Stopping Frenkie de Jong and the success of the Dutch side’s first press will be key, writes the former Spurs and Ajax manager
As a Dutchman it goes against my principles to say this but Spurs have to stop Frenkie de Jong. He is unbelievable. You have never seen a player like him. He is like Johan Cruyff in the pass but deeper and if he can’t pass it he runs away from you. That is why he is going to Barcelona in the summer for €75m.
Since De Jong came on to the international scene last year, the Netherlands team has developed. Before him, we did not go to the Euros or the World Cup but with him we are a very good country again. We have beaten Germany, we have beaten France and it’s only because of him. You have to stop him. If you don’t, he will kill you.
The Ajax way with Cruyff is to play 4-3-3, with one No 6 and two No 8s, but the current team is slightly different because De Jong is better if he can drop in and then start playing. So they’ve decided to play with two No 6s – Lasse Schöne and De Jong – and one No 10, who is Donny van de Beek. Watch him. He was a 13-year-old kid in the youth system when I was the Ajax manager. So the system is 4-2-3-1, although Van de Beek is playing high up. He’s almost like a nine-and-a-half.
Hakim Ziyech is on the right wing but he is more like a midfield player. He drifts in, plays in spaces and he is a passer. If he has got the ball, the others will attack the spaces and run in behind. David Neres, the Brazilian, who is a very good talent, comes off the left and Dusan Tadic, the old Southampton player, is up front, even though he is not a No 9. But Tadic plays there and that is very difficult for big centre-halves like Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
If I was Spurs, I would sign Ziyech. He is not the strongest but he is developing into a very good player. There is one thing. Look at Tadic. He was an average player in the Premier League but in the Netherlands, he is one of the best in the league. In the Netherlands, it’s not as difficult as people think.
Ajax play first press all the time. They play high up. But remember what José Mourinho did with Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League final against Ajax? He did not build up. As soon as you build up against Ajax, they will get the ball high up because their first press is amazing. But if Spurs can avoid the first press, their next pass can be deadly.
Ajax’s centre-half Matthijs de Ligt is probably the best young defender in Europe now – he will go for €80m or something this summer to Barcelona, United or wherever – and the left-back, Nicolás Tagliafico, is very good going forward. But if he is going forward, there is always space behind him.
Christian Eriksen could get Spurs players into that area but who? They need runners but they don’t have runners for the first leg, with Son Heung-min suspended and Harry Kane injured. Maybe Lucas Moura can come into the space but not Fernando Llorente. He is too immobile.
With Llorente, you have to play on the front foot all the time, you have to attack and dominate and play in their box. But Ajax play through you and hit you on the break. Spurs are also very good with the first press but Ajax could play around them, particularly with De Jong. As a Spurs man, that is my worry.
I will be sad to see Harry Winks miss out and I’d worry if Moussa Sissoko did not make it because you need somebody who can break up the transitions, which Ajax are very good at. Maybe Eric Dier can do that. I’d like to see Spurs play 3-4-3 and then they’d have a good chance. If they play like Ajax – 4-2-3-1 – they will have a big problem with Ziyech as the spare midfielder.
The thing about Ajax is they don’t care one bit about Spurs. Or Real Madrid, or Juventus – both of whom they’ve outplayed and beaten away from home this season. They play a bit like the Netherlands 25 years ago. When they play against the biggest teams, they are so good because they don’t care. It’s going to be a fascinating game.