Our right back zone was under relentless attack, but we countered brilliantly through long balls to Fernando Llorente as it ended Ajax 2-3 Tottenham.
The best ever comeback in Champions League history? The manner of it was one of the most dramatic for sure. Tottenham miraculously reeled off three goals in a stunning second half of football that will never be forgotten.
Right back under attack
A constant plan from Ajax throughout the match was to attack the zone occupied by Tottenham right back Kieran Trippier. Losing David Neres in the warm up, Erik Ten Hag switched Dusan Tadic out to this side of the pitch. Ajax got the ball to Tadic at every opportunity to attack the space and slower feet of Kieran Trippier.
Just three minutes were on the clock when Ajax had initial success with this tactic. Tadic’s dribble resulted in Victor Wanyama having to making a brilliant block on the edge of the box.
Spurs had been given a warning. One minute later and Tadic was at it again. Both teams wanted to press throughout the match, but a constant theme was that each played around the other expertly. As men were committed to press further forward it left both defences with ground to cover.
Spurs were left narrow and vulnerable as Ajax navigated the Tottenham press brilliantly. The ball was sent out to Tadic who dribbled easily past Trippier. He unleashed a wicked shot that arced towards the far post, but was tipped around for a corner by Hugo Lloris.
Ajax took the lead from the corner. Tottenham’s marking was curious. Kieran Trippier was on Matthijs de Ligt with Jan Vertonghen waiting as secondary cover close by. It was obviously a ploy by Tottenham against Ajax’s best aerial player, but it was blown apart. Trippier let de Ligt easily run off him. Vertonghen was then screened by Donny van de Beek to create the corridor.
The result was that De Ligt steamed in to out jump Dele Alli and head home the Ajax opener. Spurs behind inside of five minutes.
No let up for Trippier
Having taken the lead, Ajax continued to look for Tadic to take on Kieran Trippier. Chances followed as the Serbian jinked past the right back and fizzed a shot across the goal, which narrowly missed the far post.
Ajax then scored a second with Tadic at the heart of the move once again. Once more the Tottenham press was easily played through. Kieran Trippier had the chance to clear a lofted pass, but turned infield rather than towards the touchline. Donny Van de Beek stripped him of the ball and raced off towards the Tottenham goal.
Trippier was now out of the play and Tadic eager to take up the space he had left.
Another constant factor throughout the match were the inside runs of Hakim Ziyech. The wide forward from the opposite flank frequently cut infield to get away from Danny Rose. Ziyech’s runs were well timed, menacing and Victor Wanyama failed to pick them up.
Ziyech arrived to sweep the ball home and put Ajax 2-0 ahead. The goal was an excellent example of a quick transition counter attack.
Ziyech took the chance brilliantly and really could and should have had a hat trick from his out to in runs. In the second half he arrived in almost the same position to sweep another Tadic pull back just past the post. Tadic had once again beaten Trippier to deliver the ball.
Ziyech then went even closer has he arrived on cue once again. This time his shot struck the base of Hugo Lloris’ post with the score tied at 2-2.
Tottenham attack the inside left channel
In between the Ajax goals, Spurs created great chances through attacking the inside left channel. This was the space between Ajax right back Noussair Mazraoui and centre back Matthijs de Ligt. The Ajax pair often became separated and it allowed Tottenham in.
Son Heung-Min was the first to expose this weakness. He tore in and struck the base of the post with an audacious shot. He then found the space again as he received a pinpoint through ball from Dele Alli. Once more Son was denied getting on the score sheet. Christian Eriksen then had a great chance to get Tottenham back on level terms. Eriksen’s shot was too close to goalkeeper Andre Onana after Lucas Moura raced through the corridor that was created between the Ajax pair.
This space in the inside left channel was there for Tottenham all game. It became increasingly important after Fernando Llorente entered the match.
Long ball Tottenham
Mauricio Pochettino made a bold half time change that swung the flow of the entire tie. Fernando Llorente entered the game for Victor Wanyama and Pochettino went to a 4-3-3 formation.
Son and Lucas Moura played just off the striker with Dele Alli as a number ten. Son and Moura provided the speed and legs to work off Llorente’s knockdowns. Dele Alli the timely runs and neat layoffs to create the goals.
Tottenham frequently went long to Llorente, which did a number of things. Firstly, the ball was moved forward much quicker. Son and Lucas Moura could work in bigger spaces as a result. Secondly, Llorente overpowered Daley Blind, which made Matthijs de Ligt pick him up. Ajax’s best defender was therefore engaged in a battle, which left Tottenham’s other players, and bigger goal threats, to run free.
