With Real Madrid likely to top Group H and Apoel tipped to finish bottom, the matches between Tottenham and Borussia Dortmund could well become a straight shoot-out to see who else reaches the knockout stages.
Mauricio Pochettino would have been absolutely delighted, therefore, to witness his side put Dortmund to the sword by winning 3-1 at Wembley in their first European game of the campaign on Wednesday with Harry Kane (2) and Son Heung-min scoring the goals.
Now in his fourth season in charge of the club, Pochettino’s tactical philosophy is long-established with Spurs playing a methodical, attacking game with the ball and an incessant high-press without it.
Spurs out-fox Europe’s most prolific passers right now
If you missed the game against Dortmund – a team currently leading the standings in the Bundesliga – you might have assumed Spurs simply excelled at what they are usually good at; keeping tight at the back, dominating the ball and turning that possession into chances through intricate passing and clever off-the-ball movement.
As it transpired, though, Spurs altered their usual approach by suffocating their possession-hungry opponents, who are the only side in Europe’s top five leagues to complete more than 700 passes (704.67 to be precise) per game this term and hitting them on the break. As the final scoreline demonstrates, it worked a treat.
Only Manchester City (63%) and Arsenal (59%) have averaged a higher possession rate than Spurs (58%) in the Premier League so far this season but against Dortmund, that total shrunk to just 40%, as the visitors controlled the tempo of the game. During the first-half Spurs looked in danger of becoming completely swamped by Dortmund as they barely touched the ball for about 15 minutes.
However, despite dominating possession, Dortmund found it very difficult to carve out meaningful chances from opening play with their hosts defending resolutely. Indeed, their three best chances came via a wonder-goal from Yarmolenko and two set-pieces with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang unlucky to see a lovely goal from a corner wrongfully ruled out for offside, before being denied from point blank range by Hugo Lloris in an almost identical situation.
Dortmund’s failure to turn their possession into goalscoring opportunities is shown by the fact that they created just six chances from 60% possession, while Spurs carved out 11 – including two clear cut chances for Kane and Son straight after half-time – despite having 40% of the ball.
Pochettino plays the Tinkerman
The reason why Spurs were able to keep their opponents relatively quiet while also carrying a significant attacking threat themselves was down to Pochettino’s tactics as the Argentine switched his formation from a 3-6-1 diamond used at Everton on Saturday to a 3-5-2. Having stuck rigidly to a 4-2-3-1 formation in his first two seasons, Pochettino is gaining something of a reputation for tweaking his tactics and this was his latest successful experiment.
Spurs’ system meant that they congested the play centrally through having two clear banks of three – three central defenders; Toby Alderweireld, Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen and three central midfielders; Christian Eriksen, Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele – which made it extremely difficult for Dortmund to find gaps in the final third.
With Serge Aurier, who was excellent on his debut and Ben Davies both covering their flanks authoritatively, Dortmund’s players virtually faced a nine man defensive barrier to break down and unsurprisingly, given the quality of Spurs’ defence, they struggled to do so.
Son Heung-min key to 3-5-2
Spurs’ 3-5-2 also enabled them to counter-attack their opponents too with Son Heung-min offering a direct, pacey outlet alongside Harry Kane in the attack. With virtually every single one of Dortmund’s outfield players taking up a position in Spurs’ half, there was plenty of room for Spurs’ front two to burst into and they did it extremely intelligently and effectively.
After just four minutes, Spurs were in front and it was thanks to a lightning quick counter-attacking move that was started from Davinson Sanchez’s interception deep inside his own penalty area. The Colombian picked out Son who laid the ball off to Christian Eriksen and then continued his run down the left flank with Harry Kane sending a searching pass for him to scamper onto and score.
There were only four passes and 13 seconds between Sanchez’s interception and Son’s shot flying past Roman Burki into the back of the net. Kane’s first goal after a quarter of an hour wasn’t quite so pleasing on the eye as the first with the Spurs No.10 bundling his way into the box before slamming a shot past Roman Burki at his near post, but it was telling that when he took his shot, Spurs had a three-on-two situation. Dortmund were extremely naive and Spurs punished them brutally.
Just after half-time, Spurs should’ve gone 3-1 up again through a rapid counter-attack that Dortmund were powerless to prevent from developing as Kane broke the offside trap to latch onto Eriksen’s pass and tee up Son who chopped onto his right foot delightfully before bending a shot high and wide with the goal gaping.
When Spurs reverted to a 3-4-2-1 system midway through last season, Son was the main casualty as while he is an excellent player, he couldn’t take one of the attacking midfield positions occupied by Eriksen and Dele Alli or the central striker position that Kane relishes. Conversely, in a 3-5-2 he is extremely important as he offers the side an outlet in attack that no-one else can due to his ability to stretch defences with his quick runs in behind.
Spurs rivalling Chelsea as the Premier League’s best counter-attacking side?
While Dortmund were admittedly depleted at Wembley, Pochettino will be pleased that his team showed they can win in another way through soaking up opposition possession and catching them off guard through quick transitions from defence to attack.
Under Antonio Conte, Chelsea have become the Premier League’s kings of the counter-attack, scoring more goals from fast-breaks (7) than any other side in the division since the start of 2016-17 but based on their display against the Bundesliga leaders, Spurs might just rival them for that tag in the coming months.