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Tactical Review: Ajax 1-2 Real Madrid; 2019 Champions League Round of 16

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A strong performance against tough opponents gives team a deserved edge.

Ajax v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

The football world welcomed back the Champions League this week and Real Madrid specifically, kicked off their tie against Ajax last night at Johan Cruijff ArenA.

This mouth watering matchup rose to the occasion and the game was an enticing display of football with Madrid coming out on top, (1-2) thanks to midfield creativity, driven substitutes and, a little bit of luck.

Right from the first whistle, both teams came out flying. Ajax were looking to take a very early lead over the current title holders and caused a lot of chaos for the veteran Madrid defence.

Heatmap for Ajax attack vs. Real Madrid defence.
WhoScored.com

In the opening 10 minutes, Ajax were running rampant over the Spanish backline. By using their physicality and their persistent determination, the young Dutch team was physically overpowering the defenders, pulling them all over the pitch.

As a result, Real Madrid were unable to settle into a solid formation and was defending more in clumps rather than a shifting backline like usual.

Players such as Luka Modric, Casemiro and even Toni Kroos were dropping back to help close down any more threats from Ajax and hopefully regain possession in the process.

By the end of the first half, the home team managed to have 10 shots against Thibaut Courtois, dispossess Madrid players 27 times and had a higher amount of passes (271 compared to 268).

Despite being on the downside of the half-time statistics, Madrid were very eager to take their chances when they had them.

The fast pace of Vinicius Junior and Gareth Bale on the wings helped the team move forward in attack after they exploited gaps in the Ajax defence.

With these two attackers, especially the Welshman, all four of their first half shots were on target and overtime, the team developed their game.

Due to most of the midfield dropping back to defence, Karim Benzema was forced to play more as an attacking midfielder rather than a central striker so his contributions were limited.

With five minutes left in the half, the two teams were level at 0-0 but Ajax’s persistence managed to give them a 1-0 lead. The joy however, was short lived.

After a corner ball was swung in, Courtois fumbled his catch and Nicolas Tagliafico gave Ajax the lead.

The stadium erupted with energy as Dutch fans celebrated the goal but only moments later, referee Damir Skomina ruled it out after VAR consultation.

The score remained 0-0 going into the second half.

While the atmosphere in the stadium seemed to quiet down due to disappointment, Ajax were still looking to move forward on the pitch.

Real Madrid however, took the time to adjust their tactics and came out much stronger.

The key change was the ability of the defence to re-establish solid form without the help of the midfielders.

Once Sergio Ramos, Nacho, Dani Carvajal and Sergio Reguilon were able to cover the ground themselves, it allowed Modric, Kroos and Casemiro to place themselves in their respective areas.

After regaining their bearings in the midfield, the trio used their creativity and similar playing style to dominate the game.

Modric, Kroos and Casemiro dominated the pitch and changed the fluidity of the teams attack in the second half.
WhoScored.com

With the fluidity of the game back, Benzema was able to move into his proper position on the pitch. This switch, alongside the continuing persistence of Vinicius Jr. and Bale, helped create the first official goal.

In the 60th minute, Vinicius Jr. received the ball along the wing and forced himself into the box where Benzema backed into open space and and then rifled Madrid into the lead.

Being up 0-1, Santiago Solari opted for some tactical substitutions that influenced the last 20 or so minutes of the game. His first choice, Lucas Vazquez for Bale.

While the Welshman put on a good performance, the Spaniard has recently been putting on performances that were just as strong. The change as a result added fresh legs along the wings that could comfortably play with Vinicius Jr. and Benzema up front like he has done throughout the last few games.

The second change of the game was again another attacking threat. Marco Asensio made his return to the Champions League after replacing Benzema.

While it took a while for the two substitutes to get into the game, Ajax capitalized on an opportunity and made the game 1-1 after 75 minutes thanks to Hakim Ziyech.

Action map for substitutes Asensio and Vazquez (shots in second half)
WhoScored.com

The two substitutes took it upon themselves to work in hopes of finding the winning goal with a combined six shots on goal.

It was Asensio however, that made the most of his opportunities and showed persistence in his attacking abilities.

He scored the 86th minute winner thanks to a beautifully positioned cross from Carvajal.

Vazquez and Asensio’s ability to use their experience and be deciding substitutes showed another level of maturity and development for the team.

Going forward, Madrid hold a slim lead over Ajax but the Dutch side has the ability to shut down the shown they have the ability to be tough opponents.

The second-leg will surely be another spectacular 90 minutes of football.

The match will be played at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 5th, at 9:00 p.m. CET.