Spurs got on the score sheet and back n the tie through a long ball and a rapid counter attack. Ajax had committed numbers forward for a free kick. Danny Rose nutmegged de Ligt and then sent a long pass forward for Lucas Moura. Spurs were off and running at an exposed Ajax defence.
Lucas Moura’s touch to take Rose’s pass and lay it off for Dele Alli was exquisite. Moura’s blistering speed to then catch up with and run beyond Dele and finish was immense. Tottenham back in the tie.
Narrow Ajax get punished
During Tottenham 0-1 Ajax the narrowness of the Dutch team was a feature of their play. Tottenham went to the diamond to overcome being overrun in the middle of the pitch and then created good chances from the spaces in the wide areas.
In the second half, Ajax really narrowed up to force Tottenham out of the centre. However, chances were created from getting men in to the spaces now created out wide.
Dele Alli had the first opportunity. Christian Eriksen found Dele with an exceptionally well flighted pass, as Ajax were caught narrow. Dele saw his shot at the far post saved by Onana’s good reactions.
Spurs then levelled up the score at 2-2 as Ajax were caught narrow once again. Son found Kieran Trippier in the space beyond left back Nicolas Tagliafico this time.
Trippier’s perfect low cross found the feet of Fernando Llorente with the goal gaping. Somehow Andre Onana managed to claw the ball back from the goal line. After the sublime came the ridiculous. Onana and Lasse Schone got inexplicably in to a mix up and the ball bobbled free to Lucas Moura. Accepting the gift, Moura then showed some incredibly quick feet as he danced around the challenges to fire in to the corner of the net. Ajax 2-2 Tottenham and a historic comeback was becoming an increasing possibility.
Long ball Llorente
Both mangers made changes. Seeing Spurs success through the inside left channel Erik Ten Hag introduced Joel Veltman to right back.
Mauricio Pochettino had gone to a 4-3-3 to get speed around Fernando Llorente and looked for the burly big man with long passes. As the clock ticked down Pochettino then rolled the dice once more. He removed both his full backs to introduce Erik Lamela and Ben Davies.
The formation changed to a 3-1-3-3 setup. Davies joined Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in the back line. Moussa Sissoko was the sole defensive midfielder in front of them, as Lamela worked with Dele and Eriksen behind Son and Moura flanking Llorente.
In the 96th minute, Spurs found a winner. The long ball was once again key. Moussa Sissoko supplied it as Tottenham looked for Llorente once again. The big striker outmuscled de Ligt to win the ball, which had knock on repercussions as the Ajax man was now out of the back line.
Fellow centre back Daley Blind was drawn in as Dele Alli was first to Llorente’s flick. Space was therefore created straight through the middle, leaving a gaping hole for Lucas Moura to run through.
Dele’s pass for Moura was brilliantly played. Moura’s finish, with the aid of a flick off de Ligt’s last-ditch challenge, found the bottom corner. Moura wheeled away in celebration as Ajax players hit the canvas from his knockout blow. The most unlikely of comebacks at Ajax 2-3 Tottenham was complete. The Johan Cruijff ArenA witness to one of the greatest ever Champions League games.
Ajax 2-3 Tottenham overall
A brilliant second half from Tottenham after the shape change and the tactic to get the ball forward much quicker with longer passing.
Fernando Llorente’s introduction changed the match as he frequently won the flicks and knockdowns. Ajax’s best defender, Matthijs de Ligt, was tied up with defending Llorente. Son and Lucas Moura could use their speed in the spaces created as a result. Dele Alli’s well-timed runs and layoff passing was equally brilliant.
Lucas Moura had a game for the ages. His speed and finishing terrorised the Ajax defence all evening as he looked like the wunderkind that so many big clubs had chased when he arrived in Europe from Sao Paulo FC in 2013. His dancing feet and change of direction were a feature all game.
Both teams played well through the other’s attempts to press. Ajax wanted to attack right back Kieran Trippier and could’ve put the game to bed if they’d taken their chances. Liverpool, with the wide forward speed and finishing of Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, may not be so forgiving in the final.
It still seems absurd that we’re in the Champions League final! But here we are, just one game away from Europe’s biggest prize. It couldn’t happen, could it?!
Final score: Ajax 2-3 Tottenham.
MOTM: Lucas Moura.