You could be forgiven for thinking that any team would welcome being drawn against Ajax. That was before the Amsterdammers had gone toe to toe with Bayern Munich in the group stage and methodically picked apart Real Madrid. Now we know that Juventus will have a real challenge this evening in the quarter-final.
After the first leg away defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Round of 16, fans are anxiously hoping that Coach Massimiliano Allegri won’t replicate those tactics and sit back trying to weather the storm. Allegri himself said he expects an open game today. And as much as one mustn’t read too much into his pre-match misdirection, it’s also true that coming off the experience against Atleti he’ll recognise the importance of scoring an away goal or two this time around. Especially because it will be a challenge to keep Ajax off the scoresheet, even in Turin.
Ajax’s biggest threat is in their versatile forward line. In particular, they’ll look to exploit the channels. If Joao Cancelo pushes higher up the pitch, Dusan Tadic will have a field day in acres of space. This is where Emre Can’s absence will be keenly felt, since he possesses the technical and tactical flexibility to shift from central midfield to a makeshift right back — a role he’s played for both Liverpool and Juventus.
The more robust Rodrigo Bentancur is likely to start in midfield over Sami Khedira, who would be run ragged by Ajax’s energetic midfield. But in his press conference yesterday, Allegri was quick to point out that the Uruguayan “lacks experience” and indeed he might not be up to the tactical subtleties of that role.
If one thing is certain, it’s that Ajax will attack. That gives Juventus the tempting option of sitting back, maybe even setting up in a 4-4-2, and hitting Ajax on the counter, where they are consistently vulnerable. If he wanted to commit to that approach, Allegri may even be tempted to throw in the tactical wrinkle of starting Andrea Barzagli as a faux right-back that transitions to a back three in attack. But with only three fit centre-backs in Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele Rugani and Barzagli, he’s unlikely to risk all of them from the start. Better to save the Old Lady’s old man in case of injury or to close up shop for the final quarter of an hour.
Given the injury limitations Allegri has to work with, the best option is to exploit Ajax’s predictability and force them to play badly. All of Ajax’s build-up play goes through future superstar Frenkie de Jong. The 21-year-old is a threat both with his passing vision and his technique. But his movement off the ball follows certain patterns in response to an opponent’s press. Juventus need to not press too high, which would trigger de Jong to drop into the back line, where Ajax will rotate the ball until an opening appears.
Instead, the Bianconeri need to lure de Jong into the middle third and then press hard and in concert, with the goal of trying to force a bad pass either to or from him. Once the ball is recovered, Juve should release the pacey Cancelo or Alex Sandro on the flanks to overload Ajax’s middling full-backs in Nicolas Tagliafico and Joel Veltman.
The risk of this strategy is that if de Jong gets on the ball in the middle of the park, he could try to take on his man with his dribbling. If Blaise Matuidi or Bentancur switch on to him, that could work out. But if it’s left to Pjanic, expect the Bosnian will make one or two of the rash challenges he’s become known for.
When Juventus do find themselves in a spell of possession, they’ll need to be disciplined to keep their full-backs at home. Otherwise they risk being caught out on the counter themselves, leaving the kind of gaping holes that Hakim Ziyech loves to run into.
Ajax will try to press high, especially on the untested Rugani, whose only Champions League start this year came in the shambolic loss to Young Boys. But Juventus shouldn’t risk playing out from the back away from home and should instead be happy to roll the dice playing long balls, giving Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo the opportunity to beat the not exceptionally fast Daley Blind and Matthijs de Ligt.
That may look like sitting back passively and ‘typical’ Allegri, but there’s a difference between soaking up pressure and trying to force your opponent into a mistake. Allegri’s strength has always been his ability to adapt and to force opponents off their gameplans.
Against a young side, bristling with confidence, inside the cauldron of the Johan Cruijff Arena, his squad needs to be disciplined for most of the match. And ready to pounce the moment their own gameplan works, and opportunity strikes.