When Cristiano Ronaldo scored the equalizer against Ajax in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarter finals, he exposed Ajax’s fragility just in the zone covered by the midfield duo of Lasse Schöne and Frenkie De Jong.
Midfield fragility is sometimes due to sheer lack of individual quality -both Schöne and De Jong have been more than discreet since the start of the elimination rounds-, and sometimes due to the wingers not tracking back quickly enough. Against Tottenham, both Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic were clearly reluctant to give a hand in defensive duties.
Arguably, Ziyech has been Ajax’s most valuable player with his outstanding dribbling and reliable composure in front of goal. However, both his positioning and Tadic’s made the tactical shape of Ajax a really disjointed one.
For, even in the first half of the second leg of semifinals, Tottenham created many goalscoring chances just by pushing forward their full-backs Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose, forcing one-on-one situations with Nicolás Tagliafico and Noussair Mazraoui.
Therefore, Mauricio Pochettino’s key half-time substitution consisted in introducing Fernando Llorente as a classic number nine, flanked by Son Heung Min and Lucas Moura (who had been interchanging their positions around Delle Ali as a false nine). In this way, Tottenham took matters to the battlefield of individual experience and quality.
A battlefield in which Ajax had not hitherto been.
The Ajax boss Erik ten Hag tried it all: he took Schöne out, moved Mazraoui up to reinforce the midfield, brought Lisandro Magallán in, and attempted to set the squad into defensive mode. All to no avail: Ziyech and Tadic kept motoring forward, dislocating Ajax's spine further and further away.
Put simply, the Dutchmen were unable to slow down the tempo of the match against a top-four Premier League side, which is precisely used to high-speed games. In the past, Ajax proved far too quick for ageing sides like Real Madrid and Juventus…
But, when it came to controlling their own impulses, Ajax proved precocious and naïve, a side which just has not come of age yet.