Tactical Preview Atalanta Bergamo Valencia Tottenham Hotspur RB Leipzig

Champions League Round Of Sixteen Preview – Part Two

Club football enters its decisive phase, with lots to play for in every competition. Yesterday we previewed the first two ties, today we focus on the upcoming two ties of the most important tournament in club football: the Champions League.

Article by José Pérez, Kareem Bianchi, Manasvin Andra and Erik Elias

Tottenham Hotspur – RasenballSport Leipzig

Tottenham Hotspur

Perhaps there exists an alternate universe where Spurs beat Liverpool to win the 2018-19 Champions League, but it was not to be in our reality as Mauricio Pochettino’s side were thoroughly dominated by Jürgen Klopp’s exceptional Liverpool in the final in Madrid. 

Despite the disappointment of falling at the final hurdle, the 2019-20 campaign was supposed to mark the next step in Spurs’ evolution. Until persistent relegation form came around, Pochettino was sacked and José Mourinho became the new Spurs manager in a seismic day for the football club.

Misfortune continues to befall last season’s finalists, with the drawn-out departure of Christian Eriksen and injuries to Ben Davies, Moussa Sissoko and talismanic striker Harry Kane. All of this robs Mourinho of key lieutenants as he attempts to shape his side in his image. 

Though the Portuguese manager has adapted and found success by deploying Giovani Lo Celso in a deeper midfield role alongside Harry Winks, the news of Heung-Min Son’s injury is devastating for Spurs, as they lose their primary matchwinner going into Wednesday’s game against Julian Nagelsmann’s RB Leipzig. 

Key injuries and suspensions: Moussa Sissoko (injured), Harry Kane (injured), Heung-min Son (injured)

RasenBallsport Leipzig

A flying start to the season has given way to some bumps in the road for Julian Nagelsmann’s exciting Leipzig side, looking to revive their attacking flair when they come up against a defensively deficient Spurs side. The departure of holding midfielder Diego Demme to Napoli has deprived Nagelsmann of a key player in the middle of the pitch, and news of injury to the impressive Tyler Adams would have only served to darken the German manager’s mood.

Still, Leipzig possess depth in abundance, and adjusting to Adams’ injury should not prove too difficult given that they are just a point behind Bayern Munich despite having lost captain Willi Orban and defensive lynchpin Ibrahima Konaté to injuries. Having to select a starting eleven from a group comprising of Konrad Laimer, Emil Forsberg, Amadou Haidara and Dani Olmo is a headache of the best kind, and a very aggressive Leipzig might be on display as they have the opportunity to take a lead back to the Red Bull Arena when contest the second leg.

Key injuries and suspensions: Willi Orban (injured), Ibrahima Konaté (injured), Kevin Kampl (injured), Tyler Adams (injured)


The speed of Leipzig attackers Timo Werner and Christopher Nkunku will be a key factor influencing Mourinho’s game plan against the German side, and Japhet Tanganga is likely to start at left back to guard against Nkunku’s speed on Spurs’ left flank. The rest of the defense will almost certainly comprise of Toby Alderweireld, Davinson Sanchez and Serge Aurier, and Mourinho appears primed to continue with the 4-2-3-1 shape that has become a staple in recent weeks.

However, Spurs’ biggest issues are in attack, where the loss of Son will hurt their ability to strike Leipzig on the counter. The 4-2-3-1 shape used by Mourinho relies on width being maintained by Son on the left and Aurier on the right, allowing Dele Alli and Lucas Moura to play and combine in the halfspaces. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. This system received a shot in the arm with the incorporation of Lo Celso in midfield, and improved with the arrival of an exciting Steven Bergwijn. However, Son’s injury will undoubtedly force Mourinho to rethink his approach to the game, and a number of options are available to the coach.

