Tottenham Hotspur played in their first ever Champions League semifinal on Tuesday, but fell to the visiting Ajax 1-0 on an early goal from Donny van de Beek. The lineup Tottenham put out was, to put it mildly, piecemeal and missing several major players, but considering the handicaps Spurs put together a pretty solid performance despite everything.
Here are three things that we learned from the loss at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
1. Spurs played very good defense... except a couple times when they didn’t.
Ajax’s single goal was the result of a pretty bad defensive breakdown after 15 minutes (and a lovely turn and shot fake from van de Beek), but on the whole Tottenham put in a pretty stout defensive performance. According to Michael Caley, Spurs only allowed 1.1 xG over the course of the match, and the biggest chance was van de Beek’s goal.
xG map for Tottenham - Ajax— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) April 30, 2019
Spurs managed to muck up midfield and keep Ajax from playing their game for most of the match. But not all of the match. pic.twitter.com/rCTPAv6wox
Going in, it was obvious the plan was to try and stay as tidy at the back as possible, and to deny Dusan Tadic, Frenkie de Jong, Hakim Ziyech, and David Neres space to get shots off. For the most part, that’s what happened. Yes, van der Beek got his chance and Neres got open enough at one point to plonk another off the post in the second half, but on the whole Spurs should be pleased with a defensive performance that mostly nullified what has been an electric Ajax attack over the course of this tournament. And they did it for the majority of the match without Jan Vertonghen, making it even more impressive.
2. Pochettino got his tactics wrong, but fixed it in time.
The opening half hour of the first half was pretty scary, and it was mostly due to the way Pochettino set up the team. Many observers suspected that Poch would keep Fernando Llorente on the bench to start, playing a deep CM pairing of Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama and a front line of Lucas Moura and Dele Alli. Instead, Poch set up with the big Basque striker at the tip of the spear and Lucas playing in just behind, and a defensive back three to prevent Ajax from countering with pace.
It just didn’t work. Llorente’s immobility and inability to play passes to streaking players killed a number of promising counterattacks . Spurs’ offense looked anemic; even when they did get the ball, which was rare during that spell, Spurs’ lack of midfield options meant they frequently couldn’t get it into dangerous areas to the point where Ajax’s keeper, Andre Onana, was barely called into action.
The change came, ironically, with the injury to Jan Vertonghen, who was subbed off after a head-to-head collision with teammate Toby Alderweireld. In answer, Pochettino brought on Moussa Sissoko for his first action since returning from a hamstring injury, and reorganized the offense into a 4-2-3-1, with Lucas, Eriksen, and Dele given freedom to interchange behind Llorente. Sissoko’s directness and pace utterly changed the game, and he combined well with Christian Eriksen who often dropped deep into midfield to help, which meant that Ajax’s midfielders had to step up to contest him. That left space between the lines for Dele, Lucas, and (yes) Llorente to exploit. Sissoko was fantastic on the day and it put a pretty fine point on just how much Spurs have missed him. Dele looked a little off, though Ajax tried to press him out of the match whenever possible.
As bad as he looked in the opening stage of the match, Llorente came out a changed man in the second half, using his hold-up abilities to knock the ball back to open midfielders rather than trying to play through the middle. He was much better when he wasn’t the main focus of the attack, though he wasn’t helped early on by Spurs trying to play through him rather than to him.
Spurs didn’t score in the match, but they came close a few times and looked significantly better than they did in the first half. There were moments where they looked very threatening and they managed to disrupt Ajax’s tactics for a good portion of the match.
Pochettino got the initial setup wrong, but credit to him for noticing and adjusting when necessary. It took a forced substitution of arguably Spurs’ best defender to do it, but the end result bodes well for the second tie in Amsterdam.
3. This is fine. Spurs are still in it with a shout.
A loss at home in a Champions League semifinal isn’t great. But a 1-0 home loss isn’t at all catastrophic, considering the team Spurs had to work with. A mostly stout defensive effort today should give confidence that they can do a similar kind of job in Amsterdam, and when they travel to the Johann Cruyff Arena next Wednesday they’ll have Sissoko with another week of fitness, and a rested Son Heung-Min. By that point maybe they will also have wrapped up Champions League qualification for next season as well, meaning they can play without that anvil hanging over their heads.
Getting an away win at Ajax won’t be easy, but I do like the idea of both Sonny and Lucas running at that Ajax defensive line that looked a little porous at times. With a (slightly) more first choice lineup and some canny tactics, it would be foolish to rule Spurs out of this series. In fact, you could even say that Spurs are taking the “Ajax path” in this series — Ajax trailed Real Madrid and drew Juventus after the home tie in those series, before storming back to win both away legs and advance. There’s still every chance that Tottenham can do the same and move on to the Champions League finals.
BONUS: Kieran Trippier was pretty, pretty bad.
If you want a player to be mad at after this match, you probably don’t have to look much past Kieran Trippier. Trips had a nightmare of a match — loose in possession, wayward with his crossing, and at fault for Ajax’s goal, lazily playing in van de Beek by not being on the same page as the rest of the defensive line for the offside trap. There was also that backpass... you know which one.
And check out this lovely stat.
Kieran Trippier lost possession 28 times against Ajax, more times than any other player on the pitch.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 30, 2019
Not the best showing in a Spurs shirt. pic.twitter.com/c3HBvCdhRY
As much as we’ve screamed at him this season, we know he can play better than this, so I’m inclined to chalk it up to a really (really!) bad match. And to be charitable, he should be given credit for his first half distribution and free kicks, both of which were one of the few good things to come out of the first half pre-Vertonghen injury. Defensively he was... okay, keeping David Neres mostly in check, except, y’know, for that one time.
But yiiiiiiiiikes. Trips went 9/17 passing in the attacking third and completed just 1/5 crosses. Spurs needed him to be on point and help the offense from wide positions, and he super didn’t. But that doesn’t mean that I’m quite ready to see Juan Foyth starting in Amsterdam.