Tottenham Hotspur – Borussia Dortmund: Pochettino’s Tactical Edge Results In Great Second Half By Spurs (3-0)
Put aside many of the things Spurs did so well without the ball, and one could still argue that Dortmund were architects of their own downfall. The lacking threat in behind, the swelling of players around the ball and their inability to remotely deal with Spurs’ man-marking approach made escaping and creating chances an impossible task.
Both managers injected their sides with a whole host of changes, both on the personnel front as well as the tactical front. Mauricio Pochettino swapped out four of the players that featured in a 4-4-2 diamond in Sunday’s win over Leicester City. This new eleven surprisingly featured Jan Vertonghen at left-wing-back as the Argentinian manager opted for a 3-4-2-1.
Off the back of slightly contrasting form – winless in three, including a cup exit – Dortmund coach Lucien Favre made four changes as well. The likes of Maximilian Philipp and Raphaël Guerreiro were taken out of the attack whilst Łukasz Piszczek and Julian Weigl departed the defense. The changes, which resembled the looks of a squad currently being very thinly stretched, were implemented alongside a system change. Favre’s beloved 4-2-3-1 became a 4-3-3 formation, as Dortmund’s manager presumably did not feel comfortable in having either Mahmoud Dahoud or Thomas Delaney fielded as the number ten.
The two teams’ starting elevens, depicted in Tottenham’s possession.
Contrasting approaches hand Spurs the edge
Pochettino had clearly anticipated Dortmund’s setup. Even though Favre does not usually set his side out in a 4-3-3 formation, it is not untypical for their two holding midfielders to split in a way that is more reminiscent of a 4-3-3 shape, as one pushes up and to the side.
Compare Dortmund’s response out of possession to Spurs’ intense early pressure and you have a complete antithesis – Dortmund appearing quite labored, very zonal-based and quite deep in their own half; Spurs very aggressive, all man-to-man and pushing very high up. More than anything, this benefited Spurs in that they could retain comfortable possession and store energy, before then being able to exert it all in short bursts out of possession.
Spurs’ much more gathered, patient and precise approach on the ball illustrated many positive inventions that Dortmund lacked in more ways than just one. Their build-up shape featured three central defenders and one midfielder, as the wing-backs pushed up. Moussa Sissoko always lingered further ahead, usually off the side of Delaney where he could look to receive between the midfielder and Christian Pulišić on that side.
The forwards ahead of the ball – who created an evenly positioned three across the field – were free to drop in and out. Coming from behind the opposing midfield line gave them the head start in receiving the ball. And, with so much space either side of striker Mario Götze, who could do very little in the way of pressurizing the ball-holders all by himself, it was easy for the hosts to retain possession.
Additionally, because Dortmund’s line of midfield was so flat and they were all so far from being able to step up onto loose balls, they found it impossible to turn the ball over, to combine out of tight spaces or to find an out-ball.
Sissoko the key man in Tottenham’s offensive approach
The general aim of Pochettino’s side was to work it into space for either wing-back. Or, better yet, get the forwards on the ball in-between the lines, before possibly intending to do the same thing. Sissoko played a particularly key role in helping to create both types of situations. In order to supplement the drop-ins from forwards, he would rotate into their positions very frequently. Not only that but, especially when Spurs were playing from out-to-in via their wing-backs, his direct runs into the inside channel ahead would open the space behind him for one of the nearby forwards to drop into and receive.
In the lead up to Spurs’ first opportunity of the game, Eriksen and Sissoko’s interchangement forced a shift by Dortmund’s midfield across towards the ball, which allowed the Danish international to pick out Vertonghen on the far side. After claiming a loose ball from the resulting cross, Lucas Moura was then afforded a half-chance inside the box, which he took ambitiously on the volley.
While Spurs looked quite vibrant, Dortmund seemed to be a tad lethargic and out of ideas in possession. They had no answer to the questions being posed by Spurs’ man-marking press. There were no attempts to manipulate their shape by having the midfield push up high, move wide or move deeper to stretch the space in the center.
