Ajax secured a vital away win against Tottenham Hotspur as a first-half strike by Donny Van De Beek was enough to edge past the uninspiring home side. This was yet another impressive away showing by the young Dutch side that has already slain beasts and title favorites in Real Madrid and Juventus at their fortress. So this win will come as no surprise to spectators who have taken heart to this highly talented and fearless Ajax that play football preached by the revolutionary Johann Cruyff.
After ties against two heavyweights in which they pretty much entered as the underdog team and weren’t given much a chance, the expectations were much higher this time around and it was interesting to see how they coped with such pressure. Meanwhile, this was Spurs first Champions League semi-final since it was rebranded after edging past Manchester City in that enthralling encounter and the injury-ridden side looked second best after a grueling fixture schedule, as well as injuries to important players, forced Mauricio Pochettino’s hand in fielding a patched-up side.
Here are the talking points and tactical analysis from the lively encounter between Ajax and Tottenham Hotspurs.
#1 Well poised for the second leg
Ajax could have been out of sight after a yet another fabulous showing by this young side. Neres hit the post in the second half and could have sealed the tie but Spurs will consider themselves fortunate and will have to improve dramatically if they want to book their tickets to Madrid. They had their best opportunities from dead ball situations and will need to create more from open play in the away leg.
The Dutch team demonstrated two different dimensions to their game. If in the first half, they played slick, incisive and stylish football then in the second half, they proved their mettle by defending deep and displaying grit and determination against a Spurs side desperately in search for an equalizer. At their home, you would fancy Ajax who have the momentum and just suffered one loss in the entire tournament.
But with a returning Son, Spurs are still firmly in the contest and a repeat of their performance against Manchester City will be needed. Both teams were never expected to make it this far in the competition and an exciting game awaits us next Wednesday at the Johann Cruyff Arena as both the sides will fight tooth and nail to create history.
#2 Van de Beek stars again
As mentioned earlier, Ajax usually line up in a 4-3-3 formation on paper. In theory, one expects Schone to play as the No 6 with De Jong and Donny Van de Beek as the two number 8’s. The truth is far from that as De Jong slots alongside Schone in a deeper role to control and dictate the tempo of the game. So they change seamlessly from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 which is not a rare sight in football.
The interesting part is that the position that Van De Beek occupies. The midfielder plays almost as a number nine with Tadic roaming in the wide areas to form those passing triangles. Ziyech then drops into midfield and that gives them those additional numbers in the central areas and thus they move smoothly from back to front. They shift as a unit and there is a certain symmetry, organization, and balance to this team that catches the eye.
Van De Beek is so crucial to this system as his movement of the ball and positioning is just majestic. One such move that encapsulated his genius was when shortly after scoring the opener, he made a beeline towards the ball before dummying it to Tadic and spun away in the opposite direction and collected a neat one-touch pass from his teammate but couldn’t get the better of Lloris this time around.
He doesn’t receive the plaudits that De Jong and De Ligt receive but he is nonetheless as important to this team as the other two starlets.
#3 Llorente struggles as Son is missed
Injuries to Harry Kane and Harry Winks while Heung Min Son’s suspension saw Fernando Llorente make a start up front. Llorente had a well-defined role as he was tasked to bring the other attacking players like Moura and Alli into play by holding up the ball as Spurs constantly looked to play long to their striker. The problem is that the Spaniard is at his lethal best when his team is dominating the ball and the wide men and the full backs whip in crosses for him to pounce on.
But against a side like Ajax known for their ball retention, it becomes increasingly difficult to feed Llorente with the type of service he expects. His lack of mobility and limitations on the ball were evident as he looked out of sync with his teammates.
Moura had a bright game and he was a constant menace as his dribbling, quick feet and tenacity caused a few problems. Pochettino definitely missed Son who will return for the second leg fixture and is expected to play a big part in Amsterdam. His presence in attack will surely give Spurs an added fluidity, flexibility, and zip, aspects which they sorely missed in their dull first leg performance.
#4 Moussa Sissoko makes a difference
Moussa Sissoko has endured a tough start to his Spurs career and came in for heavy criticism and was labeled as yet another expensive flop. But it was his substitution albeit under unfortunate conditions that galvanized Spurs and gave them the firepower to compete against the bright Ajax youngsters. A freakish injury to Jan Vertonghen after a collision with the Ajax keeper saw him depart the field making way for the Frenchman. Tottenham initially started in a 3-4-3 formation with Llorente as the spearhead with Lucas Moura and Dele Alli playing behind him. Christian Eriksen and Victor Wanyama played as the midfield duo with a back three of Jan Vertongehen, Toby Aldeweireld, and Davidson Sanchez. Danny Rose and Kieren Trippier started in the full-back positions.
Now, Ajax is known for their first press as they press their opposition vehemently higher up the field into losing the ball. There are a few ways to beat the press like by playing long balls to the attackers or the wide full backs or break the midfield lines with strong and direct running. Spurs used the latter tactic but could not trouble the Ajax defense. However, the injury to Vertoghen and the subsequent introduction of Sissoko meant the Londoners switched to a back four which gave them more numbers in midfield and they improved after the change.
The 29-year-old’s robustness and physical nature disrupted the fluency of the Dutch side and his powerful forward surges and drive helped their attacking cause. Thus he helped to shield the defense and provide some attacking impetus showcasing his growing importance to this Tottenham side.
#5 Vibrant Ajax seize early control
Ajax lined up in their traditional 4-3-3 formation with Dusan Tadic as the number nine with Hakim Ziyech and David Neres flanking him on either side. Donny Van de Beek,Frenkie De Jong, and Lasse Schone completed the midfield triumvirate. One of the most important principles of the “Ajax” style is to maintain possession and build up from the back with the goalkeeper as the first attacker and the striker as the first line of defense.
Yesterday was a classic manifestation of his philosophy as this Erik ten Hag’s side schooled their English opposition and did not give them a sniff of the ball.
They were rewarded for their efforts in the fifteenth minute when Van De Beek broke the offside trap and finished coolly past Hugo Lloris. Spurs had no answer to this relentless, quick and nippy football by the visitors and were busy chasing shadows for much of the first half.