Tottenham Hotspur went to the Bernabeu to face Real Madrid for the first time since the 2010-11 Champions League quarterfinals. Unlike that match, Tottenham didn’t limp home with a 4-0 loss. Instead, Spurs defended for their lives, countered when they could, and took advantage of a Rafael Varane own goal to escape with a glorious point in a 1-1 draw.
There’s a lot to unpack in this match. Let’s take a look at a few things we learned from this monumental result. These aren’t the ONLY talking points from the match, but they’re some of the bigger ones.
1. Tottenham were pretty lucky.
Let’s be honest: Real Madrid are better than Tottenham Hotspur. They just are, and admitting it doesn’t take any of the gloss away from this result. (It’s one reason why we are celebrating this draw with such vigor.) While Tottenham worked hard, defended vigorously, and were a miraculous Keylor Navas fingertip save away from an incredible away win, Real Madrid had more of the ball, as well as the bigger and better chances. That’s pretty clear in Michael Caley’s xG map of the match.
xG map for Real Madrid - Tottenham. Undermanned Spurs worked like crazy, but in a game where Benzema finishes chances, it's not the story. pic.twitter.com/SJR2ybyh0o— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) October 17, 2017
It sounds like I’m being critical. I’m not! A 0.8 xG at the Bernabeu is not at all a bad result! However, even as I mention Navas’ save on Harry Kane in the second half I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Madrid (Benzema and Ronaldo in particular) had a number of really good chances that didn’t quite pan out.
Moreover, Mauricio Pochettino’s tactics made everyone scratch their heads. Rather than play, y’know, an actual fullback, Poch instead pushed Jan Vertonghen wide left, dropped Dier into central defense, played a midfield three of Moussa Sissoko, Christian Eriksen, and Harry Winks, with Harry Kane up top beside Fernando Llorente. That shouldn’t have worked, and indeed Spurs looked super open at various points in the match. Spurs’ back line looked like one that wasn’t always on the same wavelength. The absence of Ben Davies seemed to discombobulate the defensive line, and Madrid were able to capitalize on that disorganization much more effectively than Bournemouth did this past weekend.
Whether keeping Vertonghen in central defense alongside Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez and having a more “traditional Spurs” lineup would’ve been better is an open question. You have to balance whether it would be better to keep Vertonghen in his natural position and play a fullback out of position (where he could potentially get roasted), or trust a back three that doesn’t include Jan. I don’t have a good answer to that. I do know that it worked, this time. On another night, Spurs let in three goals.
2. Spurs looked best when they played like Burnley
Midway through the second half and holding onto a 1-1 draw, Spurs decided to abandon the midfield and started parking the bus. This was probably fine, because as well as Harry Winks and Sissoko played in the pivot, Spurs were still getting regularly overrun in the middle of the park. The fullbacks still pushed forward with pace when given the opportunity, but the central midfielders dropped deep enough that they were practically in the back line.
Ironically, this spell corresponds to some of Spurs’ best play of the match, and they looked an awful lot like Sean Dyche’s Burnley squad in the way they set up. The extra focus on defending stabilized things, and while Madrid still kept a lot of the ball, they didn’t look nearly as likely to score or get into good positions to score.
If you remember that annoying draw against Dyche’s Burnley at Wembley, that’s exactly how they played. They sat deep, kept an organized back line, and on occasion broke with pace. I’m not sure if it would’ve worked over the course of a full 90 minute match, but being Burnleyham Hotspur helped keep Spurs from getting flattened later in the match when legs started getting tired (and Pochettino refused to make a substitution).
We don’t see Spurs all-out defend all that often, but we do know they have a pretty stout defense. It’s nice to know that they have that ability to park the bus when required, and that Pochettino isn’t afraid to go against his better nature and choose that option when it’s appropriate.
3. Winks and Sissoko were great, but Lloris saved Tottenham
There were a number of stand-out performers for Spurs against Real. Harry Winks was given the near impossible task of containing Luka Modric, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos, and far from being overmatched, he was quietly fantastic, completing 91% of his passes with three interceptions. The much-maligned Moussa Sissoko had probably his best match in a Tottenham shirt, and might have nicked a goal if Christian Eriksen could’ve found him in the first half.
But the best player on the pitch on Tuesday night was Hugo Lloris, and I don’t think it’s even a question. Spurs’ defense was severely tested by Benzema, Ronaldo, Isco, and Kroos, and Hugo was called into action more times in that match than in any game so far this season. And he was remarkable. Hugo had seven saves on the night, including a point-blank stop of a Benzema header with his trailing leg, and tipped a rocket of a shot from Ronaldo over the bar. On a night where Spurs’ defense looked a little bit rocky, Lloris rose to the occasion and reminded us why he’s considered one of the best keepers in Europe.
4. Fernando Llorente showed he has a role as a starter in this Spurs team.
A lot of eyes turned sideways towards Mauricio Pochettino when his starting XI was released and it included Fernando Llorente starting alongside Harry Kane, instead of the expected Son Heung-Min. No doubt it was in part due to the enormous amount of experience Llorente has both in the Champions League and against Real Madrid in particular. At this stage in his career, Llorente is a limited player -- he’s never been particularly fleet of foot, and now that he’s (well) past 30 he’s not a player you throw in and expect to press defenders or make dangerous runs off the back shoulder of defenders.
But in many ways, Llorente was Spurs’ best and most effective attacker against Madrid. Llorente is a very capable target man up front, and by virtue of his ability to hold up play when necessary, it allowed Kane a freer role to drag defenders out of position and make space for others to run into. Llorente also had a number of flick-on headers, and showed an ability to pick out his on-rushing teammates with a well-weighted pass, especially in the second half when he dropped into a #10 role behind Kane. The best example was his perfect ball into the box to Kane in the second half that would’ve been a goal had Navas not gotten a finger to it.
Oh, and he also would’ve won a penalty for Spurs after getting hooked in the box, if not for the match official curiously waving play on.
Llorente is unlikely to recreate the kind of scoring that he showed last season at Swansea City. That’s probably okay. What he showed in his 70 minutes against Real Madrid is that he’s the creative #10 that we wished Roberto Soldado would have been. If he can do the kinds of things against Premier League teams like what he did against Madrid, he’s going to be a very useful tactical change-up option for Mauricio Pochettino. On a night where Christian Eriksen was man-marked into a shadow of his usual self, it was Llorente who filled that creative void.