Ajax – Tottenham Hotspur: Tottenham Cause Ajax Heartbreak With Tremendous Second Half Comeback (2-3)

Tottenham are through to the Champions League final after Lucas Moura’s goal in the last seconds of the injury time completed “mission impossible” and turned the tie around in a breathtaking second half in the Johan Cruyff ArenA. After Ajax played a fine first half and with a 3-0 aggregate score at half-time, Tottenham shell-shocked their opponents with direct play in the second half and produced an absolute Champions League classic.

Tactical analysis and match report by Cem Soylu.

After a brilliant display in London and a well-deserved 1-0 lead taken back to Amsterdam, Ajax had to complete the seemingly impossible job at home. This cluster of ridiculously talented players got the backing of almost all the neutrals after their breathtaking displays to beat Real Madrid and Juventus to get to the semi-final. That they did it in such style, with an air of arrogance and extreme confidence in their technical abilities, combined with their scintillating attacking football, made the football audience all around the world fall in love with them.

In the first leg, Tottenham had looked hopeless, especially in the opening stage. They were able to balance the game and looked a lot better after Mauricio Pochettino switched his starting 5-3-2 shape into a 4-4-2 diamond system. Heung-Min Son’s return from suspension and the fact that Pochettino named the same starting line-up with the second leg against Manchester City led to the thought that he went for the same 4-4-2 diamond formation that worked so well in the first leg. Instead, Pochettino fielded a 4-2-3-1 system, with Dele Alli behind striker Lucas Moura, flanked by Son on the left and Christian Eriksen on the right.

Erik Ten Hag named what initially looked like his strongest line-up, but because David Neres was ruled out of the game after the warm-up, Kasper Dolberg replaced him to play as the main striker. This meant Dušan Tadić moved left, having played all the previous knockout rounds as a false nine. A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. The rest of the squad remained the same, in Ajax’ accustomed 4-2-3-1 formation, with Noussair Mazraoui regaining his right back at the cost of Joël Veltman.

Tottenham cannot weather the Ajax storm

Ajax are not a team that changes their approach to a game. Instead of protecting the 1-0 advantage, they came flying out of the gates, backed by the atmosphere in the stadium, pressing Tottenham high and playing their high tempo attacking football. After an early attack in the fourth minute in which they brilliantly played through Tottenham lines and tested Hugo Lloris, the resulting corner kick was headed in by Matthijs De Ligt to open the scoring.

Ajax’s obvious danger man in the set pieces is De Ligt, who netted the winner against Juventus in Turin. Here Tottenham tried to control his deep run with two players – Kieran Trippier and Jan Vertonghen. Trippier was supposed to be the initial nuisance and Vertonghen was positioned to pick him up right behind, but Donny van de Beek – brutally – blocked Vertonghen and De Ligt headed home over Alli, who was zonally marking the six-yard box.

Ten Hag’s lessons from Pep Guardiola – Tadić’s wide role

The defining tactical aspect of the first half, in an otherwise straightforward tactical matchup with both teams playing in a 4-2-3-1 shape and pressing high, was how Ajax predominantly used their right to build-up and finished their moves on the left. Whereas in the previous games, with Tadić as false nine and Neres as the left winger, Neres very often drifted to the other side, the expectation would be for Tadić to do the same. However, perhaps expecting Pochettino to field a 4-4-2 diamond and studying how Manchester City had hurt that system with having their wide attackers position themselves wide to receive at the end of moves from the other side, Ten Hag instructed Tadić to stay wide and stretch Tottenham’s defense.

Ajax’s buildup had a right sided focus, with Ziyech often dropping deep as an outlet. They kept short distances on that side and progressed the ball through their accustomed intricate passing play, and then looked to switch the ball to the left side. The left sided buildup was often more direct, with Blind either playing a line splitting pass or dribbling forward in the gaps de Jong opened. When the ball was on the left in the opposition half, Ziyech and Van de Beek both drifted towards there to create options.

Third minute – de Jong on the ball after regaining possession. Ziyech – Schöne – Mazraoui all create passing options, and after a few neat interchanges and a one-two, Ziyech goes past Wanyama and switches the ball to Tadić. Tadić’s strike is saved by Lloris for the game’s first corner kick that resulted in the opening goal.

Trippier’s defensive struggles in a back four are well known, so it was a logical area to target for Ajax. This was also helped by Tottenham’s approach in possession – Eriksen moving inside from the right as a number ten and Trippier’s high positioning meant when Ajax won the ball back there was a big gap on their right-hand side. Ajax exploited this well – in the thirtieth minute they came very close to scoring when Wanyama lost the ball in the midfield and Ziyech found Tadić on the break, who dribbled at Alderweireld and shot just wide from a tight angle. Five minutes later, Trippier battled for the ball with Tadić for Onana’s long ball, fell down, and the second ball fell to Ajax. van de Beek found Tadić free on the left, his cutback found Ziyech who rifled home for 2-0.

