Fortunes of Man United and Ajax since Europa League final is down to philosophy mismatch

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Two seasons ago, a young Ajax side bowed to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in the finals of the Europa League. United’s record signing Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan wrote their names on the scoresheet to help them win their first European trophy since the turn of the decade.

Despite failing to pull off victory, the Dutch side turned heads with their bold style of play. In fact, United were on the back-foot for most parts of the game and were forced to adopt a defensive approach.

Two years later, the two teams faced opposing fortunes on the biggest stage of European football. United were humiliated by Barcelona and sent back to deal with their miseries in the Premier League, tasked to fight for an unlikely Champions League spot.

Ajax, on the other hand, ended Real Madrid’s three-year reign as European champions and thus became the first team to defeat Los Blancos in a knockout tie in Europe since Juventus in 2015. Erik ten Hag’s men followed it up with an equally impressive feat of knocking out a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Juventus in the quarter-finals.

The fact that they displayed some of the best football while doing so and won their games convincingly only makes it more commendable.

A look at their transfer activities laid in comparison to that of United’s precisely shows what they are getting right and what the English side aren’t.

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The Ajax side that lost the final cost the club £18.59m and boasted of a market value of £65.93m. On the other side of the pitch stood a United squad worth £238.50m, which was assembled for £290.28m. The fact that the purchase value of the team exceeded their market value shows how United tend to overpay for players – a trend that has continued for a while now.

Since that evening, Ajax have bought players for a total of €79.30m and sold players for €98.75m. This means that the Dutch club have registered a net spend of -€19.45m. On the other hand, United have spent €281.10m at a net spend of €200.25m.

2004 net spend (1)

Ajax’s youth academy has also played a major role in propelling the club to a respectable position. Players like David Neres, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek were either playing for the B team or were fringe players for the first team at that time. Now they are among the top prospects across Europe.

However, the fact that they found the perfect coach in Ten Hag is the biggest masterstroke. In ten Hag, Ajax found the cach whose philosophy is in line with that of the club’s and is compatible with its players.

The aesthetic possession-based football, fueled with purpose has earned Ajax a lot of fans this season. This has only been possible because the players have assimilated the coach’s philosophy and are heavily trained to adopt the Total Football route.

In comparison, United decided to go ahead with Mourinho – a top manager, but with a philosophy opposing that of the club’s tradition. Between then and now, the Portuguese was even handed an extension before being booted out.

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho

Mourinho’s United never looked like title contenders in the Premier League and their transfer activities in the last two years did nothing to suggest otherwise. Romelu Lukaku was roped in for an exorbitant fee the following summer and the forward has been impressive only in parts so far.

Alexis Sanchez was the next big name to sign for United when he decided to jump ship from Arsenal the following winter. The Chilean has watched his career decline rapidly and is now unable to seal a spot in the starting line-up. The highest earning player in the United squad is now a fringe player. While he deserves part of the blame, improper planning and terrible squad management deserves a bigger chunk of the blame.

The Red Devils have been busy bolstering their attack and midfield, while turning a blind eye towards their real need – a strong defence. Not much can be expected from United when half their back-line was assembled by Sir Alex Ferguson, who retired nearly six years ago. The upgrade is long due and it’s baffling how the Red Devils have constantly ignored it.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Ashley Young – a player who should have been shown the door a couple of seasons ago – was their worst player over two legs against Barcelona. Chris Smalling has performed well of late but he, alongside Phil Jones, were supposed to be both England and United’s future. That hope has long since passed.

Daley Blind had a rather forgetful time at United and has been a crucial figure in the Ajax defence this season. On the other hand, Eric Bailly has failed to live up to the expectations and it’s unlikely that things will get better for the centre-back at the club.

Defensive stability is the foundation on which Mourinho’s philosophy is built and it remains the one area where United have never bothered bringing in reinforcements. There is clearly a huge mismatch between the identity of the club, the choice of manager and the attributes of the players that are being brought in.

To his credit, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done well to restore the identity of the club and restore some balance. But the Norwegian is far from sailing to safety and it’s not his fault.

The past few weeks – or maybe months – have shown that United’s problem originate right at the top of the organisation. Unless a proper structure is established at the club and a sporting director is appointed to take care of transfer activities, it’s unlikely that United will return to their former glory.

