Brighton’s win away to Ajax showed their growing maturity in European football

Completing a home and away double over Ajax is a rare feat.

Brighton & Hove Albion’s 2-0 win in Amsterdam, two weeks after they beat Ajax by the same scoreline at home, adds them to an exclusive group.

Since 2017-18 (Brighton’s first Premier League season), there are only six instances of a double over Ajax: Napoli and Liverpool last season in the Champions League; Liverpool again in the Champions League in 2020-21; AZ Alkmaar in 2019-20, the most recent in the Eredivisie; Vitesse and Rosenborg, in the 2017-18 Europa League.

The caveat this season: Ajax are in freefall. It took them 11 league games to win consecutive matches and they have made their worst start (for fewest wins and points, lowest league position and most goals conceded) to an Eredivisie season since it went to three points for a win in 1995. With five league losses already, Brighton might be the first name on the double list this season but will likely not be the last.

Regardless, Brighton producing the same result with a very different performance proved adaptability and quality. After all, they went to Amsterdam with the home victory over Ajax as their only win in eight games across all competitions, their worst run under Roberto De Zerbi and a marked drop-off from five wins in their first seven games of the season.

At the Amex, Brighton had the most possession (65 per cent) of any Ajax opponent since 2014 and spent the first-half camped in Ajax’s half, patiently trying to pass their way through a compact 4-4-2 defensive block.


Brighton 2-0 Ajax: A giantkilling in the history books, but not the form book

“If we have the ball, they are less dangerous,” said interim Ajax head coach John van‘t Schip before Thursday’s game. “Brighton is a team that plays good positional play and is very firm on the ball, but if we can play our game, they are also vulnerable. That will be somewhat the battle: making sure they can’t get into their style of football and on the other hand playing boldly ourselves.”

Brighton head coach Roberto De Zerbi must have had similar ideas — Brighton’s out-of-possession approach ensured Ajax could not get into their style. Brighton defended high but without relentlessly pressing, setting traps instead.

Primarily, right-winger Simon Adingra pressed out-to-in on Ajax’s left centre-back, Jorrel Hato. His runs were deliberately curved towards the touchline, forcing the left-footer onto his non-dominant right side, and funnelling play centrally.

This caused problems for Ajax’s 3-2-5 shape, which they created by moving right centre-back Devyne Rensch into midfield and pushing both No 10s forward. Brighton tweaked their typical 4-4-2 pressing shape into a 4-1-4-1, to maintain a midfield man-marking scheme, with No 10 Ansu Fati or No 9 Joao Pedro dropping onto an Ajax pivot.

Ajax Brighton

Here is how that looked early on.

Hato receives from his goalkeeper, Diant Ramaj. Fati drops in with Rensch. Adingra presses.


Hato has three options: return to his goalkeeper, play long or pass into central midfield. He picks the latter, passing to Silvano Vos, who is immediately pressed by Mahmoud Dahoud and gets forced out to the touchline with the ball.


Adingra doubles up with Dahoud on Vos, who has to pass back to Hato. He returns it to his goalkeeper, which triggers Joao Pedro’s press, from an initial position marking central centre-back Josip Sutalo.


Joao Pedro forces Ramaj long, and he hooks his launched pass left, out for a Brighton throw-in in the Ajax half — over half of his long passes were incomplete.


diant ramaj ajax 0 2 brighton hove albion in the uefa europa league 2023 24 passmap

There is a similar pattern later in the half, where Adingra presses after a square pass to Hato, and makes the 17-year-old pass to the goalkeeper.

JP 1

Joao Pedro pressures Ramaj into kicking long again, albeit this time more accurately.

JP 2

He targets left-winger Steven Bergwijn in an aerial duel against former Ajax defender Joel Veltman — Brighton’s pressing structure is vulnerable here, as it leaves a four-v-four on the last line (though here it is a three-v-three as Lewis Dunk has stepped out to mark Kristian Hylnsson). It necessitates the defenders to win duels, which Veltman does, beating Bergwijn in the air and booming a header back towards Ajax’s goal.

JP 3

Joao Pedro chases it as it runs through to Ramaj, who collects relatively easily, but the Brazilian crashes into him and gets winded.

Jp 4


Brighton’s pressing and use of traps created more first half opportunities. Here, Joao Pedro presses Ramaj — with Fati dropped onto a pivot again — who kicks long rather than passing to Hato.

Chance 1

Dunk wins the aerial duel, heading it to Billy Gilmour, and he finds Kaoru Mitoma to start a Brighton attack.