The primary option entails playing Bergwijn on the left and Lo Celso on the right, with Moura as the center forward and Alli continuing in his role as the primary playmaker. This will see Tanguy Ndombele or Eric Dier alongside Harry Winks, and it is likely to be the latter given Mourinho’s evident distrust of Ndombele’s fitness levels. There is also the option of incorporating loan singing Gedson Fernandes into the side, though that appears unlikely given the calibre of opposition that Spurs are facing.

No matter who among Ndombele or Dier starts, Lo Celso’s inclusion seems a necessity given his press resistance and ability to play in a variety of roles. With Aurier playing on the right, Alli can push up to play as a second striker off Moura, leaving Lo Celso in his favoured role as the primary playmaker in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Bergwijn’s tendency to come inside makes it possible for Mourinho to deploy a scheme where the attackers switch positions, resulting in the sort of controlled chaos that was a hallmark of Spurs in Pochettino’s heyday – where Alli in particular thrived as a midfielder and secondary striker.

Mourinho can continue with the 4-2-3-1 shape though the attacking dynamics will differ in the absence of Son.

Mourinho can continue with the 4-2-3-1 shape though the attacking dynamics will differ in the absence of Son.

It is extremely unlikely that we will see such a flashback to the Pochettino times, and Mourinho is not past frustrating opponents by playing a 5-3-2 shape. This might prove effective if Bergwijn and Moura are played as the front two, with Winks, Alli and Lo Celso tucking in and pulling the strings from midfield.

It will be intriguing to see the lineup that Julian Nagelsmann puts out, as Leipzig emphasizes transitions against strong opposition and possession play against weaker sides. Given how Spurs have been weakened by Son’s injury, it is likely that Mourinho will instruct his team to sit deep without the ball, forcing Nagelsmann to adopt a proactive and possession-oriented approach.

A 4-2-3-1 shape looks likely as this would enable Leipzig to retain the ball while ensuring security at the back. In the absence of Tyler Adams, Marcel Sabitzer will likely be tasked with operating in the midfield pivot alongside Konrad Laimer. This will allow Nagelsmann to incorporate the talents of Werner, Nkunku, Emil Forsberg and Dani Olmo in the side, providing Leipzig with plenty of playmaking vision and attacking thrust.

As has often been the case this season, Patrik Schick and Yussuf Poulsen will be brought on when Nagelsmann feels the need to shift to a more direct approach, though it is possible that Schick starts the game with Leipzig aiming to unsettle Spurs with the intense pressing approach that is a hallmark of the Red Bull school. Poulsen offers an excellent backup option in this regard, and Leipzig have shown in the past that they have all the required tools to take advantage of the game opening up in the closing stages.


A victory for Leipzig, most likely with a 1-2 score line.

Atalanta Bergamo – Valencia CF


Atalanta’s first game in the Champions League proved a stern reality check for Giampiero Gasperini’s side. Nobody expected Atalanta to star and steal the spotlight like they have been doing in Serie A by scoring the most goals – 61 – after 23 games since Juventus in 1959/1960. A different era, and a different football compared to the modern fluid play molded by Gasperini.

Bred in the wilderness by a bear that Artemis sent to take care of the abandoned Atalanta, the virgin Goddess, daughter of Iasus, learned her hunting craft at a young age, soon perfecting it when she was adopted by a group of hunters. Lightning speed accompanied her quests, and coupled with raw fearlessness, when forced to marry against her will by her father, she challenged her suitors to a footrace that would decide the marriage’s fate, confident that no one would be able to outrun her.

The Goddess Atalanta’s qualities have been bonded to Gasperini’s side ever since the manager took over in 2016. The defensive fearlessness encourages players to engage in one-versus-one duels across the entire pitch – confident in their manager’s ideas – while their speed during attacks and on counters guides their hunt and desire for goals in an instinctive rush, reminiscent of Atalanta’s wilderness.

As Atalanta set foot on the track with Melaniom, one of her suitors, the attraction to the three golden apples granted by Aphrodite and intentionally dropped by the competitor disrupted the Goddess’ composure, who fell into the trap.

