On the face of it, Tottenham’s Champions League group fixture against Real Madrid at the famous Bernabeu had the potential to be a humiliation. Throughout the early part of the season, pundits had been outspoken about the lack of depth in the squad available to Mauricio Pochettino and, with Dele Alli suspended and Ben Davies, Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama all injured, the visit to Madrid had the potential to be a banana skin for the London club.
On the night, though, Spurs managed to hang on for a draw which, given that Borussia Dortmund failed to beat Cypriot side Apoel Nicosia, puts them top of the group and favourites for qualification.
In this tactical round up, Jon Mackenzie looks at three changes that Tottenham’s Argentine manager made in order to take a point against last years champions.
Two Heads is Better than One
Throughout the season, Mauricio Pochettino has been setting up his team in the 3-4-3 formation that he favours under normal conditions. When the team sheets came out last night, there were a number of raised eyebrows as it became clear that the Argentine coach had decided to play two up top for the first time this season, with Spaniard Fernando Llorente partnering the usually solitary Harry Kane up front.
As the night progressed, however, it became clear that the decision to play two strikers was a masterstroke on the part of the Spurs manager. When played as a lone striker, Harry Kane is expected to put in a huge amount of legwork for the team beyond simply scoring goals. Whilst being a good hold-up player in his own right, against Real Madrid Kane was freed up by his strike partner, who took on much of the responsibility for ball protection in forward areas.
This allowed the England international to play in a more advanced role, stretching the Real Madrid centre backs which, in turn, created more space for the midfielders. Llorente was not simply employed to be workmanlike though and, in the closing stages of the fixture, he created good chances for both Kane and Christian Eriksen. Without his presence, though, Harry Kane may have not been in a position to put Raphael Varane under pressure for the goal.
Five at the Back
Despite looking like they were lined up in a conventional 4-4-2, Tottenham actually reverted to five at the back in defensive phases with Eric Dier dropping deep to help out his teammates. Given the fact that the Spurs team have been more regularly playing with a back three in recent times, Pochettino was hamstrung somewhat by the fact that a couple of his wing backs are carrying injuries. But playing Jan Vertonghen on the left and encouraging Serge Aurier to drop into a deeper position, the Spurs manager was able to retain the three at the back but with full backs rather than wing backs.
With the Madrid team’s forward line consisting of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, backed up by Isco in the number 10 slot, Pochettino will have been keenly aware of the importance of controlling space in the defensive areas. His ploy clearly played off, though, as Isco failed to enjoy the sort of space he usually finds between the lines and Benzema also remaining largely isolated throughout the fixture.
When the Spurs defence did find themselves in possession of the ball, they were faced with clear lines of distribution – through the midfielders Christian Eriksen and Moussa Sissoko or, failing that, going long to the two strikers. Whilst they did ride their luck at times, with Hugo Lloris pulling off some impressive reflex saves against both Benzema and Ronaldo, Tottenham’s gamble eventually paid off, putting them in pole position in their group and hopeful of progression in the competition.
Harry Winks Comes of Age
In light of the fact that Eric Dier was often found dropping into the defence, Harry Winks was faced with the unenviable task of controlling an opposition midfield that included Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro. Perhaps counterintuitively, though, Winks did not sit too deep but relied on the protection offered by three central defenders behind him to move up into slightly more advanced positions. When Spurs did pick up the ball in defence, Winks dropped into deeper areas, offering an outlet for defenders whilst, at the same time, allowing Sissoko and Eriksen to move up the pitch.
On the face of it, it was a gamble for Pochettino to throw the twenty-one-year-old into the midfield for such a high-pressure game. However, the youngster acquitted himself well, offering an important pivot between the forward players and the defence. In the run up to the goal, for example, Winks won the ball back for Spurs before laying the ball into the path of Sissoko who played the cross that led to Raphael Varane putting the ball in his own net. With Mousa Dembele coming into the twilight of his career, the management at Tottenham will be feeling positive about Harry Winks’ development in the team so far.
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