In a game of two halves, Ajax beat Spurs 0-1 in the Champions League semi-final first leg.
The Dutch side really began the match on the front foot and scored a delightful early goal, but Mauricio Pochettino made some tactical switches to help his side fight their way back into the game, though they couldn’t find an equaliser. What did we learn?
1. De Ligt leads Ajax’s living wall
All the plaudits thrown Ajax’s way focus on how well they play with the ball, and sure they play really well with the ball their goal was a work of art and was one of three gorgeously constructed attacks that could (should?) have resulted in a goal. And sure Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek were brilliant, but today Ajax showed a different kind of strength too: a defensive one.
André Onana’s willingness to come and collect crosses helped, and Daley Blind played very well on his return to England, but the centrepiece of the Ajax defence was club captain Matthijs de Ligt. The teenager wasn’t even born when Louis van Gaal won his first La Liga for Barcelona having left Ajax, let alone when the Dutch side last reached the semi-final in 1996 – but did he once look phased? Did he once seem intimidated by having to deal with a physical force as dominant as Fernando Llorente? Did he heck.
It was preposterous to watch Spurs hoik crosses in so desperately and yet a side so young and ostensibly “technical” defend as ruggedly as Ajax did. De Ligt won 66.7% of his aerial duels (3 in total) and made 4 clearances and 3 interceptions. A consumate defensive display from a young player who looks destined to reach the very top of the sport.
2. The Moussa Sissoko Team
With Moussa Sissoko on the bench, Spurs were being absolutely mangled in the first half. Of course it’s not as cut and dry as that they were playing a 3-4-2-1 system that wasn’t working; but things definitely sparked to life for the home side once Moussa Sissoko came off the bench.
Sissoko took his place in the heart of a re-organised Spurs midfield, operating in a diamond Sissoko added both urgency and control to the way Spurs were playing. Suddenly Ajax had less time on the ball as the Frenchman instigated a rapid mid-block press designed to squeeze passing lane shut which is, for the most part, exactly what it did. And when Ajax broke through the press who was the first man back, recovering the ball? You already know the answer…
Sissoko was a strange signing back in 2016 and his displays for the first two years matched that profile; but in 2018/19 he has risen in prominence and is now arguably Spurs’ best midfielder. Certainly tonight against Ajax he was the difference between Spurs sleepwalking to defeat and Pochettino’s men fighting for every ball.
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3. Football needs better concussion protocols
With half-time approaching, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld both attacked a cross and accidentally collided with each other. Vertonghen’s face was covered in blood and he was assessed for a while before being sent back on by Spurs’ doctors. Referee Mateu Lahoz quizzed him for a good minute before allowing him to return, but return he did.
Then just a minute later he was asking to come off. In fact his condition was so bad that he doubled over and looked very woozy, having to be helped off the pitch by the same Spurs medical staff that had just confirmed him fit to play. That is negligence that would shame the DWP!
Get well soon, Jan Vertonghen.
Another scary reminder of how serious head injuries can be. pic.twitter.com/LGMdsz4Wte
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) April 30, 2019
Football desperately needs a better concussion protocol, because with the increasing speed of the game they are only going to become more frequent. Independent doctors should be on the sidelines ready to assess players suspected of concussion, and clubs should be allowed a free substitution if the player is confirmed to be concussed. That way we have a fair unbiased system that puts the player’s health above everything, including the player’s own desires to keep playing (who would want to come off?)
4. Broadway Danny puts on a show
It was only a couple of years ago that Spurs had by far the best full-back tandem in the league with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. Whilst Walker left for Manchester City, Rose stayed. And yet for a year, maybe a year and a half, it was as if both men had left. He even lost his place in the England team to Ashley Young. Ashley Young!
Rose’s dip in form was mostly down to injury and mental health issues, so no blame should go his way, but it was a shame all the same to see such a talent so down. But in 2019 Rose has been on the comeback, and tonight against Ajax was probably his finest display yet.
Rose was a freight train up and down the left flank; on the one hand being a lockdown defender preventing Ajax from penetrating down his flank but also being a constant outlet in attack. Whenever Spurs were building a move forward you could look up and invariably see Rose bombing forward, providing the crucial width until he was withdrawn with 10 minutes to go as Spurs hoped fresh legs could save them.
5. Spurs are still alive
Normally if you lose the home leg of a Champions League knockout tie, you’re in serious trouble if you want to progress. Travelling away in Europe is very difficult, especially if the home side are protecting a lead and an away goal. However Spurs are still very much in this tie as a contest despite falling at Tottenham Stadium.
Because Ajax aren’t the most dominant home side. In fact despite beating Real Madrid and Juventus, the young Dutch side didn’t win either home leg. They drew 1-1 with Juventus and actually lost 1-2 to Real Madrid! Yet they progressed because of their excellent away displays. They beat Juventus 1-2 and thrashed Real Madrid 1-4. In fact they’re only the fifth side in Champions League history to win all three of their away matches in the round of 16, quarter-final and semi-final.
But even though they won, they only beat Spurs 0-1. And next week Spurs will have the supreme Heung-min Son back in the side. Ajax’s inability to dominate at home could come back to haunt them as the fleet-footed Korean will be out for blood and if the Dutch side play as poorly as they did in the second half in London, they could get unstuck.