Ajax could and should have beaten Benfica in the first leg in Portugal. In a time where a draw away versus a Portuguese top team is lamented as a disappointing results (have we forgotten that we hardly ever won against Portuguese teams, home or away??), Ajax can look back on a decent first half.
Ten Hag explained his choice for Gravenberch over Klaassen in geometrical terms: “With Klaassen I can play vertical, Davey loves his forward runs. But i want to put the emphasis on the width of the park. And Gravenberch is the player for this.” Huh??
Before the half time break. Ten Hag appears to get it right. What Ten Hag described worked. Seb Haller scores the 1-2, and like Ajax’ first goal, it is the result of the tactical hocus pocus of the bald maestro.
In the first half, Benfica is trying to pressure Ajax with a 4-4-2. When that fails, Ramos drops back into midfield to make life hard for Alvarez, trying to stop Ajax finding the free man in the midfield.
In defensive terms, Ajax plays man to man on midfield, as per usual. Alvarez on Ramos, Berghuis makes life hard for Weigl and Gravenberch is up against Adel Taarabt. The pressure play is done by Antony. The right winger is constantly pushing towards Vertonghen, from his position vis a vis Grimaldo. Mazaroui pops up behind Antony in the half space whenever he can.
That patterns is clear to see right before the first Ajax goal. Antony leaves Grimaldi open to push Vertonghen. Goalie Odysseas opens to his left back, assuming he’s got time and space. But Mazraoui pounces like an eagle and pushes the Spaniard off the ball, he combines with Antony and assists the Tadic goal. Seven seconds between the turn over and the ball in the net. It happens so often: the high press resulting in a goal for Ajax.
The way Ajax gifts the equaliser to Benfica must have Ten Hag pulling out all his hair. If he had hair. Martinez is paired with Vertonghen but due to a block, the Argentinian loses him and Mazraoui takes over his duties. But the right back slips and Vertonghen finds himself with time and space. The ex Ajax defender hits the ball in, where Pasveer fails to stop the cross in. And Haller doesn’t count on the goalie’s omission and stands on his heels, not able to move his feet: 1-1.
Still, Ajax gains control swiftly again. The second goal demonstrates why Gravenberch is in the team. Ten Hag has been harping on about pulling the opponent wide. Using the width to create openings in the opponent set up. Another aspect to focus in on, is Timber’s runs into midfield. His opponent Nunez is not one to defend and he allows Timber to become and extra midfielder. Benfica plays zonal and has two player on their right hand side. Ajax puts three players opposite these two. With winger Tadic, left back Blind and midfielder Gravenberch almost hugging the line. Silva is pulled towards the ball by Blind, Berghuis took the left winger role for a bit while Tadic is in the centre and the former Feyenoord talisman crosses the ball into Haller who has two bites of the cherry: 1-2.
This is not a coincidence, because just before the break, this same situation results in another chance for Haller. Timber is in midfield again and Gravenberch plays like an extra left winger and the Benfica defence is getting confused. Ajax opens with a cross ball to the right, where Antony has space one on one. He launches Alvarez and the Mexican hits the post with his shot. The rebound is just to hard for Haller to control with his left.
In the second half. Benfica coach Verissimo plays the joker. Yaremchuk comes as an extra striker. Now, there are three central strikers on the pitch for Benfica and Ajax starts get countered more often, with four Benfica forwards threatening the Ajax goal.
In an attacking sense, Ajax’ wing backs have more space to attack but when the ball is lost, the Benfica forwards have space and time and the game opened up massively.
This is the lead up to the Benfica equaliser: Timber is in the opposing box and in my view, he makes a mistake by simulating an injury, to get a penalty. The slow-mo shows he wasn’t touched. He’s down though and as Gravenberch, Tadic, Blind, Haller and Antony are also up field, the rest defence consists of Alvarez, Berghuis, Martinez and Mazraoui. The Mexican is played out by Silva and the move ends with a distance strike by Ramos. Usually, a low percentage option. Pasveer blocks the shot but the ball drops right in front of the empty goal where Yaremchuk is simply quicker than Berghuis: 2-2.
Ten Hag responds by bring a better defender for left back with Tagliafico. The Argentinian can bomb up the flank too and Klaassen is coming in for Gravenberch. Ajax wants control back. But Benfica is happy with the draw and switch back to a 5-4-1 system and starts to run out the clock.
Benfica ends up being joyous with the draw which is another indication of the big chance Ajax missed to get one leg into the next round. Benfica can now play defensively in Amsterdam and play on the counter attack.
Oh, and it has to be said…. Daley Blind played a terrible game….