Football Features

Chelsea 4-4 Ajax: Five things learned as Blues show the fearlessness of youth to fight back

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:24, 5 November 2019

In a ridiculous night of football, Chelsea and Ajax played out a sensational 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Ajax bossed the game for an hour but a couple of quick red cards saw the match descend into chaos that saw Chelsea pull it back level. What did we learn?

1. Chelsea and the fearlessness of youth

For just over an hour, Chelsea were getting wiped off the pitch at Stamford Bridge. It would have been very easy for them to just curl up into a ball and not concede any more goals. Just keep it at 1-4. But that’s not how Chelsea roll. They are determined to make things happen.

Reece James came on at half-time and pushed the tempo all half long. Post-match Frank Lampard said that the youngster added “thrust to the right-hand side” which is so true; he sent in so many crosses that kept the pressure up on Ajax and that kind of attitude can only come from a young player. A player who has not really tasted defeat so plays without fear of failure. A player who relies on instinct and talent alone. That can be a heady mix, and so when Callum Hudson-Odoi entered the fray it’s no surprise that Chelsea took it up another notch.

Did they get lucky with the refs? Sure. But Hudson-Odoi played with as much drive as James and that kind of thing is hard to handle. His switch of play set the table for Azpilicueta to make it 2-4, his blistering shot earned the penalty for 3-4 and then the Reece James show kicked it up a notch as he first won a corner and then drew things level from the resulting set-piece with a nerveless finish to make it 4-4.

Chelsea are not a great side, but they are a young side (they finished the match with an average age of 24 years 183 days and their average age in the first leg was younger than Ajax’s) who play with absolutely no fear whatsoever. If the Blues can harness that young energy and augment it with savvy signings, they could become a genuinely elite side within the next couple of years.

Frank Lampard praises Reece James

2. Dodgy Kepa

A lot of the discussion around the goals Chelsea conceded seemed to avoid a major issue that has been plaguing the Blues all season: Kepa isn’t very good. At least, Kepa isn’t playing very well anyway. No he’s not dropping clangers into his own net but there is no authority from him, no command of his own area, no sense that he can even save shots that come his way.

Chelsea have the worst save percentage in the Premier League this season at just 52.78%. Luckily for the Blues they control games so well that they’ve only had to face 102 shots, which is the fourth best in the division. The numbers are similarly bleak in the Champions League where Kepa has saved just 57.14% of the shots on target, which puts them 23rd out of 32 sides; although only three of the nine sides below Chelsea have played so far this matchday and a couple of shots from nine-man Ajax helped Kepa pad his stats..

Tonight we saw what happens when a team is able to test Kepa regularly. He folds and in embarrassing fashion. Sure it would be harsh to blame him for the two own goals from set-pieces but there was no sense he would come and claim the ball or even organise his defence to properly deal with the cross. Same with Quincy Promes’ goal as he drifted inside his man into an area Kepa should be dominating.

3. VAR?

VAR is still new enough that every different federation that uses it is establishing just how they use it. La Liga uses it very much like the World Cup did, complete with monitor drama, whilst the Premier League is completely the opposite where VAR is rarely considered as anything worthy of the referee’s attention. The Champions League meanwhile seems to fall somewhere in the middle.

On the one hand, VAR correctly ruled out Cesar Azpilicueta’s goal for a handball but was nowhere to be seen when the referee made a mistake in dispensing a second yellow card to Joel Veltman. Alright it had to be a handball given the established precedent for that sort of thing in the Champions League (sorry PSG) but a yellow? A second yellow? That was pure nonsense and UEFA need to figure out how they want to use VAR so we can get some consistency.

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4. Ajax are Europe’s Road Warriors

Ordinarily a team is better at home than they are away. The crowd is an obvious factor but also the fact that the players are more familiar with the dimensions of the pitch and the angles and sight lines. Teams are better at home, especially in Europe. Look at last season’s semi-final when two of the most dominant home-field advantages went head-to-head and both games were big wins for the home sides.

Ajax are different gravy, however. Last season in their historic run to the semi-final they didn’t win a single knockout game at home. They lost to Real Madrid, had a score draw with Juventus and then lost at the last to Spurs. By contrast they won all three of their away legs convincingly. It’s odd that they thrived so much on the road against high profile opponents but this season showed that trend continuing.

After a poor display at home against Chelsea saw them lose, Ajax came to Stamford Bridge and absolutely dominated proceedings for over an hour. They picked Chelsea apart with their play, smashed them on set-pieces and were 2-4 ahead and handling the Chelsea onslaught well. Then referee Gianluca Rocchi lost his god damn mind and things understandably fell apart a bit, but Ajax still held on and even created a couple of good chances despite playing with nine men.

The fact that Chelsea didn’t immediately obliterate Ajax even though they had a two-man advantage and all of the momentum is a testament to how good Ajax are away from home. The Dutch side are still a formidable outfit and as long as they can avoid wild referees keen to make themselves the star their incredible European roadshow should provide us with so many more thrills this season.

Frank Lampard on ‘mad’ game vs Ajax

5. Chelsea definitely miss Kanté

Look, momentum is a hell of a thing. It’s so powerful despite being utterly intangible. And Chelsea have been playing with serious momentum lately. With the exception of their Carabao Cup loss to Manchester United, Chelsea’s momentum lately has been palpable. The Blues have won eight of their last nine and looked like they were about to take control of their Champions League group.

The great form of Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho as a double pivot during that run has led people to ponder whether or not Chelsea even need the currently injured N’Golo Kanté. Jorginho and Kovacic work really well together with their sensational passing and precise technique, so it’d be easy to see why folks could think that way. But they’re wrong.

Ajax rocked Chelsea’s world for 70 minutes until the two red cards changed everything. And the fourth goal was an almost perfect example of where and why they miss a presence like Kanté. Early in the second half as Donny van de Beek advanced into the box and collected Hakim Ziyech’s cross, he had an age to pick his shot.

Mateo Kovacic was in close attendance, but basically just stood there as the Dutchman gave Ajax a 1-4 lead. That goal doesn’t happen with N’Golo Kanté on the pitch. In fact it’s hard to see that Ajax could have dominated as much as they did with Kanté around because the relentless way he patrols the midfield makes it so hard for teams to play through Chelsea, something they can do right now for fun.

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