One problem plaguing Tottenham Hotspur in the past, most notably in their Champions League campaigns of yesteryear, was their tactical immaturity.
Spurs had their distinctive style of football, preached throughout all levels of competition at the club, but one string to their bow only. Perhaps down to Mauricio Pochettino’s pride in his playing philosophy or genuine inability to coach a contrasting style.
The 3-1 victory over Dortmund, courtesy of a brace from Harry Kane and the opener from Heung-Min Son, was impressive not just because of the fantastically high level of performance from the Lilywhites against a strong Dortmund side, but because it showed the second string to Pochettino’s bow.
The Tottenham we saw were not the side to grace the Premier League, rather a deeper, more defensive, side that seemed extraordinarily comfortable on the European stage.
The salient point to take away from Wembley is that Pochettino sucked his pride to abandon plan A and instructed his side to play reactively to the opposition.
This is the difference between a good team and a great one.
Tottenham taking a back seat
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the game was that Spurs had so little possession over the course of the night, despite their perceived home advantage, typically entailing that the visitors will often be on the back foot.
“Sometimes you can’t dominate, you have to play a different way and the team is more mature now. We can learn a lot from this game.” -Pochettino speaking after the Dortmund game.
The Lilywhites are usually a dominant force no matter their opposition but found themselves penned into their own half for the majority of the first period, heading into the dressing room at halftime with Dortmund having half 70% of the ball.
By full time, Spurs had seen a measly 32% of possession, one of the lowest figures of Pochettino’s tenure.
The average positioning of the two sides shows as much. Tottenham (left) were under significant pressure playing with a flat back five and a four-man midfield, with Christian Eriksen and Heung-Min Son dropping deeper and wider to protect the wing backs.
Dortmund (right) spent the majority of the game in Tottenham’s half, with ‘keeper Roman Burki effectively an 11th outfielder, occupying a high position outside of his box.
In defence, therefore, Spurs were essentially playing a 5-4-1 formation, with Harry Kane isolated up front and tasked with holding the ball up to bring teammates into play on the counter-attack.
Whenever possession was ceded, the speed of the transition was noticeable. Serge Aurier, who was mightily impressive on his debut, and Ben Davies deepened and narrowed their starting position, with Eriksen and Son doubling up with them on the flanks.
Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele would drop deeper to shield the three centre-backs further, creating two solid defensive banks, denying space in the middle and forcing Dortmund wide, an area in which they were weak.
It was evident how Dortmund tried to force their way back into the middle with short passing and nifty footwork, but more often than not it failed.
Therefore, Pochettino was utilising the low block defensive structure, which entails narrowness and compactness, filling gaps in the defensive line with bodies and suffocating the attackers.
Davinson Sanchez was deployed slightly deeper than Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, acting as a sweeper behind the defensive line.
This is clear because the Colombian has more clearances than any other Spurs player in his first two starts (10 vs Everton and 6 vs Dortmund.)
When the defensive job was done for the time being, depending on the concentration of Dortmund players around the ball, Spurs either played their way out from the back, one moment between Eriksen and Aurier particularly resonant, or went route one to Kane.
The transition then followed and a 5-4-1 became a 3-4-3 once more, with Eriksen and Son pushing higher to get closer to Kane and Aurier and Davies occupying more advanced, wider positions on the flanks.
Effective use of possession
Spurs transitioned from defence to attack and back foot to front extremely quickly and efficiently (22% of their passes were long balls compared to 10% of Dortmund's), but it would have amounted to absolutely nothing if Spurs didn't make the most of their opportunities and use possession wisely.
The Lilywhites had just 21 touches in Dortmund's box, Harry Kane responsible for most of them, but got 13 shots away at Burki's goal, four of which were on target, three coming via the counter-attack.
"In the Champions League you have to be smart. You can't always press teams on a big pitch. We took advantage on the counter-attack and exploited the space they left in behind." -Harry Kane speaking to BT Sport.
The counter-attack was the means through which they scored their first two goals.
Kane sent Son racing through on goal after beating Dortmund's high defensive line and the South Korean finished confidently at the near post for his first of the season and seventh against Dortmund in nine games.
For the second, Kane beat the Dortmund defender for strength, bears down on Burki's goal and rifles his shot home at the near post. It came after a Dortmund attack broke down.
A world-class finish from a world-class striker, whose goals last night took his 2017 tally to 29 goals, the same number as Cristiano Ronaldo and only one behind Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski.
This was the most important feature of last night's game.
RealSport verdict: Another string to their bow
In these type of European fixtures, Spurs had to learn to soak up their pressure and use possession effectively on the counter-attack. This is exactly what Tottenham did against Dortmund and the result was a 3-1 victory against a highly impressive German outfit.
It was arguably one reason that cost Spurs their Champions League campaign last season, their tactical immaturity, and it's important to see that they've added this to their arsenal.
Pochettino has matured and adapted and Spurs look ready to take on the European elite.
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