Ajax take a one goal advantage into the second leg of the Champions League semifinal after victory over Tottenham in London. The young Dutch team impressed once again with their neat passing and aggressive pressing.
Tottenham Hotspur 0-1 Ajax Amsterdam
(van de Beek 15')
The first half an hour at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium flew by in a dizzying whirl of passes between the players in the black shirts with the golden trim.
Back and forth, left and right, into the channels and back out again. Short, quick passes which brought the men playing them steadily closer to the penalty area.
The closer they got, the more desperate the attempts to win the ball became. But if a Tottenham player won possession or managed to disrupt the carousel with a well-timed tackle or interception, there always seemed to be an extra black shirt ready to win it back.
This is how teams must have felt when confronted with the totaalvoetbal of Johan Cruyff and co. for the first time, so helpless Tottenham appeared in the face of such apparent novelty.
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But this was no full-color, super HD, remastered footage of the Ajax of the late 1960s and early 1970s; this was Ajax in 2018-19. Tottenham knew all about this Ajax. They put three past Bayern Munich and scored four in the Bernabeu before knocking out Juventus in Turin. Everybody knows about this Ajax.
Yet still, Tottenham could do nothing. Still, Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose didn't know which black shirt to take as Hakim Ziyech slipped the ball between the two of them into Donny van de Beek. Time seemed to stand still as the 22-year-old Dutchman took a touch, had a look, and calmly slid the ball past Hugo Lloris.
Ten minutes later, van de Beek was in again, picking up the ball on the edge of the six-yard-box after another intricate one-two and dummy. But this time, with David Neres stood free in the center, he opted to shoot – straight at Lloris.
"No, it doesn't make a difference. We just need to stay cool and play to our strengths," head coach Erik ten Hag had said pre-match when asked whether the absence of Tottenham forwards Harry Kane and Heung-min Son gave his team an extra advantage. "That's what we're good at."
Aren't they indeed. It looked easy, so easy, on the eye – but what Ajax had been doing, not just here in London but throughout this Champions League campaign, was anything but.
It's difficult enough for the very biggest and richest clubs to cultivate such a clear style of play, under the guidance of world-renowned coaches and with the backing of almost limitless wealth. Ajax are also a big club, one of the very biggest, but rich in history, culture and tradition more than dollars, euros and yen.
And that makes the work done by chief executive Edwin van der Sar and director of football Marc Overmars all the more impressive. From Peter Bosz to Erik ten Hag, this Ajax generation has gone from all-out-attack to a more possession-based game, before now finally settling into a balance of the two.
The spine of the team, from centerback and captain Matthijs de Ligt to Frenkie de Jong and van de Beek in midfield to Neres in attack, is exceedingly young, as Ajax's economic model demands. But van der Sar and Overmars were flexible enough to countenance the return of Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic to add just the right amount of experience – just as their own Champions League-winning team of 1995 also contained Frank Rijkaard and Danny Blind.
It didn't go all Ajax's way. Tottenham have shown during this campaign that they too are capable of an explosive, powerful, modern attacking game, as Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City found out. But with Kane and Son missing, they were forced to rely more on their greater physicality, with long balls up to Fernando Llorente in the hope that Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen could pick up the knock-downs.
Temporarily, Ajax lost their composure as Tottenham pressed for an equalizer in front of the huge, new one-tiered stand housing their most vocal supporters. A draw wouldn't have been a disastrous result for Ajax with an away goal in the bank. Instead, they almost had two, when they suddenly rediscovered the verve and freshness that had characterized those opening stages.
After Hakim Ziyech and Tadic squared the ball across to Neres, the Brazilian's shot had Lloris beaten but came back off the post. It would have been the perfect garnish on the cocktail that Ajax brewed up in North London but Tottenham survived. The masterclass in mixology will continue in Amsterdam.