Ajax – Benfica: Ajax wins fun, balanced Champions League clash in dying seconds (1-0)

This was a truly entertaining, international-level game between two clubs who are not from one of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ competitions. Ajax’s young right-back Noussair Mazraoui turned out to be the unlikely hero of the night, with his deflected long shot in the 93rd minute deciding a very tight, hard-fought game in the hosts’ favor.

Make no mistake about it, this was a very important game for Ajax and Benfica. Being able to win this match would mean a very advantageous position to advance to the round of sixteen of the Champions League. Which, in a footballing era defined by a widening gap in quality and income between Europe’s absolute elite and the rest, is huge for clubs like Ajax or Benfica, who aim to take place – and hold their place – amongst the ‘best of the rest’ in the hierarchy of European club football.

Besides being in a similar place within the power structure of European football, these two clubs also have a lot in common when it comes to playing style. Ajax and Benfica are both teams who like to dominate games with well-executed play in possession, prefer technically gifted, smaller players to dynamic physical ones and are not afraid to give extremely young talents crucial roles within the team.

Ajax’ manager Erik ten Hag had every important player in his squad available, and thus had to make a couple of tough decisions. Center-back Maximilian Wöber and winger (or second striker) David Neres – who both played one of the finest games of their young careers in the 1-1 draw at Bayern Munich – were dropped. In comparison to the Bayern game, deep-lying playmaker Frenkie de Jong and striker Kasper Dolberg came into the starting eleven.

Benfica’s starting eleven was more surprising. Manager Rui Vitória opted for summer signing Germán Conti as the replacement of suspended center-back Rúben Dias, chose Rafa Silva over Franco Cervi as left-winger, and decided to keep Swiss link-up specialist Haris Seferović as the lone striker instead of good ol’ goalgetter Jonas.

Benfica’s elegant press

In matches between two possession-oriented teams, one will have to ‘give in’. In this game, it quickly turned out that the visitors from Lisbon would lean back a bit more than we are used from them, dropping back in a medium block, A mid block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. In this match, Benfica’s mid block was positioned a bit higher than that. while Ajax’ defensive formation was aggressively positioned on the opponent’s half for most parts of the ninety minutes.

Because Ajax played in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, and Benfica in their 4-1-4-1 system, a natural ‘mirroring’ of formations in and out of possession occurred on the midfield, even though both teams defend in zonally dictated systems. Ajax’ attacking midfielder Donny van de Beek occupied the same zone as Benfica’s ‘six’ Ljubomir Fejsa, while attacking midfielders Gedson Fernandes and Pizzi operated in the same areas as Ajax’ double pivot consisting of Lasse Schöne and De Jong.

Benfica’s strategy was very clear from the start: drop back in a medium-high 4-1-4-1, letting the central midfielders press their direct opponents hard whenever Ajax tried to play through their zones around the halfway line. When Ajax’ center-backs or central midfielders would opt for the ‘easier’ build-up pass to one of the full-backs, Benfica would collectively shift over to that side and press aggressively with the nearest three to four players.

General positioning and movements when Ajax was in possession.

In the early stages of the game, Benfica’s plan seemed to work like a charm. Within the first five minutes, a loss of possession by right-back Mazraoui – both times receiving a pass from Matthijs de Ligt with his back turned to the opponent’s goal – was forced by the visitors twice, both times followed by an almost deadly counter-attack.

First, Rafa Silva showed off his amazing speed with a dangerous dribble, capped by a low shot towards the short corner. Three minutes later, a wide open Eduardo Salvio on the right found striker Seferović with a low cross inside Ajax’ box. Both shots were saved in convincing fashion by goalkeeper André Onana. Benfica’s well-executed waves of pressure, combined with the explosiveness of the two wingers, seemed to be a mismatch for Ajax in the early going.

Ajax’ high-octane press messes with Benfica’s intentions
But if there were to be a ‘more dominant’ team pointed out in this qualitatively equal-and-balanced clash, it was the home side. Ten Hag’s aggressive game plan played a big part in this.

Ajax lined up in a very high 4-2-3-1 whenever Benfica tried to build from the back. Striker Dolberg pressed the first center-back on the ball, assisted by either Van de Beek, or by one of the wingers, Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadić, who were positioned very much on the inside of Benfica’s full-backs, so that they were also able to apply pressure centrally, whenever there was an opportunity to do so.

General positions and movements when Benfica had the ball.

Benfica really struggled to find solutions to deal with Ajax’ set-up. Jardel and Conti are not the most silky-smooth-on-the-ball type of central defenders out there – and with that in mind, goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos often opted for ‘route one’, a long ball towards lone striker Seferović.

One of the first instances where Benfica did try to build up from the back almost ended up in a goal for Ajax. In the 21st minute, an excellent pressing trap of Ajax’ left side of the squad led to right-back André Almeida turning the ball over to De Jong, who found a nearby Ziyech, who launched Dolberg into a one-versus-one with Vlachodimos, who got the better of the Danish striker with an excellent save. The Moroccan playmaker vacated his right wing a couple of times to form an overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. with his creative partner-in-crime Tadić on the left; almost every time he did so, it led to danger.

It was fitting that the other huge chance in the first 73 minutes of this game came from a set piece routine – Nicolas Tagliafico’s bicycle kick was cleared from the goal line by Conti with half an inch to spare – because this game was really balanced.

A true ‘impact sub’
For some reason – fatigue, game state or a tactical decision by Rui Vitória – Benfica clearly took their foot off the gas pedal, pressing-wise after the break. They dropped back deep a lot more often in the second half.

This strategy seemed to work. Ajax had the lion’s share of possession, but only managed one big chance before stoppage time. In the 74th minute, Ajax were able to break after Benfica – uncharacteristically for the second half – committed a lot of men forward and lost possession.

Ajax’s central defender Daley Blind found an open Tadić in the left channel behind the defense, and his low cross was extended by Ziyech towards Van de Beek, who had made one of his trademark deep runs into the penalty area. Van de Beek had a clean shot from 14 yards, but Vlachodimos made his second top save of the night. After this, Benfica seemed set to get the point they wanted from this game.

But then Neres, who was subbed in late (88th minute) for Van de Beek, did exactly what he was brought on for in the third minute of stoppage time: use his speed to provide Ajax with some depth.

Blind played a long ball, that was thoroughly misjudged by Conti. Neres capitalized on this error, sprinting with the ball towards the touchline. His pulled-back low cross towards Dolberg in the box did not reach its intended target, but ended up at the feet of right-back Mazraoui. Ajax’s right-back wrote a new chapter in the fairy tale book that is his current season, by scoring a last-gasp winner that was greeted by an eruption of noise in the Johan Cruijff ArenA. His shot from 18 yards out was deflected by the outstretched toe of left-back Grimaldo, making it unstoppable for Vlachodimos.

For Benfica, the second leg of this matchup cannot come soon enough. Applying their slightly altered pressing tactics, they were 80 seconds away from grabbing an extremely valuable point in this group race. On a luckier day, if one of their dangerous breaks would have been crowned with a goal, Benfica could have even won this game.

This might be Ajax’ most important victory since their defeat of Olympique Lyon in the semifinals of the 2016/2017 Europa League. Dutch club football could really use a representative in the Champions League’s final sixteen to stop the collective downward slide in the power rankings of European football in recent years. To achieve this, the away game at Benfica is crucial – even more so than this game was.

Passmaps, expected goals plots and other match plots will be added to this article later .


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