Although these clubs have only faced off against each other over thirty years ago, there are some remarkable resemblances between these two teams that face off in the first leg for a Champions League final ticket tomorrow. Though it is considered a surprise that these teams made it this far, they both resemble a football philosophy that goes beyond money and will hopefully be an inspiration for clubs in the future. It is great to see a clash of these two teams, because that will show us the difference in playstyle more than anything. But for now, let’s focus on what they have in common.
‘energía universal’ and ‘total person’
Pochettino strongly believes in what he calls ‘energía universal’. It is the philosophy that everything connects. A performance on the pitch is the result of everything coming together. That is why the manager invests in his players by engaging with them personally. Choosing to solve ‘gaps’ in his team by educating players instead of straight running to the transfermarket. This sounds a lot like Louis van Gaal’s ‘total person’ approach, the coach that won the last Champions League trophy with ajax.
Flexibility versus total football
The dutch school of total football has long been considered a thing of the past, though Guardiola and Barcelona are still successful adepts of the Cruyff philosophy. Dominating with technical football and possession asks so much discipline that only the best of the best manage to keep the total football principal alive. Not surprisingly, Ajax is the club where total football was once born under Cruyff and manager Ten Hag was a student of Guardiola at Bayern. This year’s success is the circle coming together in what have been called total football 2.0: dominating football with high pressure and players playing freely between the lines. The whole team joins in defending as well as attacking, asking an insane physical effort from the players.
Tottenham on the other hand wields a more flexible approach which is the basis for their success. Against Manchester City in the Champions League quarter finals, the foxes started of in a 4-4-1-1 formation, while ending in 5-3-2. Three days later, in the match against City for the Premier League, they start off in 5-3-2 counter formation and then switch near the end of the game to a 4-2-3-1 to pressure their opponent more assertively. Then against Brighton & Hove Albion Pochettino suddenly starts with an optimistic 4-3-3 and even goes opportunistic near the end of the game with 4-2-4, securing the victory. Against West Ham, they start with a diamond 4-4-2 and switch twice to 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-2-2. In a way it is also total football, but with a different interpretation.
Whatever the outcome of the diptych, this match has made clear that there are growing bonds between the two clubs that maybe wouldn’t have been noticed to the public if they didn’t had to play each other. Besides Martin Jol having a history at both clubs, the recent interest of Tottenham in players from Ajax makes clear that the two clubs have similarities in playstyle and philosophy. Jan Vertonghen, Davinson Sánchez, Toby alderweireld and Christian Eriksen are all current players with an Ajax history. Will there be more to come?