UEFA Champions League Post Match Analysis: Ajax 2-3 Spurs
Tottenham Hotspur stunned Ajax 3-2 at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam in the second leg of UEFA Champions League semi-finals on Wednesday night, as Mauricio Pochettino’s side produced a miraculous turnaround away from home to set up an all-England final with Liverpool at the Wanda Metropolitano on the 1st of June.
It was Liverpool, who defied the odds to stun Barcelona at Anfield last night but Spurs came up with arguably their best ever comeback in European football after being 2-0 down on the night and 3-0 behind on aggregate. Both the team finished with an aggregate scoreline of 3-3 but Spurs progressed to the finals on away goals rule.
Ajax would have felt that they already had a foot on the final when Matthijs de Ligt put them ahead on the night with a towering header just 5 minutes into the game. The hosts looked pumped up in front of a raucous home crowd and did everything to ensure that their fairytale run in the competition continued.
Things got better for Erik Ten Hag’s side when Dusan Tadic set it up brilliantly for Hakim Ziyech to make it 2-0 on the night and 3-0 on aggregate midway through the first half. It was all going wrong for Spurs and Ajax were by far the better side in the first forty-five minutes, though the Premier League giants also had a few opportunities of their own.
Trailing 3-0 on aggregate, Tottenham needed nothing short of a miracle to turn things around in the second half and the job looked all the more difficult in the absence of their talismanic striker Harry Kane, who watched on from the sidelines.
Lucas Moura, however, had other ideas, and the Brazilian rose to the occasion to complete a hat-trick in the second half, breaking Ajax’s hearts and setting up a final showdown with Liverpool. It wasn’t only Moura, who put the foot on the accelerator in the second half, but Spurs as a team were absolutely unstoppable, as they sparked off wild celebration amongst the handful of travelling fans from north London.
Although both the teams produced some nail-biting end-to-end stuff on the night, it was a tactical seesaw battle between two world-class managers split into two halves. Let us get a deeper insight into how things went by at the Johan Cruyff Arena on Wednesday night.
1. Pochettino’s change of tactics from the first leg defeat
Pochettino came under the spotlight for his questionable tactics in the 1-0 home defeat to Ajax in the first leg. As opposed to the first leg where Spurs went in with a back-three system with two wing-backs, Pochettino was well aware of Ajax’s extravagant pressing in the midfield and he fielded a back four with a midfield diamond this time around.
Spurs had the likes of Moussa Sissoko, Victor Wanyama, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen in their midfield four but they weren’t able to deal with Ajax’s high press, as the home side showed more desire and determination to press their opposition off the ball. Donny van de Beek and Lasse Schone, in particular, played a very important role for Ajax in the midfield, while, on the other hand, Wanyama looked completely off the pace and visibly lacked the sharpness to deal with opposition’s energetic and aggressive approach.
Ajax won the midfield battle in the first half and as a result of that, they created more clear-cut chances. Spurs, on the other hand, were a bit all over the place, and although the likes of Heuing-min Son, Lucas Moura, Eriksen and Alli all had chances to get shots away on goal, they lacked the clinical edge in their attack.
2. Trippier’s defensive horror show
Kieran Trippier has made the headlines for some high-profile uncharacteristic defensive errors this season and his poor run of form continued. The right-back single-handedly gifted Ajax the opener, as he lost track of de Ligt inside the box and allowed him to head it home off a corner.
Things got bad to worse for Trippier as the game wore on and Dusan Tadic got the better of him numerous times. The England international’s poor positional sense allowed Tadic to run clear through on goal but Spurs survived a scare, as he fired his left-footed shot just wide of Hugo Lloris’s far post.
Trippier, though, didn’t learn from his mistakes and was all over the place in the first half. He was once again caught out of position by Tadic and the Serb raced through the pitch to set up Ziyech for the second goal, though he can share the blame for that with Wanyama, who didn’t make much of an effort to close down the Moroccan.
All in all, it was a defensive horror show from Trippier that led to Spurs’ demise in the first half.
3. Lack of a focal point in Spurs’ attack
Lucas Moura and Son were supposed to play as the two mobile strikers up front with Alli and Eriksen in support but it looked as if neither of the players knew where their actual position was.
Eriksen threaded a lovely through ball for Alli but he scuffed his finish and Son did the same thing when Alli played him into a good position to have a crack on goal. Moura, Son, Alli and Eriksen all had attempts in the first half but Spurs looked a bit disjointed in the final third and they just weren’t able to capitalise on their half-chances.
1. Pochettino’s masterstroke to introduce Fernando Llorente
The lack of a focal point in Spurs’ attack was one of the major reasons behind their undoing and Pochettino responded to the situation by introducing 34-year-old Fernando Llorente. Llorente has scored some crucial goals for the team off the bench but it is his hold-up play, physicality and aerial ability that adds another dimension to Spurs’ attack.
The introduction of Llorente and the consequent withdrawal of Wanyama at half-time meant that the Spaniard was going to operate as the focal point of the attack with Moura and Son playing on either side of him. Alli played as the supporting striker, while Eriksen dropped down to join Sissoko in a more withdrawn role.
The introduction of Llorente reinstated a sense of organisation and discipline in the attack and the Spaniard went on to play a key role without getting his name of the scoresheet. It was his blocked effort from close range that led to the scramble inside the box and Moura’s second goal, while the veteran showed some delightful link-up play to play a pivotal part in the build-up to the Brazilian’s injury-time winner.
Llorente’s presence helped Spurs improve massively in the attacking third, both in terms of cohesion and link-up play, and he once again proved how important a player he can be in the absence of Kane.
2. Dele Alli’s impact and Lucas Moura’s brilliance
Llorente’s introduction certainly had a positive impact and Spurs came out in the second half with a point to prove, even though they had a near-impossible task in front of them. That, however, wasn’t going to put them off and a dominant spell in the first 15 minutes of the second half brought the tie back to life.
Dele Alli got his act together, and so did Lucas Moura. Alli showed his dancing feet to lay the ball into the path of Moura, who used his pace to beat the defenders and made it 2-1 with a neat finish from the inside of his left foot. Buoyed by the goal, Spurs pushed harder and Moura reacted in time to put the ball into the back of the net after Llorente’s blocked shot led to a chaotic situation inside the box.
In fact, Alli himself had a chance to score early in the first half when Eriksen played him in behind Nicolas Taglifico with a sumptuous lobbed pass, only for Andre Onana to make a wonderful stop.
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Alli was once again in the thick of things when he set up Moura for the winner in stoppage time and Spurs ultimately completed a remarkable comeback to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.