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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.