Analogously, in their first Champions League outings, Atalanta’s man-marking system was disjointed by their opponents’ dribbles, through which the aggressive pressing was countered. Higher intensity with and without the ball from Atalanta’s opposition equally troubled them, being used to holding the upper hand over their Serie A competitors from a physical and athletic standpoint.

Having collected no points in three games, Gasperini was forced to address the issue by lowering the pressing height and initiating his 3-4-1-2 / 3-4-2-1 man-marking pressing in a medium press rather than from a high block. A high block refers to a team that regularly leaves their own half out of possession, to disrupt their opponents far into the attacking half. On one hand, this minimized the chances of being stretched by the opposition and conceding space in depth, but on the other hand, it placed further burden on the defenders, whose individual mistakes would now occur closer to goal, in potentially fatal areas. 

The compromise did prove to be sufficient to restore compactness and stability at the back, while offensively the principles remained untouched, that is with focus on playing the wing-backs dynamically in space – either after a switch or directly.

Key injuries and suspensions: none.


Manager Albert Celades has not changed the formation Valencia have been operating in for some time now, as his team are playing in a 4-4-2 shape, like they did under his predecessor Marcelino. Even though they were placed in one of the weaker groups of the first stage – Chelsea being one of the weakest clubs from pot 1 and Ajax without de Ligt and De Jong clearly not at Champions League semi-final level any more – it was still quite the performance to get to the next round. 

A 4-4-2 shape is basically a concoction of five partnerships: two central defenders, two pairings on the flanks, a central midfield duo and a striker pair. At Valencia, it is no different, even though dynamics are different on the left than they are on the right. On the left, Carlos Soler tucks in centrally to create an overload,  When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team.while Ferrán plays more like a traditional winger on the right. Whenever they have the ball, regista Dani Parejo takes over. If you manage to nullify him from deep, you can nullify Valencia’s buildup, even though you would give away space in other key areas of the field then. Unsung hero of this team might be the other central midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia.

Valencia’s 4-4-2 shape; this passmap shows Soler on the inside and Ferrán high and wide on the right.

The way Valencia qualified shows how annoying it can be to play against them. In a do-or-die game at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, they scored early, sat deep for the rest of the match, absorbed the pressure and relegated Ajax to the Europa League. Even though Valencia are not in great form – they lost two of their last three matches and drew the other – their January game against Barcelona is another blueprint of what they can do against possession-oriented opponents. The fact Valencia miss their usual center-back duo in Gabriel Paulista and Ezequiel Garay might become a serious issue though in this first leg.

Key injuries and suspensions: Gabriel Paulista (suspended), Ezequiel Garay (injured).


Valencia will want to create isolation situations against the wing-backs to possibly exploit one-versus-one duels on the wing to then attack the goal. Atalanta have often struggled at defending a player attacking from wide, retreating ahead of their goalkeeper and exposing the penalty spot to cut-backs. This feature can be further emphasized through manipulative runs between the center-backs to free the space behind them.

Moreover, the ball-near half-back often shifts aggressively to the halfspace to congest the wing, opening space behind himself and the wing-back.

Meanwhile, Atalanta will attempt to buildup by creating diamonds on the wing through which they overload and overwhelm the opposition. Josip Ilicic and Alejandro Gomez will be key at orchestrating the offensive play, while the Duvan Zapata roams to draw the center-backs out of position and open channels for the midfielders or wing-backs.


Atalanta blitz over Valencia in San Siro. Heavy win for Gasperini’s side.

Sander IJtsma (43) is co-founder and data-specialist of Between the Posts. He is also the man behind 11tegen11, a company that provides player scouting advice and various other data services. Pioneer of the #autotweet to provide match plots on Twitter. Father of three. Now circling back to tactical writing, which was how it all started ten years ago. [ View all posts ]


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