Champions League tactics: How Tottenham can work their way around Ajax's intense high-press

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The intricacies within the sophisticated systems employed by Tottenham and Ajax serve up an intriguing tactical battle in the Champions League semi-finals.

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will stage the first installment of the double header with the Dutch outfit making the trip to London.

Here, we analyse the key tactics Mauricio Pochettino could use to mastermind a victory for Spurs.

Click here for Ajax’s key tactics.

BYPASS THE PRESS

Ajax’s pressing game is one of the best as their front four work tirelessly to cut out passing lanes while Lass Schone and Frenkie de Jong aggressively close down deeper midfielders attempting to receive possession. Spurs could hit their wing-backs if they’re precise but, on other occasions, may have to abandon their principles and go long.

Jose Mourinho bypassed the press expertly during Manchester United’s 2017 Europa League final win over Ajax. Pochettino must attempt the same and, in Fernando Llorente, his ball-playing centre-backs have an excellent target to hit.

Once the striker brings the ball under his spell, he only needs to find one of the onrushing Dele Alli or Lucas Moura and Spurs will be in business.

ATTACKING THE RIGHT SIDE

Ajax’s intense high-press is one of their best features as a unit but naturally compromises their own shape and leaves them vulnerable to the counter-attack.

Should their opponents beat the initial press, correctly directing attacks on the break is crucial. Attacking left-back Nicolas Tagliafico is superb going forward and in Erik ten Hag, he has a coach who encourages his forays, but that also renders the space he mans vacant.

The blistering pace of Moura could be ideally suited to taking advantage if he’s released early. Daley Blind usually sweeps up well for Tagliafico but if the Brazilian gets to the ball first, he’ll fancy his chances against the slower centre-back.

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Champions League tactics: How Frenkie de Jong can carry Ajax forward against Tottenham

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The intricacies within the sophisticated systems employed by Tottenham and Ajax serve up an intriguing tactical battle in the Champions League semi-finals.

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will stage the first installment of the double header with the Dutch outfit making the trip to London.

Here, we analyse the key tactics Erik ten Hag could use to mastermind a victory for Spurs.

Click here for Tottenham’s key tactics.

THE DE JONG EFFECT

Like Ajax, Spurs look to press their opponents high as well but the Dutch outfit are more adept than most at beating it. Frenkie de Jong is key here. The Barcelona-bound midfielder drops deep, slotting in on the left of the two centre-backs while Lasse Schone – the other member of a flexible midfield double pivot – positions himself ahead of the trio, creating a rhombus to exchange passes.

Meanwhile, the full-backs push up to offer options as well with wingers occupying the half-spaces and Donny van de Beek retreating to the centre circle. Most effectively, De Jong’s tremendous dribbling ability helps him break through the lines and turn defence into attack.

FRONT FOUR DYNAMIC

Spurs will likely field three centre-backs and they won’t enjoy dealing with Ajax’s fluid front four. There is no out-and-out striker to shadow or tussle with as Dusan Tadic operates as a false nine instead and often isn’t the most advanced player with Van de Beek regularly running beyond him.

Hakim Ziyech is the most prominent creative force of the lot, drifting in from the right.

When the Moroccan receives possession, that’s the cue for the other three to make darting runs in behind, especially David Neres on the opposite flank making diagonal runs on the blind side of the right-sided centre-back.

With Schone and De Jong occasionally offering support from midfield and the full-backs stretching play, Spurs have their work cut out for them.

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Tottenham v Ajax: Talking points as coveted Hakim Ziyech is one to watch

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Ajax star Hakim Ziyech

It’s the Champions League semi-final clash no one expected, but everyone is excited about as Tottenham host Ajax on Tuesday night.

Hot talents from both sides will sashay down the dazzling Tottenham Hotspur Stadium runway with the pageantry of the tie a befitting reward for these two poised outfits.

Spurs, though, enter Tuesday having suffered their first defeat at the new venue on Saturday when West Ham won 1-0 in a fixture which laid bare the side’s gruelling fixture schedule and lengthy injury list.

In contrast, the Dutch giants were afforded the weekend off thanks to a fixture break in the Eredivisie and so naturally energy levels frame the first element of this tie’s discussion.

ENERGY IS KEY

Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino

Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino

There’s no need to delve too deeply into the tactics board of either team to figure out their route to Madrid.

Throughout their respective 2018/19 European campaigns, both Ajax and Spurs have forged success thanks to an energetic trait.

It’s a hallmark which is applied in different ways, though. Erik ten Hag employs a classic Dutch counter-press which sees his youthful charges blitz in numbers high up the pitch, making it incredibly uncomfortable for the deep ball-carriers.

It’s designed to force awkward and imprecise passes, be it long or short. For the man in possession, think trying to avoid a swarm of stinging bees with honey on your feet.

The system requires overwhelmingly-calculated pressure, which of course necessitates deep energy stores. Good thing Ajax have not played since April 23 then. No such luxury has been afforded to Mauricio Pochettino.

His philosophy is a little different, the idea is to chaperone the ball into certain areas of the pitch and then methodically press.

However, Son Heung-Min (suspension) and Harry Kane (injury) both miss this contest meaning the Spurs boss is lacking the Kryptonite to weaken Ajax – speed.

The other issue, is that Spurs build from the back and when their defenders are hurried – think Liverpool and Inter this season – mistakes appear. Going more direct would be an option but missing both Kane and Son is a blow for this tactic.

ZIYECH THE DANGERMAN

Hakim Ziyech

Hakim Ziyech

What makes Ajax so intoxicating – this applies for fans and elite clubs looking to spend in the summer – is their youthful exuberance.

Matthijs de Ligt (19), Noussair Mazraoui (21), Frenkie de Jong (21), Donny van de Beek (22) plus David Neres (22) have all demonstrated their absorbing ability this season and are quite rightly being linked with the biggest clubs in world football.

In De Jong’s case, he’s already agreed to join one in the form of Barcelona.

Yet, it is one star, who by comparison is practically ancient, warranting more attention. Hakim Ziyech is 26 years old and quite how he’s avoided the glare of elite sides so far is baffling.

Roma were rumouredly interested last summer before signing his then younger, cheaper, team-mate Justin Kluivert and before them it was the likes of Everton and Marseille. Ziyech can do better.

The Moroccan has contributed to 28 goals in the Dutch top flight this season (16 goals and 12 assists), surpassing the 24 of 2017/18 (nine goals, 15 assists) and the 18 of his debut campaign in Amsterdam. And the numbers correlate with visible refinement of his talent.

Granted, the forward is a high-risk, high-reward player but he has developed a tremendous work rate.

He’s phenomenal in the transition and his progression past markers and into Spurs territory will be crucial for Ajax.

Defenders will need to watch him carefully, both Manchester clubs and Bayern Munich scouts will likely do the same.

AJAX OLD BOYS

Christian Eriksen

Christian Eriksen

The running theme for Tuesday is youth, yet there’s some narrative spare for the old boys.

Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez will face their former side while former Premier League players Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind return to England as well.

For Eriksen, it’s an interesting occasion given all the ambiguity surrounding his future as he heads into the final year of his contract.

Real Madrid and Bayern are reportedly interested and so past, present and future all entwine for the Dane. Progression or an exit, could dictate where he plays next season.

Tadic and Blind didn’t exactly enjoy prime years in England at Southampton and Manchester United respectively but both have been instrumental with Ajax.

Indeed, Tuesday is a meeting of both young and old.

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