This is precisely why Ajax are gunning for a treble and United are fighting hard for a spot in the top four.

All figures from transfermarkt.com

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Mauricio Pochettino had no idea how he would address Spurs players against Man City

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Mauricio Pochettino has revealed he did not know how he was going to be able to address his Tottenham players when it looked like they were heading out of the Champions League.

Spurs thought their European adventure was over when Raheem Sterling scored deep into injury time of their dramatic quarter-final second leg at the Etihad Stadium, only for the Video Assistant Referee to hand them a reprieve.

Sterling netted to send City 5-4 ahead on aggregate, but VAR showed that Sergio Aguero was offside.

The turnaround in emotions was an unbelievable sight as Tottenham players that were on the floor crestfallen were suddenly punching the air, while City, who celebrated as wildly as they did when Aguero won them the Premier League in 2012, were in despair.

But during the minute or so that Spurs were going out, Pochettino said he plummeted to new depths, questioning Christian Eriksen’s decision not to play the ball forward in the build-up to the goal and wondering what he could say to his players.

“It was a moment where I threw my jacket, threw my jumper and I went to sit next to Jesus (Perez) and Miguel (D’Agostino) and Toni (Jimenez),” he said.

“It was a few seconds like this (hands on head). It was so fast. There were a lot of bad feelings and bad ideas.

“In that moment, yes of course, it was the lowest moment of my career. Yes. Massive. It was going to be a massive situation emotionally. We for sure would have been very down.

“In that moment you start to think, ‘Why?’. The action where Christian played back. I was thinking, ‘Why not play forwards?’.

“I was reviewing the action, the decision, how I was going to face the players, the fans, you … all these things happened so quickly in my mind.

“It’s amazing. When you are so down and then something you do not expect happens. It’s amazing how quick things happen in your mind, different emotions and ideas.”

Spurs’ celebrations at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday were fitting with creating history, having reached the Champions League semi-finals for the first time, as raucous partying on the pitch was followed by even more jubilant scenes in the dressing room.

Video footage has emerged on social media of Pochettino in the thick of the action after the game, not that he is happy it has come out.

“I hope that no-one put a video on social media. Because I saw a video that someone recorded celebrating in the dressing room,” he said.

“I hope this is not on social media. I hope that this is private.

“We were very happy, we celebrated. It was normal. It was a fantastic moment and we were all together, massive happiness sharing all together.

“It was a big achievement. We realised there in the dressing room that it was a fantastic achievement for us, for the club. And we were so happy.”

Tottenham’s impressive progression under Pochettino has always been tempered by their inability so far to back it up with trophies, despite a string of final and semi-final appearances.

The last four of the Champions League is new territory for the club, though they matched the run in the European Cup in the early 1960s, but Pochettino does not see it as a landmark moment.

“I don’t believe that,” he said. “It was amazing to achieve that, but there is still a lot of work to do for the club if we want to be in the level that we dream to be at.

“But of course in the way that we are it is the way to build your reputation, you build towards being one day at the level that you want.

“And of course now I am so happy but you can put it in the same emotional level if you win the Champions League or you win the Premier League. We are going to be in the semi-final.

“It was fantastic to make history, to arrive for the first time since 1962 in the semi-final again, in a different era of course now.”

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Deadly Stats: Madcap first half makes UCL history as Tottenham reach semis for first time

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Tottenham won a madcap game to advance to the Champions League semi-finals.

Tottenham dashed Manchester City’s quadruple dream on a dramatic Champions League night at the Etihad Stadium.

Raheem Sterling thought he settled a pulsating quarter-final contest with a late strike on Wednesday only for Sergio Aguero to be ruled offside following a review in a dramatic finale.

There was also controversy over what proved the decisive Spurs goal in a tie that ended 4-4 on aggregate, with Fernando Llorente’s bundled effort only given after a lengthy VAR review for suspected handball.

City did win the second leg 4-3 but it was Spurs that prevailed on the away goals rule. They will now face Ajax in the semi-finals.

Take a look at seven deadly stats from the game.

THEY SHOOT, THEY SCORE

Nobody could believe the way this game started. By the fourth minute, City had scored, changing the complexion of the tie as it looked like Spurs would be in for a long night, Sterling’s superb first making it 1-0 with almost the entire game left for the home side to find the winning second goal.

