In an open night of football, Chelsea beat Ajax 0-1 at the Johan Cruyff Arena.
Chelsea went toe-to-toe with the Dutch side all night long and a couple of supersubs helped them seal victory. What did we learn?
1. Super Frank’s Super Subs
Chelsea played well against Ajax, competing on an even-footing with last season’s semi-finalists, but the match looked like it was going to be a stalemate or one where the Dutch side were going to pick up the win. Chelsea had the hustle but there was no bustle.
Then Frank Lampard subbed off Tammy Abraham and Willian, bringing on Michy Batshuayi and Christian Pulisic. These were like-for-like changes but the new players brought new ideas. Batshuayi is a much savvier type of striker than Tammy Abraham, and Pulisic is a player with so much to prove.
The two linked-up accidentally shortly after coming on as Pulisic’s shot deflected into Batshuayi’s path but the Belgian fired over from close range. He wasn’t for repeating that mistake though, and when Pulisic ran down the left and pulled back a low cross into a superb space that evaded all the Ajax defenders, Batshuayi stepped back and hammered a stunning left-footed shot high into the roof of the net to give Chelsea an enormous victory.
Pulisic created as many chances in 24 minutes as any other Chelsea player (3) and Batshuayi had more shots (4) than any other player on the pitch. Those two subs completely and utterly changed the game. Frank Lampard deserves enormous credit.
2. Ajax are not quite there
Ajax are having a phenomenal season. They are sitting top of the Eredivisie having the best defence and the most goals scored too. They were unbeaten across all competitions before tonight and you can see the basis of why. The structure of their side, using natural centre-backs Edson Alvarez and Lisandro Martinez as defensive midfielders to shield defence and allow Donny van de Beek and one or both of the full-backs to flood forward, is a novel way to approach losing one of the world’s best midfielders.
But the thing is, as much as they seem to have covered defensively, having to overcompensate as they have has denied them the vibrant attack that De Jong alone used to provide. This places so much creative burden on Hakim Ziyech, and as a winger he can be pinned to the touchline which can neuter him as well. Ajax have indeed responded well to losing De Jong and De Ligt, but Chelsea have shown that a strong defensive presence can contain them in a way that wasn’t possible in 2018/19.
3. Offsides are broken
Everyone loves what VAR can bring to football and the clarity it can offer, especially when it comes to whether or not something was a penalty. Of course one of the most famed uses of VAR is in judging offsides, and here commentators sing VAR’s praises because it seems to impartially judge whether or not someone was literally offside.
But that’s the thing, an offside decision is not like whether or not a ball has crossed the goal-line. Yes there is a factual element as to whether or not a body part is beyond the last line of defence when the pass is made, but the reason this is given as offside is to stop an attacker gaining an unfair advantage.
Quincy Promes opened the scoring tonight by stabbing home Hakim Ziyech’s deflected cross, but because Promes’ shoulder was offside when Ziyech hit the cross, the goal was ruled out. This type of precision offside call has been pockmarking football matches ever since VAR’s introduction, and every time it happens the law looks more and more absurd because what possible unfair advantage could one gain from hanging a shoulder offside, especially when Promes didn’t even score with that shoulder?
This is not a flaw with VAR, although it does seem to be. The flaw lies with the offside rule which does in fact rule that if any body part you can score with is offside, then you are offside. Now that VAR gives us the possibility to judge things perfectly, the law needs recalibrating so that it can properly represent the spirit of the law: preventing an unfair advantage being gained.
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4. The good, the bad and the CHO
Callum Hudson-Odoi played 90 minutes in Amsterdam but in truth he didn’t have much of an impact in the game. The 20-year-old flagged immensely as the game went on and his end product was severely lacking all game long.
What will be so encouraging to see for Chelsea fans is the way that Hudson-Odoi attacked Ajax in the first-half. The youngster was absolutely fearless in the way he constantly drove at the Dutch side. He was fast and skilled, full of bright ideas and attacking intent. No one could cope with his movement.
Yes, he made several poor decisions with his final ball – either failing to shoot or misjudging a pass – but he’s a teenager just back from injury. That sharpness of execution in such high stakes will come with time, the sharpness of movement now is such a hugely positive sign for one of Chelsea’s brightest young talents.
5. The Kid’s Are Alright
Chelsea went to Ajax and won, but of course they did – right? Ajax lost Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong in the summer and even though Chelsea lost Eden Hazard and couldn’t sign anybody they had a much more solid veteran presence, right? Right?
The average age of the Chelsea XI that took the field against Ajax was actually younger than the Ajax one. And many of Chelsea’s best players on the night were their youngsters, like Fikayo Tomori at the heart of defence. Standing toe-to-toe with Ajax’s youngsters in Amsterdam is a phenomenal achievement and enough cannot be said about the quality and stature of Chelsea’s young players. They have a genuine golden generation coming through and if the Blues nurture them properly and augment them well with imports then Chelsea could become a European superpower much sooner than people would have imagined.