The visitors were played off the pitch in the first half of the game but were silenced in the second half.
“Being better in possession” was Ten Hag’s mantra after the disappointing draw in Portugal. In order to not fall into the counter-knife of Benfica, Ten Hag made some subtle changes to his system. The left flank, where Ajax suffered most in Lisbon, was set up differently this time, with a leading role for Ryan Gravenberch.
Tactically, this is a different match altogether. In Portugal, supported by the crazy Benfica fans, they pressed high at times.This time around, the Benfica coach used a 4-2-3-1 with a strong defensive block. Ramos played more like a midfielder than an attacker. while Silva and Everton also played more like wingbacks than winger. Benfica’s most important mission: do not concede, hoping Ajax will somehow stumble in the second half.
In order to stop the opponent from being dangerous, Ten Hag has used some more certainties. Daley Blind was out of position a number of times in the away game, when Benfica countered. This time around, he played more like a third centre back.
In the build up, Blind constantly joins Timber and Martinez at the back, which usually means that Ajax has 3 defenders around striker Nunez. Ten Hag before the match: “We need to bring our style to the pitch. Which is cool and collected on the ball and recognising the moment to accelerate. When we do this, it usually means our rest defence is top. In this way, we can manage the game and pounce when there is space.”
Blind as third central defender does indeed offer more on two aspects of the Ajax game: there is more composure on the ball at the back and Ajax’ rest defence is already there when needed. To keep a threat on the left hand side, it’s Gravenberch who is playing wide on the left, with Tadic.
The Benfica defenders have difficulty with this. Their defence is zonal based. Ajax will lure the right winger Silva in the direction of Blind, which means right back Gilbero is faced with Tadic and Gravenberch, at times.
This image above demonstrates the confusion at Benfica. Taarabt and Weigl are both pointing and coaching team mates. Taarabt doesn’t want to pulled away from the centre of the pitch, by Gravenberch, while Weigl is dealing with two opponents: Berghuis and Mazraoui. Taarabt ends up the man to cover for Gilbero in some cases.
Ajax’ most threatening attacks do all come from their left flank.
In the 36th minute, Blind also joins into the attack. But the defensive organisation doesn’t change, as Mazraoui will drop back, and Ajax still has three at the back. Blind’s presence confuses Benfica and Gravenberch finds the space to dribble inside and release a good attempt on goal.
Three minutes later, Gravenberch starts a move that results in a big chance for Berghuis. This time, the attack starts on the right. Martinez with a good cross pass to Gravenberch, who is in a 2 v 1 situation with Tadic. Gravenberch waits till Gilbero bites and plays Tadic in. His pull back into the box offers Berghuis a golden opportunity, but the south paw wants the ball on his left foot and fumbles the chance.
This attack is exactly what Ten Hag wants. Be patient, push the opponent back, create a man more situation and pounce!
Benfica coach Verissimo is not happy with the first half and hooks Taarabt at half time. The playmaker is replaced by a defensive mid, as direct opponent for Gravenberch.
In situations where Gravenberch would have been free on the left, now Meité comes with him. Benfica is able to neutralise the Ajax threat. With 19 minutes to go, Benfica thinks they have enough control to bring more heading capabilities in Yaremchuk, he’ll take the central role and Nunez will move to the left.
With 13 minutes to go, the ref gives a soft free kick to Benfica. Nunez beats Timber in the air and Onana’s timing mistake results in Ajax conceding a goal in a game in which they hardly gave anything away.
Ten Hag responds by bring Brobbey and midfielder Klaassen. Blind first move to left central defender but shifts back to the wing, while Timber takes a more midfield role. Benfica’s speciality is to kill time and Ajax’ final thrust never really takes place.
Ajax played a double ticket against an opponent who rolled out the red carpet in the first leg. In Portugal, Ajax lost the tie, by opening themselves up needlessly. The draw in Portugal was what Benfica needed to completely disrupt Ajax’ game in Amsterdam. A better organisation did help Ajax to stop Benfica from countering but shooting blanks up top and making mistakes with a dead ball was all it needed for Ajax to disappoint in Europe yet again.
Sunday, arch enemy Feyenoord awaits.