Danny Rose and Donny van de Beek tussle for the ball during Tottenham 0-1 Ajax in the Champions League semi final first leg match.

Tottenham 0-1 Ajax: diamond switch mitigates first leg issues

Mauricio Pochettino’s switch to a 4-4-2 diamond reduced the issues the team had as our Champions League semi final first leg ended Tottenham 0-1 Ajax.

Ajax were never going to be easy opponents. Mauricio Pochettino got his initial setup very wrong and Spurs were soon behind. However, a switch to a 4-4-2 diamond mitigated two of the three issues that Spurs were facing. The match ended Tottenham 0-1 Ajax setting up a finely poised second leg.

Tottenham three centre back issues

Mauricio Pochettino started with three centre backs. The formation has often been used often by the Spurs manager against the 4-3-3 setups of Liverpool and Manchester City. The strategy hasn’t faired well against those two opponents and was equally bad against a 4-3-3 here.

The three centre backs had a number of issues. Firstly, the Ajax press completely overwhelmed it.

Ajax press the Spurs centre backs and defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama.

Ajax press the Spurs centre backs and defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama.

Ajax used their front trio to match up on the three centre backs. The Dutch team then used Donny van de Beek to press Victor Wanyama to make it highly difficult to play out. Therefore, Spurs often had to go back to Hugo Lloris. The goalkeeper was then quickly closed down and his ability to kick was tested, which had highly varying results.

The second issue was the resulting space created in central midfield. Spurs back three often dropped deep to stop the front trio of Ajax running in-behind. As a result, acres of space were left in central midfield. Victor Wanyama’s positioning was often errant. Dele Alli afforded little help as he was trying to support the front two. Christian Eriksen wasn’t buzzing around nicking loose balls with his usual energy.

Deep back line and central midfield positioning gifts space to Tadic during Tottenham 0-1 Ajax.

Deep back line and central midfield positioning gifts space to Tadic.

The third issue was one Tottenham could immediately address, errors and sloppy turnovers. Spurs continued to try and play out from the back under the intense pressing and frequently turned the ball over.

Long ball Llorente

The Ajax pressing put them in control. However, when Spurs did go long to clear their lines, they often found an escape in Fernando Llorente. The tall Spaniard aerially won and held the ball up well when it came his way.

Llorente’s flicks and layoffs found their targets in the first half. Lucas Moura for a run and pull back through the Ajax six-yard box. Moussa Sissoko for a rasping drive that whistled past Andre Onana’s post.

There were a few issues with this tactic though. Spurs didn’t go to Llorente often enough. The team seemed almost a bit embarrassed to play old school route one football and preferred to try and play out.

Llorente himself didn’t then have the speed nor mobility to get in the box for return passes or crosses. As the match wore on, Llorente was clearly tired and could barely get off the floor as Ajax switched Matthijs de Ligt on to him. Previously, Llorente had been able to match up with and overpower Daley Blind, but de Ligt was a different obstacle.

Ajax in front

Ajax was in the ascendency and they took advantage to open the scoring as all of these issues combined.

Ajax’s press had given Tottenham trouble to pass the ball out from the back. Spurs were awarded a free kick for offside and Hugo Lloris looked to play out. He couldn’t as Ajax had closed down his options, forcing him in to a long kick.

Lloris sent the ball downfield towards Fernando Llorente who won the header, but conceded a throw in. From the throw, Tottenham’s midfield was completely unbalanced and the back line too deep, creating space for Ajax in central midfield.

Totally unbalanced Tottenham.

Totally unbalanced Tottenham.

David Neres got in down the touchline and this is where it started to unravel for Spurs. Kieran Trippier didn’t do enough to stop Neres getting the ball back inside to Lasse Schone. Victor Wanyama was nowhere near the Ajax man. Dele Alli ran out to close him down, but left Hakim Ziyech free. What’s more, Davinson Sanchez, Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose let Dusan Tadic and Donny van de Beek split them.

Dele's defensive error as van de Beek and Tadic split the centre backs to score a goal and make it Tottenham 0-1 Ajax.

Dele’s defensive error as van de Beek and Tadic split the centre backs.

Ziyech had the easiest of tasks to thread the ball through the corridor between Vertonghen and Rose. Van de Beek kept his composure to sit Hugo Lloris down and finish. Tottenham 0-1 Ajax and no more than the away team deserved.

Tottenham were all over the place at this point and nearly conceded a second from a very similar situation. This time it was the channel between Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Trippier that became the target. Donny van de Beek was once again the recipient of the pass through the channel between outside centre back and wing back. However, in going for the near post, he allowed Hugo Lloris to make a kick save with his feet.

Spurs diamond switch

Tottenham were second in every department at this point and were lucky to be just a goal down. Mauricio Pochettino made a change to move Jan Vertonghen to left back and Danny Rose to the left point of a 4-4-2 diamond. However, just moments later, Jan Vertonghen was badly injured and had to come off with a concussion. In a cruel twist of fate, Pochettino could reinforce his change by introducing Moussa Sissoko.

