After the first 30 minutes of this semi final first leg between Ajax and Tottenham Hotspurs, if one could have been a fly on the wall in Pep Guardiola’s living room, maybe one would see a smile slowly spread across his face; head bobbing in slow motion in approval of what he saw. The lads of Ajax were in black, but they could easily have been mistaken for that Barcelona team from peak Guardiola years who just toyed with their opponents and suffocated them while leaving their heads in a daze because of the passing and movement. This was Ajax though- having seen off Real Madrid in disparaging fashion, beating Juventus and making them actually for once look like old ladies with a severe case of arthritis having a kick about against sprightly young kids, and now making Spurs look very ordinary at their own stadium.
Spurs had set up in a 3-4-3 formation with Davinson Sanchez, Jan Vertonghen, and Toby Alderweireld operating as the three center backs, and Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose operating as wing backs. The two man midfield of Victor Wanyama and Christian Eriksen sat behind a front three of Dele Alli, Fernando Llorente, and Lucas Moura. Ajax have, through the course of the season, preferred the 4-3-3 for themselves, with quick transitions enabling their midfield players to play more than one position during the run of play. Daley Blind and Mathhijs de Ligt operated in central defence, with Joel Veltman and Nicolas Tagliafico operating as the full backs. The midfield was occupied by the wonder kid Frenkie de Jong, Lasse Schone, and Donny Van de Beek, led by Dusan Tadic, Hakim Ziyech, and David Neres with the latter two flanking either side of Tadic. There was a bit of surprise in the way Pochettino had set up considering that Ajax are a team that wants control of the middle and prefer to play through teams rather than look to bypass them. As a result, playing a midfield two of Wanyama and Eriksen played right into Ajax’s hands.
Within the first ten minutes, it all started to unravel a bit. Ajax took control of the ball and suffocated Spurs in possession to such an extent that Spurs were at times not allowed to get out of their own half. Rose and Trippier looked uncomfortable having to deal with the Ajax players who were easily able to press in packs and bypass the Spurs midfield to face the three Spurs center backs one on one frequently. Then it arrived. It was an exceptional piece of play between four Ajax players that cut through Spurs’ with ease. Neres on the left had stretched Spurs and got the ball to Schone in midfield. Schone found Ziyech who had dropped back deeper, and he was able to spot van de Beek. Now, van de Beek was closely marked by Rose but he let the ball run past him and that left Rose in uncharted waters. van de Beek went past the disoriented full back with suddenly nothing between him and Hugo Lloris. van de Beek paused, let Lloris commit himself, and then neatly dispatched an accurate shot to open the scoring for Ajax.
Without control of the midfield, Spurs were all over the place. The dominance of Ajax was such that Spurs were in real danger of having this two legged tie determined in the space of 45 minutes. What Ajax were doing was simple, but effective, and oh so brilliant. Tadic might start in this team as a striker, but he really is a floating number nine tasked with dropping into midfield and building up play. It is van de Beek who starts off at a number ten position, and then drifts further upwards during the build up to finish off moves and connect with the two wide men Ziyech and Neres. Both the wide men are adept on the ball and they cover a lot of space to add numbers in midfield and attack. Their work rate matching their footballing intelligence. They stretched, pulled, and tore away chunks of Spurs players and, eventually, Pochettino was forced to react to what he saw and send in reinforcements in the form of Moussa Sissoko. Spurs changed formation from a back three to a back four and got an extra man in midfield to deal with the incisiveness of Ajax, and to wrestle control of the midfield. It was only with introduction of Sissoko that Spurs were able to get a semblance of control, and towards the end of first half they had just started to discover that the match could indeed be played in the Ajax half too.
The second half was an exercise in restraint, poise, and maturity for Ajax. Ingredients that are crucial for a European night of this magnitude when you are already in the advantage with an away goal. Spurs started to get on the ball, thread passes, and bypass the Ajax midfield. ‘If you can’t compete with them in the middle, don’t’ seemed to be the motto which Pochettino sent them out with. Spurs had Llorente up front for a reason and maybe this was the time to make use of that aerial presence and the crossing prowess of their full backs. Ajax didn’t look completely comfortable with the ball frequently played behind their midfield and it was the exceptional anticipation of de Ligt and Blind that neutered every cross or ball that was dangerous, with Alli and Llorente tasked with causing havoc in the box. This Ajax might be a young team, but they aren’t naive. They held their own, and never lost their shape when Spurs pushed them back and sought that precious equaliser. Particularly, the goalkeeper Onana was commanding in his box and claimed everything that was thrown up in the air for Llorente and his ilk to connect with. On the contrary, it was Ajax who hit back Spurs with a counter attack that really should have put them 2-0 up on the night. Noussair Mazraoui had scampered his way down the right and set up Tadic with what could have been a potentially threatening shot, but Tadic chose to pass it sideways to Neres who had caught up with him on his left. Neres let loose with a shot that was probably not the best in his arsenal, and Lloris stood rooted to his ground unable to make a movement apart from turning his neck to see exactly the damage that was to be caused. The ball bounced off the far post and Spurs had survived.
As the clock wound down to the dying moments of the game, Pochettino could be seen blowing his cheeks out on the touchline. Sissoko was the one change that had kept his team facing a respectable scoreline considering the damage Ajax were inflicting on them in the first half. If anyone would have suggested last season that Sissoko could be a trump card and a defining player in a Champions League game, they would have been laughed at and dismissed. Instead, it was his energy, drive, and will that had seen Spurs mount a challenge of sorts in the second half by, at least, not letting Ajax have it their own way. On the other side of the park was the irrepressible de Jong. Playing in a way that belied his young age, a midfielder, a defender, and an extra man in attack at all times and shape shifting depending on the way the play was panning out. This is one of those aspects that is truly brilliant about this Ajax side. The players are not just following set patterns that are endlessly automated in training, but are encouraged to think for themselves on the ball and take the most perfect decisions. de Jong seems to have an internal clock in his head that dictates the pace to him, thereby making it seem like he is always two seconds ahead of the opposition. There is a languidness to his style too, which provides a perfect cover up to the actual damage that he can inflict before the opposition has time to react. The more one sees of him, the more it becomes apparent why Barcelona wanted him and got him.
Ajax are not known to take it easy in Amsterdam, and why would they? 90 minutes separates them from a place in the finals and if they do get there, it would have been done the hard way. Getting past, and sometimes brushing aside, opponents that they would have on any other timeline been wary of. There is an insouciance about them that is endearing and the fearlessness is a delight to watch. European stages are frequently described, and with good reason, as the tussle between those who have the requisite experience of being on that stage and those who don’t. It is said to matter a lot, the so called ‘history’. Its not that Ajax don’t have their fair share of that, its just that its so far back in time that it could not have influenced the proceedings of this match in any meaningful way. Instead, they had to create some of their own history and lay down some markers which they did. That first half of football made an elite premier league team look very ordinary and while watching that it felt like Ajax issuing a war cry to the rest of the competition. Catch us if you can. It was probably a bit more than that. Dutch football has been in the wilderness for far too long, and this represented the perfect stage to announce to the world that they were back indeed, and how.