Instead, that goal went to Spurs – as did the third, as Son Heung-min pounced on two City errors to put Tottenham ahead 2-1 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate. It looked like, after an early setback, Maurico Pochettino’s side had wrested control of the tie back from their opponents. But Bernardo Silva had other ideas, ghosting in to score City’s second and put the tie on a knife’s edge again, and it would seesaw back and forth for the rest of the night.

When Silva scored, it was the fourth shot on target of the game. All four had ended up in the net.

MADCAP OPENING

The defenders may have failed to turn up for their jobs for the start of this game, but nobody quite cared – this was a frenzy that made Champions League history.

When the fourth goal went in on the 11th minute, it was the earliest four goals had been scored in a Champions League game in the competition’s history. But that wasn’t enough for City and Spurs – the latter probably would have been fine had it stayed that way – as a fifth goal came just ten minutes later, with Sterling giving City a 3-2 lead and levelling the aggregate score.

That goal made this the first Champions League game in which five goals had been scored in the first 21 minutes.

WAY BACK WEDNESDAY

It was almost a surprise that that the first half ended at 3-2, after what had transpired in the first 21 minutes. No one would have expected the remainder of the half to go goalless after that.

At the time, the half-time score may have seemed like a good omen for City. The last time a Champions League match in England went into the break at 3-2, it was Chelsea leading Barcelona in the second leg of a round of 16 tie in 2005. Chelsea were still heading out on away goals as things stood, but they got a fourth goal in the second half to overturn the 2-1 deficit they’d brought back from Barcelona.

City, too, would get a fourth goal to overturn a one-goal deficit from the away leg. If only the scoring had stopped there.

LAPORTE’S NIGHTMARE SHOW

Aymeric Laporte was comfortably leading the race to be considered the best of the rest in the list of Premier League defenders behind Virgil van Dijk. Indeed, according to some observers he’s on par with the Liverpool star, and those of a City persuasion may even argue he’s better.

They’ll have a tougher time after Wednesday, when the Frenchman committed two errors in the first ten minutes to throw away the advantage Sterling had given his team. Two poor touches gave Spurs the ball in the City half, and both times it ended up in the back of the City net.

Going into this game, Laporte had made one error leading to a goal in 44 appearances across competitions this season.

THE SON-MAN SHOW

Pep Guardiola once called Tottenham “the Harry Kane team”. The Englishman was missing through injury on Wednesday, and given the collective efforts of Spurs no one would call them a one-man team anyway, but if there’s a player in their side who could take up that mantle, it’s Son.

The man who gave Spurs the win in the first leg briefly turned the second leg on its head with his quick-fire brace in response to Sterling’s opening goal. He was aided by some shambolic defending, but even then the finish for his second matched Sterling’s brilliant first, and at that point, 10 minutes in, Tottenham had a 2-1 lead on the night and 3-1 on aggregate.

He’d singlehandedly scored as many goals in ten minutes as all of City’s opponents had managed combined in the previous ten games at the Etihad Stadium.

DE BRUYNE MAJESTIC

At one point, when Aguero scored City’s fourth goal on the night in the 59th minute, Kevin de Bruyne was averaging an assist every 19 minutes in this game. It was a virtuoso performance from a player who was dropped for the first leg because Guardiola wasn’t sure the Belgian could deal with Spurs’ physicality.

He became the first player to bag a hat-trick assists in a Champions League quarter-final in over a decade, since Ryan Giggs managed four for Manchester United against Roma in 2007. And all this after a season in which he’s been injured and some way short of top form – until last weekend he’d gone 335 days without a Premier League assist.

NOT A GREAT DAY FOR THE DEFENCE

Toby Alderweireld ducking out of the way of Sterling’s shot for his first goal – though in fairness it would have taken his face off – Laporte’s errors, Ederson letting the ball slip under him for Son’s first, Spurs failing to pick up Silva, Hugo Lloris being beaten at his near post by Aguero; it wasn’t a great day for either defence or goalkeeper.

Spurs conceded three goals in a half for the first time since 2015 – and that was in Manchester as well, though on the other side of the city during an away game against United.

But it’s what they did at the other end that mattered. City had conceded three goals at home in the entirety of 2019 going into this game; Spurs matched that tally on their own on Wednesday.

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