In September 2018, Erik ten Hag was the main subject in the Breaking The Lines Fan Preview regarding Ajax. The piece discussed the tactical development that the club had made under the relatively new manager and the players who were likely to stand out in the group phase.
Almost half a year later, it is fair to say expectations became reality. Ajax are still unbeaten in the Champions League this season, and drawing twice versus Bayern Munich and winning versus Benfica were great accomplishments. Ajax were unstoppable in their own Johan Cruyff Arena and away from home, they tried to play their own game.
Through positional play and possession-based football, Ajax won the hearts of their own supporters and many others. A sequence versus Bayern Munich in their last Champions League match said it all: via plenty of passes, a superbly created chance was finished off by Dušan Tadić, the MVP in the European club tournament this season.
Everything was hosanna, until the last few weeks. Ajax came back from winter training camp in Florida, and a lot seems to have changed. The Amsterdam side could’ve gone top after PSV dropped points at FC Emmen, but they failed miserably by drawing 4-4 versus Heerenveen at home. A week later, they lost 6-2 versus Feyenoord and Heracles Almelo also beat a, in defence weakened, Ajax team.
The power of Ajax was in their ability to be a true unit during the whole game. The players defended as a true collective, giving Ajax lots of control in matches, as they successfully pressed high and hardly conceded any chances. This has changed a lot recently, as individuals seem to play for themselves, rather than for the team.
Maybe it is has to do with the transfer of Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona and the potential transfers of others, but it has certainly resulted in dropped points and a national crisis that Ajax is eager to end versus Real Madrid.
Los Blancos are the anti-equivalent of Ajax. There was some optimism when the Champions League draw was done, as Real Madrid weren’t as good back then as they are now. Whereas Ten Hag’s Ajax have dropped massively in performances and results, Santiago Solari has found a way to be successful and find a sweet spot.
It will be interesting if the Champions League winner can continue its fine form in the Ajax stadium, with Ajax willing to control, dominate and press high, similarly to Real Betis, who lost versus Real Madrid, but making it them very difficult along the way.
Real Madrid have a good chance of getting a good result when Ajax are just as bad in defensive transition as during their previous games. If the pressing and possession game are on point, Ajax may have a chance in getting a proper view on the scoreboard versus Los Merengues. They showed it versus Bayern Munich, who say they cannot do it on a special night in the Dutch capital?
By: Sjors van Veen
Photo: Pro Shots/Stanley Gontha