Last week, we saw an Ajax team travel to London and show the world that their campaign thus far has been no fluke. In a display of courage, structure and free-flowing philosophy, the Dutchmen ran out 1-0 winners at Tottenham’s new stadium, handing them their second loss at the ground in a week.
From a Spurs perspective, the defeat comes as a surprise as the footballing public was confident, they’d drawn the ‘easier’ tie. The tie is now in Ajax’s favour, all they have to do now is secure their passage to an unprecedented seventh European final.
Here’s what Ajax need to do to secure a second leg win over Tottenham.
The first 25 minutes of the first leg was something truly special. This Ajax team with an average age of 24, completely outplayed and outclassed Spurs in their brand-new stadium. On countless occasions, Erik ten Hag’s players carved open Tottenham’s defence, forcing the Lilywhites into their own penalty box. Ajax deployed a high line, committed many in attack and kept their football to one touch in the final third, leaving Spurs utterly clueless and vulnerable.
However, as the game progressed, there were positive signs for the English club, positives that they will take into the second leg. If Ajax is to edge closer to a historic fifth European title, they’ll have to watch out for a few things that a reborn Spurs side will look to deploy in Amsterdam.
Combat Spurs’ Pace & Power
Midway through the first half, Mauricio Pochettino was forced into a systematic and personnel change. Jan Vertonghen was forced off with a potential concussion, bringing Moussa Sissoko into the game. The Frenchman bulldozed his way through Ajax’s midfield, completing three tackles, one dribble and 26 passes (WhoScored).
The truth is, when Spurs deployed a more direct route, Ajax struggled to cope. Instead of trying to play through Ajax’s organised press, Spurs instead started to ping more long balls to Fernando Llorente, in hope of looking for the second ball.
In return, the Spaniard won 11 aerials, completed 3 dribbles and created 2 chances. This bypassed two lines of Ajax’s press, allowing Spurs to momentarily overload the back four. At the Johan Cruyff Arena, out of possession, Ajax could deploy a medium block that keeps them compressed but still high enough to force Tottenham to make decisions on the ball. This would also limit the space Spurs have to use their pace, thus limiting its effectiveness.
The X-Factor: Son Heung-min
It was clear as day that Tottenham missed the decisiveness and explosiveness of Son Heung-min in the first leg, as they lacked a cutting edge in the final third. Even amidst Ajax’s first-half domination, there were a few moments where Spurs had counter-attacks that petered into nothing.
Truth be told, the pressure was too much for the Brazilian as he doesn’t have the same big match mentality as Son. The Korean has been in sweltering form this season, directly contributing to 27 goals in 44 appearances. On top of that, the 26-year-old has especially stepped up in games where Harry Kane has been absent, so much so, that some have even suggested Spurs now play better without the Englishman.
Make no mistake about it, we will see a different a Tottenham side tomorrow night. They will be faster, physical, more determined and ready to die for the opportunity of a lifetime. For Ajax, they need to keep composure, get ready for a fight and do as much as they can to impose their style of play on Pochettino’s men.