Thanks to a resurgent second half against Ajax, a battered and bruised Tottenham avoided sure elimination from the Champions League on Tuesday.
Prior to halftime, Spurs were listless and uncompetitive. Midfielder Christian Eriksen accused his team of ball-watching, while manager Mauricio Pochettino lamented his team’s lethargic approach.
In the final 45 minutes, Tottenham put the visitors under more pressure. The change to a back-four – and the addition of Moussa Sissoko in midfield – made it more difficult for the Dutch to assert themselves.
The hosts did enough to keep themselves in the tie by limiting the damage to a 1-0 deficit.
A tall task still awaits Tottenham next week in Amsterdam – only one of the previous 17 teams to lose the first leg of a European semifinal has progressed to the final – but the following adjustments could give them a chance.
Drop Llorente for Son
Depleted by injuries, Tottenham can at least expect to have the suspended Heung-Min Son back for the second leg. If they’re to advance, Spurs have to produce more than a paltry single shot on target – which is all they managed in the first leg – and Son is the game-changer they need.
Fernando Llorente is the obvious candidate to make way for the shape-shifting South Korean, who can do things that his static Spanish teammate simply can’t. Tottenham can also change their approach with Son in the lineup, relying less on hopeful crosses into the box and more on the sneaky buildup play supporters have come to expect.
Llorente does his best to hold up and distribute the ball but contributes only so much. He can’t take on defenders like the two-footed Son or create chances for himself, and Spurs need that creativity to generate more clear-cut scoring opportunities.
Let Eriksen play deeper
Suffocated by Ajax’s high press and energy, Tottenham faced difficulties playing out of their own end. Victor Wanyama’s passing – at 58.5 percent – was particularly poor, but because he was often the first option for Tottenham’s stressed-out defenders, he always had someone breathing down his neck. A more composed player like Eriksen could do better in that position.
If he’s to play as the deep-lying midfielder, Eriksen himself will have to improve. He strung together 66.7 percent of his passes in Tuesday’s first leg, which is uncharacteristically low for the Dane.
Despite those numbers, he has the qualities to be a competent facilitator. Considering how difficult it is to break through Ajax’s press, Eriksen’s long balls could allow Spurs to bypass the opponent’s midfield altogether and strike on the counter. He can allow Sissoko to join the attack and let Wanyama worry about winning loose balls, which is something Spurs struggled to do in the opening 90 minutes of this tie. Eriksen may not provide the defensive security that his teammates might, but with two goals to score away from home, that’s a risk worth taking.
Start with a back-four
It’s unlikely Pochettino will make the same mistake twice. At least he had the awareness to correct himself midway through the first half, ditching the back-three in favor of a wider back-four that mitigated Ajax’s dominance on the flanks. It wasn’t Jan Vertonghen’s injury that forced Pochettino to change; Vertonghen moved to left-back before banging his nose. So, even if he messed up the beginning, Pochettino can take credit for making such a crucial mid-game adjustment.
Whether or not Vertonghen is available next Wednesday, Pochettino has to stick with the back-four. Besides its obvious width, the 4-4-2 would provide the opportunity to deploy another midfielder, which is a necessity against a side that tries to dominate the middle of the park as much as Ajax does. The opposing wingers, namely David Neres and Hakim Ziyech, would also face an important and potentially game-changing decision: whether to stay wide or help their teammates win the midfield battle.
If Spurs force the usually slick Ajax to think twice, they may just stand a chance.