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The first leg of the Champions League quarter finals showed that Ajax is an entirely different beast to what Juventus could have expected from more traditional rivals at this stage.
While teams like FC Barcelona or Manchester United usually drop their rate of running from the first half to the second, the Dutch side can actually increase it. This was always going to be an issue for the ‘Old Lady’.
In Amsterdam, it was Ajax running more than 112 kilometers versus Juventus running slightly less than that. In Turin, it was 110 versus 108. ‘Vecchia Signora’ just could not cope with such tremendous pace.
For that reason, Massimiliano Allegri chose to change from the 4-3-3 tactical setup, used since the landing of Cristiano Ronaldo into the Serie A, to a more standard 4-4-2. Though Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic was unavailable, one could notice the 4-4-2 by the wide positioning of Blaise Matuidi and Federico Bernardeschi at the flanks of the holding midfield duo Pjanic-Can.
This was Allegri showing his deep concern about Ajax’s quick and enduring attack. Notwithstanding his having a defensive plan, he lacked an offensive one.
Consequently, Juventus could not replicate the football exhibited against Atlético de Madrid. Both Bernardeschi and Matuidi had to track back the Ajax wingers David Neres and Hakim Ziyech, who constantly swapped flanks dragging Bernardeschi and Matuidi out of position, wreaking havoc into Juve’s defensive line.
Overall Erik ten Hag’s focus has been less about tactical setup and more about pressing, running and counterattacking; that is, the approach championed by Louis van Gaal the last time Ajax lifted Europe’s most coveted trophy.
Paradoxically enough, Allegri could have managed the Dutch threat by being more Italian: by defending closer to his own box and not trying to fight fire with fire. Juventus insisted on playing “champagne football” without having the energy to pop the bottles against the young Dutch fellows.