As the Champions League nears its halfway point, here are three intriguing games and the tactical battles that could decide them:
Ajax vs. Napoli: The Italians highlight the midfield problem
Napoli travels to Amsterdam to tighten their grip on Group A and possibly assume Ajax’s mantle from last year as the dark horse whose early season form makes them appear to be a serious contender to win it all. Luciano Spalletti’s side has been dominant at home and in the Champions League, crushing their two British opponents before the international break.
After losing to Liverpool, Ajax must reel Napoli back in and restore the notion that Group A is a two-out-of-three contest. This could be an unlucky time for the Dutch champions to be playing such a crucial match. Alfred Schreuder’s side was held by Go Ahead Eagles on Saturday after losing to AZ Alkmaar before the international break. Ajax may feel hard done by the fact that they had 75% possession and 23 shots but were undone by their opponents’ single effort on goal, but this is the Eredivisie. That is how the biggest teams usually lose points.
Similarly, there were flaws in both of Ajax’s recent defeats that Napoli will look to exploit, most notably a large channel that emerged in the center of the pitch and was vulnerable to late-running midfielder advances. It was from there that Go Ahead Eagles equalized over the weekend, exploiting a weakness that defensive midfielder Edson Alvarez spotted but was powerless to address because so many of his teammates had committed themselves upfield. The visiting strikers split, drawing Ajax’s center backs wide, and the space they vacated is filled by Finn Stokkers.
AZ Alkmaar, now top of the Dutch table, had done much the same in the previous game, quickly driving through the Ajax middle once play had broken their way. Devyne Rensch tried to recover, but he had lost too much ground, his sliding intervention only deflecting the ball on for Mees De Witt to roll into the net.
These are risks inherent in Ajax’s tactical approach, perhaps heightened by a summer of transfer activity that means Schreuder’s squad is not as experienced as the one that ended last season, but they are risks worth taking to allow this team to dominate territory.They will have to be willing to take them against Napoli in a game where they need to win more than their opponents.
Meanwhile, Spalletti’s team is not known for playing on the break, but they do have the players to hit Ajax hard through the middle of the pitch. If Schreuder saw Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa drive through the Torino engine room, scoring twice in Napoli’s 3-1 victory, he’ll be rushing to fill those midfield gaps.They will have to be willing to take them against Napoli in a game. Since moving to Italy, the former Fulham and Villarreal midfielder has made significant strides as a progressive force, now getting into the penalty box more frequently while maintaining more than respectable defensive numbers. A player with such dynamism may be ideally suited to punishing Ajax on the counter and may be the one to swing the game in his favor.
Frankfurt vs. Tottenham: Conte’s frustrations mount against wary opponents.
Following a bruising defeat in north London, Antonio Conte’s side will face a different type of challenge in Germany.To be honest, it appears that they are even less suited to it than the derby. On Saturday, the Spurs took their usual approach against their biggest and best opponents: flood the box, ride their luck defensively and capitalize on transition opportunities. It should be noted that in practice, it is a more effective approach than on paper, and while it may require the eye of the needle passing and finishing, they have Heung-min Son and Harry Kane. That is their mode of operation.
More difficult for Tottenham are opponents like Eintracht Frankfurt, who don’t want to assert their will in the game but would rather see what Spurs can do when asked to set the tempo. Conte’s side had more of the ball in the most dangerous areas of the pitch against Sporting, but they struggled to break down an obdurate home side, who then hit them with a pair of late sucker punches. It’s fair to wonder what would have happened if Chancel Mbemba hadn’t been sent off for Marseille in the group stage opener; indeed, Spurs’ only two shots in that game were those from which Richarlison scored.
Eintracht Frankfurt, the Europa League holders, will be more than willing to let Tottenham set the tone for Tuesday’s game. By Bundesliga standards, this team is far more circumspect, ranking fourth from the bottom in terms of passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA). It is effective for them. After all, it was the blueprint that got them past Barcelona and West Ham last season, when they seemed to enjoy their road games, and they have been no less cautious in the Champions League so far. Only Manchester City and Chelsea have allowed fewer shots on goal in their first two games than Oliver Glasner’s side.
Though they have slightly less possession than their Bundesliga opponents, they are near the bottom of the league in terms of shots on Kevin Trapp’s goal. If the German had started the season-saving at the same rate as the expected goals (xG) he is facing, his team would be higher than sixth. Put Evan N’Dicka, Tuta, and Djibril Sow in front of your goalkeeper and you should be fine; all three have made numerous interceptions this season.
These are the kinds of teams that make Tottenham’s life miserable for 90 minutes at a time. It should be noted that they frequently get the job done (see wins over Marseille and Wolverhampton Wanderers), but any Spurs fan traveling to Germany expecting a comfortably secured three points is likely to be in for a rude awakening.
Grealish shines outside the spotlight in Manchester City’s match against Copenhagen.
The big numbers aren’t there yet (one goal and no assists in seven appearances this season), but the more time passes, it appears that Pep Guardiola wasn’t just being nice when he said the plan was never for Jack Grealish to be judged on his goal contributions. There is a widespread belief that the 27-year-old attacker has been a £100 million flop since moving from Aston Villa to Manchester City, and it is easy to see why. Grealish was the main character in the Midlands, a superstar who carried aload of Britain’s second city on his back with charm and grace.
Here was a player who could guarantee double figures in goals and assists in a Premier League season. For City, he would almost certainly reach 10 goals and 12 assists with ease.
He isn’t even close to those numbers after a season and a half. But, as Guardiola stated a few weeks ago, that was not the point. “We didn’t sign for Aston Villa because of his incredible goals and assists. It was another reason, and he did it when he played.” Grealish’s performance against Manchester United on Sunday vindicated his manager. The England international finished the game with no goals and no assists, but he was involved in many of City’s best moments.
This is supported by the fact that he completed four passes into the penalty area, carried the ball into the box five times himself, and received another pass.
Take, for example, Erling Haaland’s second. The Norwegian received praise for his deft back post flick, and Kevin De Bruyne received praise for his precise cross. Few, if any, noticed how Grealish’s drive upfield created space for the Belgian to deliver the ball, laying the ball off the moment Christian Eriksen committed to tackling him.Or, for that matter, Haaland’s third, in which Grealish has pinned United’s right back and dragged him infield so De Bruyne can lay the ball out to an overlapping Sergio Gomez, who crosses low to provide another highlight moment for the No.9. Grealish may have even taken the shot himself and scored. It was simply the better option for the team to let Haaland have it.
All of these moments went largely unnoticed at the time, and this author bears some of the blame for that, abandoning a post-match piece on Grealish to celebrate Haaland’s increasingly ludicrous excellence. The same thing could happen again when Copenhagen visits the Etihad.Haaland will score a ton and dominate the headlines, while Grealish toils in the background, missing out on the big numbers but making his team far better regardless.