Football Features

“Lo Celso is the new Dembélé” – Five things learned as Julian Nagelsmann makes Champions League history against Spurs

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:15, 19 February 2020

In a game of two halves, Spurs lost at home to RB Leipzig in the Champions League round of 16.

José Mourinho’s men got an absolute pasting in the first-half but somehow went into the break at 0-0. Leipzig eventually took the lead in the second-half but Spurs rebounded and applied plenty of pressure but couldn’t find an equaliser. What did we learn?

1. It’s the width that kills you

One of the great things about José Mourinho’s old sides was how brilliantly they would defend in big games, especially knockout ties. It wasn’t just bodies behind the ball, it was strict discipline and a rigid tactical shape. The back four would be narrow, defending the width of the penalty area, and wide areas would be taken care of by wingers tracking back. This made it damn near impossible for teams to penetrate his defences and allowed him to push up the middle of the pitch with a striker and attacking midfielder.

He always did that.

But not at Spurs.

At Spurs Mourinho has developed an asymmetric system where the defence  shifts across into a three as right-back Serge Aurier advances to provide width. It’s a system that has paid enormous dividends in terms of allowing Spurs to use Aurier as an attacking outlet whilst avoiding exposing him defensively.

But it means his Spurs are incapable of playing his usual big game defensive shell style of play. And we saw against Leipzig that what hurt them the most was the superb play of Nordi Mukiele and Angelino as they were constantly available in wide zones for Leipzig to find. Every time Leipzig drew Spurs men into the middle to try and catch them, the pass out wide was on and it was only sheer luck and some profligacy from the German side that stopped them from scoring two or three (or four) goals.

2. Ndombele and Lamela change the game

For an hour, Spurs got the fire smacked out of them by RB Leipzig. Then on 64 minutes Mourinho withdrew the hapless but hard-working Dele Alli and the luckless Gedson Fernandes and brought on Tanguy Ndombele and Erik Lamela, switching formation to 3-5-2 (Mourinho claimed he didn’t change shape but given the way Aurier plays full-back and the increased pressure Spurs were playing with, it was functionally a 3-5-2 for the whole last half-hour).

The game then turned on a sixpence, instantly swinging Spurs way for the first time. Suddenly Spurs had a bit of direction and an idea of how to play. The ferocity of Erik Lamela unsettled Leipzig and he kept Mukiele’s attacking forays in check.

Equally as important as Lamela’s steel was the spicy football of Tanguy Ndombele. All night long the only Spurs player that looked like he belonged on the same pitch as Leipzig was Giovani Lo Celso, but he was just one man. With Ndombele they were two, and the Frenchman grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and began playing it his way.

Ndombele was a player who was stronger than Leipzig’s midfielders, faster than Leipzig’s midfielders and more skilful than Leipzig’s midfielders. His confidence on the ball and cease attacking intent radiated out to his team-mates and Spurs finish the game on the front foot, hammering a tiring Peter Gulasci.

Mourinho bellowed in his post-match interview that neither Ndombele nor Lamela were physically capable of starting the game, but that means he has three weeks to get them both fit because it is clear that if Spurs want to have success in the second-leg then they have to start in this 3-5-2 shape with Ndombele and Lamela both on the field.

3. Lo Celso is the new Dembélé

Of Spurs’ two summer signings, no one would have guessed Giovani Lo Celso as the better shot to replace Moussa Dembélé’s role in midfield. That possession-safe, dribbling and passing dynamo who drove Spurs forward. Yet if you watched the game at Tottenham Stadium, well, you saw what recent games had been hinting at: Lo Celso is the new Dembélé.

No Spurs player completed more passes in the opponent’s half than Lo Celso, no player from either side completed more dribbles (4) and no Spurs player had more shots (3). Lo Celso was everywhere for Spurs, and even his pass completion numbers only dipped below 85% when he was pushed forward to play no. 10. For the entire night, even when his team-mates were getting plastered all over the pitch, Giovani Lo Celso held his head high and showed his class for Spurs.

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4. Nagelsmann is a wizard

They call Julian Nagelsmann “Mini-Mourinho” but that comparison does him no favours at all. To be honest, comparing him to any coach is unfair as Nagelsmann has his own unique style of play and it is truly spectacular.

Nagelsmann’s system of play is so well-drilled into his players that he can make adjustments others wouldn’t dare make in a Champions League knockout tie (well, maybe Pep Guardiola would). Tonight Leipzig came into the game without their two best defenders: captain Willi Orban is out injured and Dayot Upamecano is suspended; yet Nagelsmann didn’t panic.

Nagelsmann sent Leipzig out with a back three composing of Lukas Klostermann, Ethan Ampadu and Marcel Halstenberg. That’s two full-backs who often play wing-back for Germany, and a teenager on-loan from Chelsea making just his third start of the season. Yet at no point in the game did any of them look uncomfortable in the system, or like they would have trouble handling the occasion or opponent.

Yes, Spurs upped the ante and dominated the game for the last 30 minutes or so, but Leipzig held firm and it wasn’t like Peter Gulasci was diving all over the place to make saves. Nagelsmann’s system held firm and he became the youngest-ever manager to win a Champions League knockout match. Through Nagelsmann’s coaching and Ralf Ragnick’s scouting), RB Leipzig have assembled a talented and multi-functional squad that can overcome almost any obstacle and stay playing at or near their peak level. That is utterly ridiculous.

5. Ampadu gives Chelsea an edge

With former Chelsea manager José Mourinho watching on, Chelsea youngster Ethan Ampadu played at the heart of the RB Leipzig defence in a Champions League knockout match. Ampadu is just 19 and has struggled for minutes out on loan in Germany, but it felt poetic that just a few days ahead of Mourinho’s second clash against Chelsea as Spurs coach the youngster got the start and put on a show.

Ampadu made a team-high 5 clearances, 2 blocks, 1 tackle as well as registering a game-high 109 touches, 93/98 passes (94.9% completion) and he was just one off having the most passes in the opponent’s half as well (40 vs. Klostermann’s 41). Ampadu really strut his stuff at Tottenham Stadium and if Frank Lampard is as committed to youth as he says he is, that’s probably not the last time that will happen.



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