Slicker and sharper than their hosts, Ajax’s crop of talented youngsters pinned Spurs back during an utterly dominant opening 30 minutes with Donny van de Beek (15) scoring a priceless away goal.
Spurs looked short on confidence and quality in the final third without the suspended Heung-Min Son as they failed to test Andre Onana with any meaningful attempts, with just one of those hitting the target. Mauricio Pochettino’s men have now scored just once in their last four matches in all competitions as Harry Kane’s absence starts to become very apparent. Below are five things we learned in the first leg Tottenham defeat to Ajax in Champions league semi-final.
Ajax really are fearless
Ajax played like the home team on Tuesday night. Erik ten Hag’s men marauded into challenges, pressed the Tottenham defence with verve and ran at Hugo Lloris’ goal as if magnetised.
Every move was committed with such vigour that one would think Ten Hag was controlling his team with an Xbox controller, his finger glued to the sprint button.
There was a moment in the opening minutes when right-back Joel Veltman, who had raced all the way into the Tottenham box, slid in on Jan Vertonghen as the former Ajax defender attempted to clear the ball. Was it necessary? Not really, but it was that sort of determination that unsettled Spurs in the first half.
Every Ajax move oozed self-confidence and the Dutch side clearly feel that they belong at this level, rather than seeing this year’s Champions League venture as the anomaly that many football fans seem to think it is.
Van de Beek is the hidden gem of this Ajax side
Ajax’s 19-year-old centre-back Matthjis de Ligt and Barcelona-bound midfielder Frenkie de Jong, 21, have gotten all the plaudits in recent months. But Donny van de Beek is only 22 and is as crucial to the Dutch side as his afore-mentioned compatriots.
The midfielder set the tone early on Tuesday night by dispossessing Davinson Sanchez ruthlessly, before bearing down on a goal like a man possessed. He was central to the creativity and swiftness of so many of Ajax’s attacking moves throughout the evening, but could also be seen tracking back to break up Tottenham moves with well-timed tackles.
Importantly, he also took his goal with supreme confidence. There was a hint of offside, but the midfielder timed his run well to catch out the Spurs defenders, who seemed to freeze with the rest of the footballing world. Fitting then that the Dutchman should provide an ice-cold finish, but not before feinting to pick the perfect moment to beat Lloris.
Spurs are a better side with Sissoko playing
There was a time when Moussa Sissoko was a source of amusement for many followers of the Premier League. His ungainly stride suggests a clumsiness, and even Tottenham fans once struggled to take the midfielder seriously.
This season, though, he has been a revelation. His performance against Chelsea at Wembley in November stands out as emblematic of the Frenchman’s talents, but his greatest asset is arguably his ability to pull up his fellow midfielders’ socks, figuratively speaking.
When he arrived on the pitch in place of Vertonghen on Tuesday evening, he took hold of the game for Spurs. He was winning challenges, spraying inch-perfect cross-field balls, and lending an assurance to his midfield partner Victor Wanyama. Who would have thought it?
Football is not taking concussions seriously enough
Towards the end of the first half, Tottenham centre-backs Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld collided with one another and Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana in the opposition box.
The two Belgian defenders were both in pain but it was Vertonghen who ultimately failed to recover, exhibiting concussion-like symptoms. In fact, the centre-back looked almost unconscious as he was helped off the pitch.
Spurs’ medical staff sent Vertonghen back on, having checked his condition, but Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz stopped the game after recognising that the Belgium international was still not right.
There have been significant efforts in the NFL to combat concussion problems in recent years, and these efforts have seen a decrease in diagnoses. Maybe it’s time for football to realise that the issue doesn’t just exist across the pond.
Tottenham are not out of it yet
In the first half, Tottenham were out-thought and out-fought. Ajax unsettled the north London side from the moment the first whistle was blown, and capitalised early on with Van de Beek’s goal. But Pochettino’s team emerged for the second half a much improved outfit.
Vertonghen’s unfortunate head injury had already forced the Argentine to bring on Sissoko – who immediately set about turning in the best performance of any Spurs player on the evening – and the Tottenham manager took that moment to switch to four at the back.
These changes should be taken into consideration when Spurs travel to Amsterdam next week for the second leg of the champions league, as they may be vital if the Premier League club are to level the tie, or even win it. champions league