Wednesday night’s Champions League clash between Ajax and Juventus showcases two teams that put together tactical masterclasses in the second leg of the previous round, as they both came back to advance past their respective opponents in the round-of-16 against all odds. Ajax blitzed Real Madrid at the Bernabeu with a classic Dutch counter-press and impressive transition defending. Juve had an onslaught of crosses against Atletico Madrid, and even Simeone’s famed defensive scheme just couldn’t cope with the presence of Mario Mandzukic and Cristiano Ronaldo in the box.
Ajax isn’t afraid to go at anyone, and the way they hunt you off the ball gives them an edge against even the best opponents. Juventus are a pragmatic side that can shapeshift and suffocate teams. This entire tie will be fascinating because both Erik Ten Hag and Max Allegri will pose so many questions to each other.
Let’s take a look at two of the big questions that need to be answered.
How will Juventus deal with Ajax’s press?
Ten Hag’s entire scheme is designed to make ball-carriers uncomfortable. Ajax will press you into awkward situations. They force goalkeepers and defenders to play long balls -- hitting prayers up the field to a striker heavily marked. Real Madrid learned this the hard way. Courtois, Varane, Ramos, and Nacho couldn’t find outlets against Ajax over the course of two legs. They would frantically look for their wing-backs without much space to work with, or hit long balls into Karim Benzema who was quickly swarmed.
In the first leg, Real Madrid couldn’t escape their third. Once the ball got to Carvajal or Reguilon, Madrid’s full-backs struggled to come up with the next step in the attacking sequence. They often forced a pass to a player already under pressure:
Of the remaining Champions League teams, only Porto and Manchester City had a lower PPDA (passes per defensive action) in the opposition’s half. Ajax’s press is hyper-aggressive and efficient:
Juventus didn’t have to deal with that kind of pressure in Turin against Atletico. Emre Can, who slid back as a pseudo-center-back, was allowed to bring the ball up the field. Simeone concentrated his team into a low block and allowed Juve to move the ball vertically and get to their spots.
The first leg, when Atletico pressed high, was more testing for Juve. Chiellini was forced into a bad giveaway early, and that set the tone. Juve found it difficult getting the ball into good offensive positions. Ajax are what Atletico were for large chunks of the first leg -- only they have the energy to sustain it for 180 minutes. That’s one of the most underrated traits about Ten Hag’s side: Their barrel of energy doesn’t run out. It’s as if Ten Hag harnesses his press from the sun.
How Juve cope here will be interesting. Ajax are not just a good pressing side -- their cohesive shape and natural understanding of the game through their collective nervous system makes them difficult to attack. They can recover when their press gets bypassed, can swarm outlets that think they’ve just received the ball in a good offensive space, and both Daley Blind and Matthijs de Ligt can cover on the flanks for their full-backs.
When Allegri runs out of ideas offensively, he instructs Chiellini (his most capable defender) to act as a ball-carrier to break lines and gain numerical superiority in midfield. Ajax won’t let that happen easily.
How will Ajax defend Juve’s prolific crosses?
Atletico knew the crosses were coming in the second leg against Juventus, yet, they still treaded water defending them. You could argue they coped well -- Jose Gimenez, Diego Godin, Juanfran and Santiago Arias combined for 21 clearances on their own -- but the sheer number of Juventus’s crosses, 22 in total in Turin, coupled with the presence of two of the best off-ball movers in the game in Mandzukic and Ronaldo, was too much to deal with for Atleti.
Ajax had to deal with crosses in another way -- against a Real Madrid side out of ideas. Apart from two great chances from Varane in the second leg (one of which hit the crossbar) from crosses, Ten Hag’s men cleared everything that came at them. Real Madrid don’t have the same presence that Juve has aerially. In Santiago Solari’s scheme, crosses often came in towards Lucas Vazquez or Vinicius Jr, and neither player is an aerial threat. Benzema can be, but he couldn’t find space. Ajax didn’t have to worry about multiple behemoths throwing them around. Juve have two who are better than Madrid’s best.
It is almost unfair having Mandzukic and Ronaldo in the same team. Dealing with both of them is one of the toughest defensive assignments in football. They expertly navigate their runs to bamboozle defenders -- one of them makes a run to the near post to drag the center-back, and whichever undersized wing-back is unlucky enough to be defending the weak-side, will be sacrificed to the Gods. The way Mandzukic and Ronaldo create space for each other is breathtaking:
This will be the biggest test yet for Matthijs de Ligt and Daley Blind -- two center backs who’ve been great in the Champions League this season. No remaining team in the Champions League is as reliant on crosses as Juventus. Miralem Pjanic and Federico Bernardeschi are a big part of that, but Joao Cancelo and Sandro create dangerous overloads from their fullback roles which adds another layer of unpredictability to their attack. Ajax will have to be tighter on the flanks than Atletico were, and on occasions when they inevitably do concede a cross, they’ll be scrambling to deal with the targets in the box.
These two teams provided Europe with some of the most exciting football in the round-of-16, and they will now provide each other with new tests. For Juve, they’ll have to prove they can cope with Ajax’s relentless high-octane press and flair in the final third. Ajax will need to prepare for an incursion of crosses. Juve are favourites, as they should be with Ronaldo as the trump card, but it’s not inconceivable Ajax can come away with a convincing win over two legs -- especially if Ronaldo isn’t 100% healthy for the first leg as he’s just returning from injury.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association