast but technically less gifted Mabil likes to do the same. Attacking midfielder Sisto often plays around striker Kaba and, due to his dynamics, has an important role in the combination game on half of the opponent. Furthermore, Dreyer, Sisto and Mabil try to spot the gaps that Kaba makes for them, or to present themselves between the lines. When this happens, backs Joel Andersson and Paulinho provide the necessary width in the game. Both backs are offensive and regularly give an early cross from the side.
While FC Midtjylland’s wingers have come in, backs Andersson and Dyhr bring the breadth of the game.
FC Midtjylland tries to create opportunities with a lot of dynamism, power and speed. The Danes have not yet scored this Champions League season, but had several great opportunities against both Atalanta Bergamo and Liverpool. Often these opportunities arose in the switch, something that FC Midtjylland with mainly the speed of Mabil, Sisto and Kaba can be dangerous. Furthermore, controlling midfielder Jens Cajuste also created danger with dribbles and good passes. He and Sisto often want to combine opportunities around the enemy penalty area. When this is not possible, FC Midtjylland uses the early cross.
Throw-in as corners
Another weapon of FC Midtjylland are the long throws, mainly performed by right back Andersson. FC Midtjylland, coincidentally as well as group mates Ajax and Liverpool, received training from the Danish throw-in coach Thomas Grønnemark and, entirely according to the innovative philosophy of owner Benham, Midtjylland tries to turn throws into serious opportunities. Throw-ins into the last quarter of the playing field are actually all approached by FC Midtjylland as corners. Just like with corner kicks, with the throws of Andersson, both center defenders of FC Midtjylland go forward and the Danes are in the penalty area of the opponent with about six to seven players.
FC Midtjylland will not put too much pressure against Ajax for most of the match. The Danes choose moments during a match when this does happen and then continue with midfielder Sisto, one of the two controlling midfielders and a central defender. In the vast majority of cases, however, FC Midtjylland opts for a different approach.
The Danish club keeps striker Kaba in the front as the only player, while the rest of the team withdraws to their own half. Kaba plays just over the center line, but the rest of the team is in their own half in the defensive organization. The 4-2-3-1 formation is then in many cases turned into a 4-5-1 formation, with wingers Dreyer and Mabil collapsing and Sisto playing between or just a bit ahead of the two controlling midfielders. From this defensive organization, the physically strong FC Midtjylland is then very fierce in the mutual duels and at first sight gives little space away.
Wing forwards Dreyer and Mabil and attacking midfielder Sisto allow themselves to collapse and come to play (almost) on the same line as controlling midfielders Cajuste and Onyeka.
However, both Liverpool and Atalanta Bergamo have already shown this Champions League season that it is also possible to create opportunities against a compactly positioned FC Midtjylland. The coordination between the players of the Danish team is not always optimal, so that opponents of FC Midtjylland with dynamic attackers and midfielders between the lines often get players free in promising positions. Ajax will have to be patient with the ball from behind against FC Midtjylland and have to wait until the vanguard players or midfielders are released. When this happens, Ajax should be able to play football through the defense of FC Midtjylland by means of quick combinations.
Despite the defeats against Atalanta Bergamo and Liverpool FC Midtjylland is an opponent not to be underestimated. The Danes are offensively threatening, not least because of the individual qualities of Sisto, Cajuste and Dreyer. Lower on the field FC Midtjylland clearly has more trouble making the game. In the back, the Danish club regularly makes mistakes under pressure from the opponent and therefore normally uses the long ball quickly.
From a defensive point of view FC Midtjylland tries to keep things compact and closed in its own half, but if Ajax is patient with the ball and the moving players without the ball between the lines will be moving a lot, it is still possible to play football to get chances against FC Midtjylland. For Ajax’s Champions League aspirations, it is crucial that the team from Amsterdam leave Denmark with three points on Tuesday evening and thus keep a connection with Liverpool and Atalanta Bergamo. The men of trainer Erik ten Hag therefore know what to do on Tuesday evening against the innovative, but beating FC Midtjylland.
Probable line-up FC Midtjylland:
Andersen; Andersson, Sviatchenko, Scholz, Paulinho; Cajuste, Onyeka; Dreyer, Sisto, Mabil; Kaba.
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