Football Features

Pochettino channels his inner-Mourinho: Five things learned from Ajax 2-3 Tottenham

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:47, 8 May 2019

In yet another miracle night of football, Spurs came from 2-0 down to beat Ajax 3-2 in Amsterdam!

The win puts Spurs into the Champions League final for the first time in the club’s history. A historic night! What did we learn?

1. That’s Moura like it!

Lucas Moura has always been an enigmatic figure. Obviously loaded with talent but as often completely useless as he is a magnificent dynamo in the final third. The trick is trying to get him to be the latter more than the former.

In the first half against Ajax, he was the former. But the half-time change unleashed Lucas. Suddenly he was running beyond Fernando Llorente who, along with Dele Alli, was unsettling and occupying the Ajax defenders. This made Lucas a spare man, which is how he was able to mop things up and burst through into the box, slotting home after Dele’s good work.

Then four minutes later, with all eyes focused on the Llorente six yards from goal, Lucas was stood four yards back. When Ajax’s failed clearance broke his way he twisted into some space and thundered Spurs level. For a long time that looked like being it. Spurs were coming close, pushing hard, but nothing looked like happening.

But in the last minute, when Daley Blind slipped and allowed Dele Alli to slip a gorgeous pass behind him, Lucas charged onto the ball and simply swung his foot at the ball, connecting sweetly enough to guide the ball into the corner and give Spurs the most impossible, improbably win. From 2-0 down to 3-2 up, from doom and despair to sheer salvation.

The last player that Tottenham Hotspur signed smashed a hat-trick to fire them into a Champions League final. Just imagine what they could have done if they had signed more players? They’d have done the Quadruple!

2. O Captain, my Captain!

Matthijs de Ligt played in the 2017 Europa League final as a 17-year-old. He was the youngest player ever to feature in a European final, and he played magnificently even in defeat. That right there showed the immense potential he had, and even though he just missed out on another European final on Wednesday, the quality he displayed whilst wearing the Ajax armband was absurd.

De Ligt was a one-man wall in defence. Repeatedly making absurd tackles and blocks to prevent Spurs from getting back into it. Six clearances and three interceptions were game highs, and only three players regained possession more times than he did (seven). He also found time to thump a stunning header into the back of the net, opening the scoring for Ajax on the night. The world’s elite clubs are lining up to sign this boy, and you can absolutely see why after nights like this.

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3. Dele Alli’s moment of magic

Dele has had a difficult season, there’s no doubt about that. There have been various reasons for this, but ultimately he just hasn’t played anywhere near his usual level. He has just seven goals all season, his lowest total so far with Spurs and miles off his career-best of 22.

Even in Spurs’ Champions League run, he’s been one of the more disappointing players – especially in the first leg. But in Amsterdam he played higher up the pitch, in more of a forward role, and Ajax struggled to handle him once Fernando Llorente was introduced.

He set up Spurs’ opening goal with a delightful bit of skill and then, at the death, when Spurs needed a moment of quality to ignite things. When they needed someone to make something happen beyond Llorente’s knockdowns, Alli stepped up with the most deliriously deft of touches. An outside of the boot flick, pure nonchalance in the most high pressure situation imaginable, that created the winner.

Alli is seriously special, and don’t you ever forget it.

4. Frenkie will change the game

Frenkie de Jong is a masterpiece of a footballer. Even in defeat, the young midfielder put in an absolutely sublime display. No one won more tackles than he did (five) and he won the ball back more times than any other Ajax player did (eight).

His influence on the game was so great that Mauricio Pochettino switched his entire system around to directly bypass De Jong, and when Ajax got the ball? Spurs immediately surrounded De Jong, making sure he couldn’t be given the ball to influence play. Yet and still he produced two or three breathtaking moments of play in the second half.

De Jong is a combination of Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta, a skillset that ought to be illegal. He was a loser against Tottenham, but has shown all through this remarkable Champions League run that he is absurdly good. He will bring so much magnificence to Barcelona next season and football in general for many years to come. This kid is magnificent.

5. Mauricio Pochmourinho

With Spurs getting absolutely splattered all over the Johan Cruyff Arena in the first half (they were genuinely lucky to only be 2-0 down), Mauricio Pochettino knew he had to change something. But what could he do? He had precious little on the bench in the way of attacking options, save for Fernando Llorente.

Now, Llorente has been playing quite poorly of late, but he had one thing no one else did: he’s massive and great in the air. And so Pochettino channelled José Mourinho in the 2017 Europa League final, where rather than compete with the Dutch side in a football match, the Portuguese just pelted the youngsters with long balls to Marouane Fellaini. Ajax couldn’t cope and folded.

So when faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge in Amsterdam, Pochettino did the same thing. And damn if it didn’t work! Llorente was such a colossal presence in attack that he would either occupy all of Matthijs de Ligt’s focus or thoroughly dominate everyone else.

Moreover, the ball going long meant that Frenkie de Jong couldn’t influence the game. It literally flew over his head every time Spurs attacked, and bypassing De Jong in this way had a huge effect on Ajax’s ability to play football. Which allowed Spurs to take control.

Suddenly Spurs had a reference point in attack. And when the ball went up there, it stuck to Llorente and all the smaller, quicker players buzzed around him and created danger. From this, second balls off Llorente, Spurs scored all three of their goals in their absurd comeback.

By embracing his inner Mourinho, Mauricio Pochettino, the coach who has repeatedly overachieved with a transfer budget and wages from a decade ago and who wasn’t given a single new player in the summer transfer window will now head to Madrid to manage Spurs in a Champions League final. It is an achievement so monumental that the Argentine broke down into floods of tears at the final whistle, and who can honestly blame him? He’s had so little to work with and achieved so, so much.

What more can you say to that but “football, bloody hell!”