Chance 2

Mitoma gets through the Ajax midfield, with only two defenders between him and the goal. From here, he could realistically shoot (with a clear sight of goal) or pass wide to Adingra, but picks the harder pass to Joao Pedro. He should pass between the defenders, but pulls it behind the striker and the attack breaks down.

Chance 3

Pressing this high away from home in Europe is brave, given the space in-behind it vacates and the higher quality chances that are inevitable if it is not executed perfectly.

Through a combination of Brighton’s smart use of traps and triggers, tight midfield marking, and defenders winning duels, they limited Ajax to just eight shots. Since 2018-19, only at home to Ludogorets (7) have they had fewer in a European home game, and that was the second leg of their Europa League playoff round in August this year, after they had won the first leg 4-1.

Here is Ajax’s best chance from playing long into No 9 Brian Brobbey, who went up against Jan Paul van Hecke in a scrappy, physical old-fashioned centre-back/striker duel. Brobbey was able to set into a midfielder…and Ajax had a shot from almost 30 yards, with Brighton’s back four between the ball and goal. Bart Verbruggen, Brighton’s goalkeeper, held it comfortably.

Shot from distance

Here is the other instance of Ajax breaking the press. Hato kicks long — Adingra’s press is well shaped but a little late.

Cross 1

Brobbey holds off Van Hecke and then the recovering Veltman, with Ajax six-v-six in Brighton’s half.

Cross 2

But they take too long to exploit the space and 20 seconds later Steven Berghuis overhits a back-post cross, with Brighton getting everyone back and having nine bodies in the box.

Cross 3

Ajax managed just a 13 per cent shot possession rate in the first-half — a statistic that measures the number of shots divided by the number of possessions ending in the final third. Since 2018-19, in European games, Ajax have only posted lower scores in three first halves, and it was almost half what they managed at the Amex (25 per cent).

Fittingly, Brighton’s opener came from a regain by Adingra, down the right. Brighton had dropped into their 4-4-2 mid-block shape, with Gilmour stepping onto Vos. Under pressure, he underhit a pass to Hato, and Adingra pounced.

Goal 1

Adingra slipped Fati through — notably in the slot where Rensch would be if he had not moved into midfield — and he slotted past Ramaj to open the scoring.

Goal 2

When asked if the second goal, a longer passing sequence, made him happy, De Zerbi responded “the first goal as well, (it’s) our style, we regained the ball in high pressure, and we score after two passes.”

That goal was one of five Brighton goals after high turnovers this season. They also have the most shot-ending high turnovers in the Premier League (23).

brighton poss won

Brighton could have made it 3-0 from a regain in the second half when Mitoma intercepted a Ramaj pass, and found Fati in the box, but he took too long to get a shot away.

The only dampener were injuries to Dunk and James Milner, both subbed off, as well as the returning Pervis Estupinan, who came on as a second half substitute but only lasted 10 minutes.

The medium/long-term impact of those injuries will need assessment, but the performances of their replacements was important. Igor Julio replaced Dunk at half-time, and slotted in solidly, making the interception that started the sequence for Brighton’s second.

Gilmour, technically Milner’s replacement (he was replaced at left-back by Gross, who started in midfield, where Gilmour came on), put in his trademark tidy passing performance, completing all but one of 49 passes.

billy gilmour brighton hove albion 2 0 ajax in the uefa europa league 2023 24 passmap

Gilmour spoke afterwards about “a bit of naivety” from Brighton at the start of their debut European campaign; they conceded five goals in their first three halves, losing 3-2 on matchday one at home to AEK Athens, and recovered from 2-0 down at half-time to earn a point in Marseille.

Since then, they have not conceded in five halves of European football (the second versus Marseille and two entire games versus Ajax), and have scored in all five halves.

Seven points from four games is a healthy return, realistically putting Brighton one win from qualification. Since the Europa League rebrand in 2009-10, there have been 256 instances of a team registering 10 or more points from six group games. Only nine times has a team with 10 points (and it is always exactly 10) not finished in the top two.

The nine 10-pointers to not finish top 2

Team Season







Standard Liege


Sparta Prague


Young Boys


Birmingham City


Paris Saint-Germain


Tottenham Hotspur


On eight of those occasions, the bottom-ranked team in the group has lost five or all six of their games, something already impossible in Brighton’s group.

De Zerbi’s pre-match statement that Ajax “teach everyone to play football” was a respectful nod to their heritage, but Brighton are learning to play in different ways in Europe. It could well take them to the knockout stage.

(Top photo via Getty Images)

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