Their only inventive way of trying to break through the pressure was to have Götze, from the left, and Sancho, from the right, drop into the channels between the Spurs central-midfielders and wing-backs, where they were away from the pressure of their center-back markers. This, however, offered a very narrow chance of success. Even with the overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. it afforded in the center, there were simply not enough players ahead of the players on the ball to suggest Dortmund could test Spurs’ backline. Dortmund hardly occupied that space and the Spurs players would be ahead of their opponents once play shifted focus in the other direction.
Jadon Sancho appeared to be the away side’s only glimmer of hope. His driving runs, bursts of pace and inventiveness offered something different in attack. On a couple of occasions, he found himself open in the space left behind Vertonghen and one-versus-one against Toby Alderweireld. Although he did not put either situation to use, he was still a direct threat on the ball in transition.
In the twenty-first minute, he got in down the side of Alderweireld before squaring up and successfully beating Davinson Sánchez one-versus-one. His slide cross was not delivered poorly, per se, rather, there was no box attacker adept enough to create an option for the young Englishman to play into.
Even though the majority of possession had been for Tottenham on Dortmund’s half, the chance creation was a bit fifty-fifty going into half-time, as neither team took the lead or had the better clear-cut opportunities to score.
Son’s early second half strike shifts the momentum in Spurs’ favor
Within sixty seconds of the restart, Spurs had regained the ball outside of Dortmund’s box, continuing to press in the same fashion as before. Then working it in to Vertonghen, the Belgian’s peach of a delivery met the sharp movement of Heung-Min Son, whose finish rippled past a frozen-on-the-spot Roman Bürki.
Spurs’ man-marking setup to dispossess Dortmund before the goal, with Hakimi unsuccessfully attempting to take on Vertonghen.
From then on, it was plain sailing for the home side. They continued to frustrate Dortmund with their possession plan but Dortmund also frustrated themselves in their own attempts with the ball. Issues in the first half were being echoed long into the second half but to an even worse extent. With pressure on them to push higher up, they continued to congest their own space with which to operate in.
Now, Götze, Sancho and Pulišić were all dropping to the ball in the exact same area, along with all three midfielders. It left no support to the far-sided fullback, meaning there was no chance of a switch to relieve pressure. There were certainly no attempts to test Spurs’ incredibly high backline, either, so no vertical nor horizontal gaps were close to being opened within the home side’s defensive block. A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block.
The off-the-cuff feel to everything was entirely ineffective. Even their runs from midfield. Whenever Delaney or Dahoud did break into the channels, the ball-holders were never actually in a position to be able to play them in, so it was useless.
Spurs see out the match, and possibly decide the tie with two late extenders
Dortmund were looking to see out the game with a just a one-goal deficit heading back to Germany but Spurs were not keen to throw in the towel just yet. Sticking to their usual possession plan, a progression down the flanks eventually led to a ricocheted Eriksen shot that was quickly regathered by the host’s midfield. Eriksen then poked it into Aurier as the two wing-backs combined with the Ivorian’s delivery from the corner of the box, finding Vertonghen’s back-post run which was met by a striker’s volley which put Tottenham up by two.
Matters were made so much worse, then, when substitute Fernando Llorente came on, brushed by a couple of Dortmund defenders, goal-side(!), and snuck in to finish at the near post from a corner. A trouble-free away game seems to await Pochettino and Spurs, as they have three goals in hand and Dortmund did not manage to score an away goal.
After slumping out of the two domestic competitions, Spurs have responded excellently with four wins on the bounce now, and might well have booked their ticket to a Champions League quarter-final already – and deservedly so, it must be said. Jan Vertonghen was a standout player at left wing-back, and his tactical flexibility was key in this victory.
Although Dortmund were evidently lacking the profiles they so badly missed in attack, Spurs were too. This will only add to the side’s decreasing levels of confidence and might yet mean that they continue to give up their lead over Bayern Munich in the league. A response now is vital when they travel to 1.FC Nürnberg at the weekend.
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