The Dutch outfit ended Los Blancos’ dominance in Europe in the Round of 16.
Real Madrid are out. Humbled. And in total disarray. Peter Drury’s words after the final whistle blew echoed loud and rampant in a Santiago Bernabeu that had fallen dead silent and crestfallen. The old guard had been knocked out of the competition they conquered for three years consecutively by the new guard- Erik ten Hag’s quiet revolution in Ajax was finally bearing conspicuous fruits and the whole world was there to witness it.
Dusan Tadic who did not quite fit into the demands of the Premier League outclassed and tortured the Ramos-less Real Madrid defence while Barcelona’s newest signing Frenkie de Jong passed his audition with flying colours having completely neutralised creative threats from Luka Modric. Toni Kroos and Casemiro looked like they did not know what to do while Hakim Ziyech and David Neres seemed to be saturated with endless options in the final third. Lasse Schone netted a freekick that could well have been the goal of the season contender in the Champions League.
Vinicius and Lucas Vazquez got injured and had to be taken off in the first half. Not that it would have mattered had they stayed longer because De Ligt and Daley Blind were on song. Gareth Bale came on and his highlight of the game once agai, was getting roundly booed by his home crowd. Despite making a couple of good saves, Thibaut Courtois was helpless to avert his side’s debacle and Ajax could have even scored 7 on the night while Marco Asensio’s goal did not even qualify as a consolation.
This was a statement display from ten Hag’s AFC Ajax over two legs. They are here to stay and they are here to play some amazing football.
Formations and line-ups
Erik ten Hag started with a variation of a classic 4-3-3, a brain-child of the possession based system that the great Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff pioneered with Ajax Amsterdam and changed the face of football in the process. The same XI that started in the 1-2 defeat in Amsterdam started again in Madrid and it is easy to see why.
Erik ten Hag’s side had got everything right in the first leg bar the final touch and some bad luck. Onana started in the goal. Ahead of him was the rock solid duo of De Ligt and Blind. Mazraoui played right back and held a defensive shape while Tagliafico started on the opposite flank and was given the licence to roam high. Frenkie de Jong screened the defence and acted as man in transition while Donny van de Beek and Lasse Schone held central zones. Ahead of them was the magnificent Dusan Tadic flanked by Ziyech and Neres on either flank.
Santiago Solari started with his usual 4-3-3 that saw him getting beaten by Barcelona twice in the space of a week. Thibaut Courtois started ahead of Keylor Navas in goal once again. Nacho came in to replace skipper Sergio Ramos who made himself look like a fool on the night by picking up a deliberate yellow in the first leg in order to save himself for the quarter finals rather humorously. Paired with Nacho was Raphael Varane, and Dani Carvajal and Sergio Reguilon started on either flank.
Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Modric started in midfield as usual. And Vinicius Junior, Karim Benzema and Lucas Vazquez formed the attacking trio.
First-half – Ajax pry through a clueless Real Madrid
For quite some time now, Real Madrid has looked like a football team without a clear identity on the pitch. You have systems that are possession based, those that are defensive and comprise of a low block and those that are reliant on counter attacks. This current Real Madrid outfit somehow try to resemble all of them and end up being neither.
Despite Real Madrid starting with the early intent and a dominant phase where Varane struck the crossbar and Benzema and Vazquez made inroads into the box, Ajax looked like they knew what they were doing.
In the first half of the first leg, Ajax pressed Real Madrid out of the stadium and the lack of final balls let them down. This took a toll as they ran out of steam in the second half when Madrid capitalised on their chances. Ten Hag made sure that his side took care of it by being more cautious and more efficient with their effort. This time, they were contented to let Real Madrid have the ball and knew exactly when to press in numbers and cut passing lanes with the second lines in order to retrieve possession and were quick in transition. Their first goal would come from one such move as Toni Kroos got caught in a dangerous position in his own half and Ajax pushed men forward. Dusan Tadic found Ziyech with a square pass who finished it effortlessly.
Frenkie de Jong was sublime in transition, so was Donny van de Beek who took Casemiro out of the game with intelligent positioning. This created spaces for Dusan Tadic and Ziyech to wreak havoc.
Solari’s idea of playing a high line hurt Madrid at the back
Real Madrid were guilty of playing too high a line and in the absence of Sergio Ramos it was left unprotected with no one to take the lead and commandeer it. As a result, they looked indisciplined, lacked focus and took too long to fall back into shape. Ajax got their second goal through some of the most silky skills you are ever like to see at the Bernabeu from Dusan Tadic who carved open the space for David Neres to run into and finish with an eye of the needle through pass. Reguilon who was supposed to contain Neres wasn’t even in the picture as he was caught too high and Luka Modric was the last man of all people.
Neutralising the Real Madrid midfield
The Real Madrid midfield, the foundation upon which their back to back to back Champions League triumphs were based has looked out of sorts for some time now. Fede Valverde has shown more impressive displays than Casemiro, Toni Kroos tried taking on Bernd Schuster on social media but has been invisible on the pitch since last season whereas the decision to award Modric has started to look stupid in retrospect.
With that being said, all three of them are world class players and Ten Hag had special plans to suffocate creativity from the Madrid midfield. Barcelona’s newest recruit Frenkie de Jong had an exemplary game of shadowing an individual with intelligent positioning, awareness and interceptions. He had a virtuoso display in the lower half of his own midfield and cancelled Luka Modric from the game. Lasse Schone was close in on Toni Kroos who could neither impose himself on the game nor relay and spray passes to Modric who was closely guarded.
Donny van de Beek was neat and clinical and occupied spaces in between Real Madrid’s centre-backs, in between their last defensive line and the midfield line of 4 that Casemiro could not keep track of him alone. This also exploited the spaces between Varane and Nacho who were trying to play a compact line but left wide spaces with de Beek’s false runs into the box.
Positional interchange from Ajax in the final third
Hakim Ziyech and David Neres exchanged flanks on a number of occasions trying to lose their markers in Carvajal and Reguilon. Tadic, on the other hand dropped deep like a False 9 to try and distort Varane and Nacho’s attentions on him and the combined execution of all these sub-strategies ensured fluidity and chaos in the final third that Ajax made the best use of with pace and precision.
This time, they would not make the mistake of overcomplicating things close to the box like they did in the first leg. Keeping it simple and lethal worked out and Ajax carved out yet another magnificent night and a wonderful story in Madrid.