Tottenham looked outclassed in this first half, but they also had a few bright moments. They mostly struggled in buildup play, and the long balls were mostly won by Ajax defenders. Pochettino switched Eriksen and Son’s flanks around twentieth minute, and interestingly, Tottenham’s best spell of the half coincided with this ten minute period. A brilliant buildup play helped by Eriksen’s presence on the left ended with Alli sliding Son through on goal but his shot was saved by Onana. Seconds later, Alli received free between the lines and sent Lucas Moura through, the chance fell to Eriksen but he shot straight at Onana. Son started moving more centrally rather than wide left around this period, which caused problems to the Ajax defenders. Overall, though, Ajax was simply the better team in the entire first half.

Llorente effect wakes Ajax up from the dream

Tottenham came into the second half a different team, with real intensity in their game. Pochettino made a very crucial switch going into the half, as Fernando Llorente replaced Victor Wanyama. This switch pushed Eriksen back to the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. next to Sissoko, while Lucas moved to the right. Tottenham now had an outlet for the long balls to bypass Ajax’s pressure, and three dangerous forwards in Son, Alli and Lucas to lurk onto the rebounds.

Two key solutions to Tottenham’s problems immediately impacted the game. First, Eriksen moving deeper as the deep lying playmaker made their buildup play significantly better. But more importantly, as simple as it sounds, Llorente’s tall presence up front entirely changed the game. He positioned himself on Blind, who does not possess the strength to deal with Llorente’s big posture. Tottenham constantly targeted him with aimed long balls, thereby bypassing Ajax pressure. Time and time again Llorente won the ball, held it up or flicked it to the forwards around him. A very effective way of progressing the ball.

Especially Alli flourished into life thanks to Llorente’s presence, as his best role by far is to be the shadow striker playing off a main striker that takes the defenders’ attention. He missed an excellent chance at 2-0 by doing exactly that – Llorente took the defenders away and he pounced on a trademark Eriksen deep cross. He later played a crucial part in both the first and the third goal, and was in a position to tap into the open goal for the second goal.

In the 55th minute, Ajax took a free kick in Tottenham’s half, far away from goal, and De Ligt needlessly went up towards Tottenham’s box for a Ziyech delivery. Tottenham took the rebound, played long into Lucas, he combined with Alli inside the depleted defense and provided the lifeline for Tottenham. Four minutes later, Lucas grabbed another one to bring Ajax into the brink of elimination.

Ten Hag brings on two fullbacks to frustrate Tottenham

Ten Hag reacted by first bringing Veltman on for Schöne, moving Mazraoui to the midfield as he did in London. Then he brought off Dolberg and introduced Daley Sinkgraven to play on the left, with Tadić moving central to play his nominal false nine role.

Ajax deserves huge credit to spring into life in such fashion after the shock of those two goals, and the game was played at a marvelous tempo between the 60th and 80th minute. It was sensible for Ajax to go for the fourth goal in this period, because Tottenham looked very dangerous around the box, yet were vulnerable at the back. Ziyech hitting the post marked the end of that period, with the last ten minutes inevitably turning into a nervy affair around the Dutch penalty area. With the new left winger Sinkgraven following Trippier (and later Sissoko) and Tadić up top, Alderweireld did not have much to worry about. The Belgian camped in the right halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. slipping balls for his right back to cross. Pochettino’s final move was creative – he brought off Trippier for Lamela, moving Sissoko to right back.

66th minute – Eriksen in possession after Trippier won an aerial duel against Tadic bounced off to him. He immediately played it long to Llorente, who controlled and started a move that ended with Trippier winning a corner kick. This is an occasion that highlights three key parts of the second half – Ajax committing too many players forward, Eriksen’s deep playmaking and Llorente offering a target for direct balls.

As the nervebreaking second half neared its conclusion, we saw how inexperienced Ajax is at time wasting – something that is the exact opposite to the core of this football club. And those seconds they could not steal came to haunt them, as Sissoko launched the ball into the penalty area. Alli collected the bounce from de Ligt and poked it in front of Lucas, and the Brazilian completed his hat-trick to take Tottenham to their first ever Champions League final.


The insistence on maintaining a certain style of play might have cost Ajax here. It may have allowed the comeback to happen and left an open door for Spurs to batter into, but that is what makes Ajax more beautiful to watch than any other glorified offensive side in Europe. Characterized by Frenkie de Jong, who constantly dances through the buildup play and never lets his opponents even feel they have a chance of winning the ball, this side dominated games with some unforeseen levels of confidence as an underdog. Despite cruelly getting denied from going all the way, Ten Hag’s Ajax left a strong mark in the history books of football.

On the other hand, Pochettino’s Tottenham also deserves incredible amount of credit. He is arguably the manager that organically grew his team the most over the years thanks to his excellent team building process and although Tottenham is nowhere near being one of the two best clubs in Europe, they showed great tactical flexibility and clinical touch against some spectacular teams and considering their circumstances this season it’s a huge success to have made it to the Champions League final.

Plots will be added to this article as soon as possible.


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