The diamond did a number of things to address the issues Tottenham were having. Midfield space was immediately cut out. Tottenham now had four players in the central zone to take away the acres Ajax had been enjoying. The defensive line now being higher to back the midfield up also took space away.

The Ajax pressure continued, but now Tottenham had an out ball with the long switch to the full backs. The four central players in the diamond matched Ajax’s narrow defensive containment. As a result, full backs Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose enjoyed more space. The pair were found by longer passes and switches from Toby Alderweireld. Danny Rose became an increasing presence in the match as a result.

Whilst looking better, where Spurs continued to be let down was through errors and an inability to find a final ball.

Tottenham errors

The diamond solved many of the issues Ajax had posed, but self-inflicted errors remained. Throughout the second half, Spurs back line and Victor Wanyama in defensive midfield caused no end of nerve jangling moments.

Davinson Sanchez’s poor under hit pass resulted in Danny Rose scooping clear at full stretch from within the six-yard box. Kieran Trippier’s sloppy pass saw Toby Alderweireld make a last ditch lunging block to stop a Dusan Tadic effort. Alderweireld himself not clearing his line’s properly then saw David Neres hit the inside of Hugo Lloris’ far post. A self-inflicted disaster that would’ve almost spelled the end of the tie.

The score remained finely poised at Tottenham 0-1 Ajax, giving us at least some hope for the second leg.

Tottenham 0-1 Ajax overall

Outplayed until Pochettino deployed the diamond, we were lucky to get away with just the single goal deficit. The system change did address two of the big concerns – the Ajax pressing and space in central midfield. However, the errors remained, which almost extinguished any lingering hopes of making the Champions League final.

What’s more, Spurs still lacked a cutting edge in the final third. Long balls to Llorente were successful, however there was very little to work with following the knockdowns. Llorente’s lack of mobility also did nothing to help the second phase of any attacks started in this way.

The tie is finely balanced. Tottenham were always going to need goals in Amsterdam. Now we are going to have to score at least once to have any chance of making the final.

Final score: Tottenham 0-1 Ajax.
MOTM: Donny van de Beek.

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15 Responses to Tottenham 0-1 Ajax: diamond switch mitigates first leg issues

  1. Mos 1st May 2019 at 3:22 pm #

    Hi Mark,

    I know the injuries/suspensions have basically forced us into this selection but I didn’t think we would concede any goals considering that aside from Aurier all our Defenders/Defensive midfielders are fit. A 0-0 would have been acceptable.

    Trying to be positive.. 0-1 might be the best result. Now we are in no way favourites and I often think that brings the best in us. Alli should be fired up after the press he is getting – I feel like Eriksen and Alli will have extra space when Son is back. Wanyama had a poor game so it might be Dier in for him. But would consider having Dier at RB.

    My hope for next week.
    Son Moura
    Eriksen Sissoko
    Rose Vert(if fit) Alderiwerld Tripper

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 1st May 2019 at 5:54 pm #

      Hi Mos, Poch was maybe forced in to the selection and maybe why he went with three centre backs so that he didn’t have to play Skipp or someone out of position. He probably wasn’t sure how Sissoko would go either having been out.

      It’ll also be interesting to see how Ajax cope with the pressure of being favourites. They have usually been the underdog, so we’ll see how they cope now that they are expected to complete the job and be in the final.

    • Carrigbawn 1st May 2019 at 11:11 pm #

      Foyth needs to play as full back instead of Trippier, or Dier. Neither Trippier, or Dier, have the ability to dribble past a man whereas Foyth does.

  2. Mark from Virginia 1st May 2019 at 5:01 pm #

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for the writeup. I agree – Ajax had a well deserved win and Spurs waisted their chances as they have been doing in recent weeks. They were pretty much junk in the final third for the last 20 min of the match. I felt bad for Vertongen but at 15 minutes in the game was screaming out for Sissoko who completely changed the match when he came on – It was almost like play time was over for Ajax when he came on. I felt it reminiscent of when Dembele came on and immediately took control of the midfield.

    I wish Foyth had come on for Trippier a little earlier – Tripps did not play well at all in 2nd half. It seems the team was a bit knackered, especially considering that the Dutch league rescheduled games to allow Ajax rest – Ajax were just flat out everywhere. They didn’t allow Spurs any time on the ball. Any time a Spurs player received a ball they were under immediate pressure which led to many bad first touches and passing errors.

    I thought Lamela would have been a good attacking option as a sub – isn’t he back in training? His fresh legs and trickery would have most likely helped pick the lock!

    Next week will be a tough one but at least Son will be back! Thanks again for the writeup.


    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 1st May 2019 at 5:59 pm #

      Some good points, Mark. Son back will give us a boost, especially as we should have more space to run in-behind at their place. I’m not sure on the status of Lamela, i still assumed he wasn’t match fit yet?!

