It’s as if it is the most normal thing in the world. Discussing Ajax’ performance at CL level. How quickly do we get used to this success… Away vs Spurs, the #3 in the EPL, with a budget 6 times that of Ajax, we all think it’s a disappointment that Ajax “only” won by one goal difference…
How different life was, a mere year ago. Or two years ago. When Ajax struggled to get through the qualifiers and Oranje struggled to get into a big tournament.
Today, Virgil van Dijk is considered the best EPL player. Frenkie de Jong is considered the most exciting midfielder in Europe. Oranje is up to win the Nations League this summer and Holland is oozing talent again, everywhere you look.
The 0-1 vs Spurs in London was indeed a disappointment. As Spurs was suffering from the loss of Kane, Lamela, Dier, Winks and in particular Son and simply not in a good spell, the expectations in Holland were that Ajax would win this easily, 0-3.
But the game was a very interesting lesson in tactics, for Ajax mainly, as Spurs was able to stop the footballing onslaught Ajax brought to them, and found a way to contain Ajax, without becoming threatening themselves, by the way.
But this game will have taught the young Ajax team a lot! So thanks, Spurs!
The first Phase – From start to minute 21
Ten Hag wasn’t sure how Spurs would start. They can play different systems, and the 5-at-the-back system was one of the systems Ten Hag was prepared for. Spurs used this to abysmal effect vs Liverpool, so most people felt it was unwise to start like this vs Ajax, but that is what Pochettino ended up doing. Ten Hag was not too concerned: “I believe Blind, De Jong, Tadic and Ziyech will be able to recognise what they need to do once we start the game.”
It is Daley Blind who is gesticulating and pointing from minute 1, when he recognised what kind of intent Spurs brings to the game. Eriksen will be De Jong’s counterpart, while Llorente and Moura will put pressure on Blind and De Ligt, keeping Tagliafico and Veltman free to build up. Once the Ajax backs have possession, Spurs springs the trap to push up. Ten Hag was prepared for this. He actually discussed this in details before the game: “When Spurs play with 5 at the back and they start pressing our backs, we will find a lot of space behind their defence.”
Ajax found the easy solution. Both De Jong and Schone would make themselves available for the defenders to play out and at times, even Veltman would squeeze into midfield to allow for the outball. Tottenham starts to doubt their action plan and Ajax takes control of the game.
The openings goal of Van de Beek has everything contained in it: Ajax control of the centre of the pitch, wih Veltman pushing inside. Ziyech attracting players to him, allowing for a 1 v 1 elsewhere on the pitch. When Neres is found with feel, Schone can keep the ball under pressure finding Ziyech who slots the ball into Donny’s feet who is just onside. A little dummy follows, he sits Lloris down and it’s 0-1.
The second Phase – from minute 22 to 45
When Tadic is injured on the pitch, Pochettino uses the time to instruct his players to abandon the 5-3-2 and Danny Rose is pushing into midfield. Hakim Ziyech was enjoying a lot of free space and with this move, the space in midfield becomes sparse. Tottenham also starts to play more direct balls. Llorente finds Daley Blind and he is the target man for the long balls. The tall Spaniard wins 7 aerial battles and allows Spurs a way out from trouble.
Minute 46 – 90
Ajax has demonstrated to be quite comfortable under pressure. They showed this vs Real Madrid. They can keep the pitch small and compact and play themselves out of trouble with their quick passing. At times a long ball towards the speedy Neres or Van de Beek can work as well. But Spurs forces Ajax into fighting mode. Tottenham puts more pressure on the ball and Ajax decides to avoid risk but to play a compact defensive game, absorbing the pressure and counting on a break. Even Neres and Ziyech are putting in a shift.
This image above shows what happened. The Spurs forwards make it hard for Ajax to play out from the back, and Onana is forced to play the long ball. Tottenham does have a lot of trouble creating any real chances though. The siege of the Ajax half doesn’t really result in open chances. And Pochettino simply doesn’t have the options on the bench for a breakthrough.
The best chance in the second half is actually for Ajax. Nazraoui, not 100% fit, is back in the game for Schone, who was spent. Nazraoui, a former playmaker, knows how to play midfield and when Ziyech puts pressure on Alderweireld he sends Mazraoui deep, who bombs past Eriksen and drives into the box. Tadic does get a chance from the same spot that got him his goal vs Madrid but the false striker decides to square to Neres, who mishits the ball a tad, and hits the post.
And thus, we saw two Ajax faces. The Ajax that can swing, dominate and tear opponents apart with blistering football and the Ajax that can battle and fight.
This shrewdness might well be another skill in the toolbox for Ajax, to achieve that historical ticket for a Champions League finals…
Elsewhere in Europe, Virgil van Dijk had to concede 3 goals, while his team played a very good game! But where luck and skill worked in tandem for Barca, Liverpool hit the post and missed their key opportunities to surprise the Spanish champs, even with Wijnaldum as false striker…