      Ajax did look fresher, so hopefully having the Dutch cup final this weekend will also test their powers of recovery. They’ve also got to play as favourites to go through, a position they’ve not been in during the knockout rounds as yet. Pressure can do weird things, especially to younger teams that don’t have the experience.

    • Zaph Mann 1st May 2019 at 7:57 pm #

      Mark and Mark

      I completely agree with I wish Foyth had come on for Trippier a little earlier – Trippier has been a liability costing us games (liverpool at home – city at home) and his lauded crossing is only working at dead balls – his open play crossing is often useless (Rose isn’t much better) – The other thing is he NEVER dribbles past a player so he usually turns and recycles – whereas Foyth keeps them guessing and crosses equally as well, if not better.

      • Mark from Virginia 1st May 2019 at 8:07 pm #

        Good point about dribbling – Your right Tripps almost never goes to the end line. It’s very frustrating. I sometimes wonder if he is instructed to not go to the end line as he doesn’t have the speed to get back quickly. Foyth has been a revelation at that position! Let’s hope we can get past Bournemouth unscathed and then we focus on Ajax next week! with worrying about top 4. I am concerned though that 4th position will get knocked out of Champions League if one of our rivals wins Europa League. All of this could have been avoided if we had just a few more points from those games in March!

        • Carrigbawn 1st May 2019 at 11:08 pm #

          5 English teams are the maximum for the Champions League so even if Chelsea, or Arsenal, win the Europa the top 4 of the Premier League will still be eligible for the Champions League next season so you can stop worrying Mark.

        • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 2nd May 2019 at 11:12 am #

          I don’t think this is a concern any more as UEFA have changed the rules for next season:
          “Top four from associations ranked 1st to 4th: Spain, Germany, England, Italy (16)”
          “If the UEFA Europa League holders have qualified for the group stage via their domestic championship, the vacancy will be filled by the third-placed club from the association ranked fifth (France), who otherwise compete in the league path.”
          “An association may have a maximum of five teams in the group stage.”


      • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 2nd May 2019 at 11:07 am #

        Trippier just doesn’t have the speed to take opponents on and get to the byline. Aurier does, but his crossing is terrible. New right back needed this summer!

  3. Sheffield Spur 1st May 2019 at 8:35 pm #

    Great analysis as ever. There have been many occasions when attacking players have got between our defenders this season and I totally agree that this is particularly a problem when we line up with a back 3/5 against a 4-3-3. However I think Poch was expecting Ajax to line up 4-2-3-1 as Martin Jol said in his recent Guardian analysis. Jol actually advocated us using a 3-4-3 formation. We may need to find a way to start with a diamond and shift to a back five rather than the other way round. Ultimately however our lack of goal threat was as much of a problem once we had started to win the midfield battle. Let’s hope Sonny pairs with Moura in the replay and that gives us that as they did against City. We also need to be more effective from set pieces as Ajax are clearly poor at marking from dead balls.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 2nd May 2019 at 11:16 am #

      Our lack of goal threat was the real problem for the last 60 minutes. Once we’d changed formation we were much more competitive in the game and arguably the better team.
      Son and Moura is the way to go for me and counter attack their high defensive line. Llorente to come on should we be chasing a goal in the last 20 minutes. In that case i’d go to a 4-3-3 as well and surround Llorente with Moura and Son with Dele Alli just behind. Plemty of players to get around Llorente’s knockdowns and run off him.

  4. Brian 2nd May 2019 at 12:23 am #

    Hi Mark

    Hate to say it Mark,but anather good write up.And just as we did against West Ham,
    ww a looked a tired outfit.Not that should be any excuse,considering the importance of the game.But Ajax,looked fresher,,and were certainly worthy of their win.Now we go to Southampton,who are on a reveival,while ourselves look a bit bedraggled..And I fear antaher
    poor result loominhg.Hopefully I am proved wrong.

    Regards Brian

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 2nd May 2019 at 11:21 am #

      Hi Brian, its tough for Poch at the minute given that rest and rotation is tricky with how thin the squad is. Fortunately with the game on Wednesday, rather than Tuesday, it gives us that extra day’s rest, which could be vital. Whatever happens, i’d like to see Vertonghen, Sissoko and Rose rested against Bournemouth so that they can be ready to play against Ajax. Would like to rest Dele and Eriksen too, but they are just so vital to making the team tick and without them we have very little goal threat as Son needs someone to get him the ball. Its a real kick in the teeth that we’d not garnered more points sooner so we could just forget this game with Bournemouth and rest everyone.

  5. Mos 2nd May 2019 at 1:59 pm #

    The Bournmouth game is irritating because we need the points. I would like to see Rose Vert Alderwierld Sissoko and Son all rested. Keeping them on the bench if needed, playing Alli/Eriksen/Moura but avoiding any tackles and taking them off by 70mins.

    Although I doubt poch will use a weaker team. Not likely to rest more than two players knowing him.

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