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How Pochettino’s tactics at the Bernabeu outwitted Zidane (and the rest of us)

Spurs showcased tactical nous to earn a point against Real Madrid on a worldwide stage.

Real Madrid v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur proved themselves on the grandest of stages in world football Tuesday night, going toe-to-toe with giants of the game in Real Madrid and coming back from the Spanish capital with a point in hand and qualification to the knockout stages surely on the cards.

While maybe no player for Tottenham is as responsible for the result as goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris, Mauricio Pochettino also deserves massive amounts of credit for throwing tactical wrinkles into the match. The main change — inserting Fernando Llorente into the starting XI for the first time in a Spurs shirt — paid massive dividends for the Lillywhites and set the team up for success in a 5-3-2 formation. It’s a shape that Pochettino hasn’t deployed yet in his tenure at Spurs, but the gamble clearly paid dividends.

Stifling a superior opponent

Real Madrid are, without doubt, a team comprised of more top-end talent across the roster than Spurs, and probably any other team in the world. There’s no shame in acknowledging that players like Moussa Sissoko, Llorente, and Eric Dier probably aren’t getting into Real Madrid’s starting XI. But it’s this understanding that allowed Mauricio Pochettino to build a game plan to nullify Madrid’s most obvious advantages and expose weaknesses in their setup.

The introduction of Llorente was a crucial piece to stopping Madrid from dominating central midfield. Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane like to pack this area of the pitch with up to four players, and Pochettino realized that if he didn’t find a way to counteract this, Spurs would get overrun. By not just playing Llorente, but playing through Llorente, Spurs threatened Madrid’s center backs with 1v1 matchups. This forced Casemeiro backward to help protect his defenders and gave Spurs room to operate in midfield. This was clearly important to Pochettino. Some managers may have countered Madrid’s narrow team shape by trying to play wide and pinning the Los Blancos fullbacks back with wingers. But doing so probably makes Kane less of a threat (as he could then be blanketed by two of the world’s best center backs) and the team would be more exposed in other areas of the pitch. Instead, pragmatism was at the fore and Spurs reaped the rewards.

Playing shorthanded

Perhaps another reason why Pochettino decided that stifling the opponent’s tactics (as opposed to aggressively countering) is that Tottenham were without so many key players. Spurs did not have a healthy left back, and were also missing key figures in Dele Alli, Victor Wanyama, and Erik Lamela to name a few. Perhaps the most glaring sign that this was a patched together team was seeing Spurs’ own Harry Winks playing smack dab in the middle of the action. Winks’ role was maybe the most impressive performance of all the outfield players in the match, especially considering his relative lack of experience in these types of matches against top opposition. Winks proved that he deserved to be out there in all aspects of the game. Technically, his passing was precise. Mentally, he recognized Isco’s movement and dropped into gaps between midfield and defense when needed. But his competitiveness and bravery with the ball was maybe the most impressive part of his game. Pochettino spoke to reporters after the game and said the entire team needed this moment to prove they could compete with the game’s best.

From Jack Pitt-Brooke in The Independent:

“This was the greatest challenge to compete and we’ve done it, and against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu,” Pochettino said. “It is something we were missing, this feeling to compete at the highest level. We are a team under construction but we have reinforced our ideas.

“It was a great chance to prove we can compete. There are many components. On psychological level many things, against a team accustomed to playing at this level.”

Sissoko exploiting wide areas

Moussa Sissoko looks like a completely different player this year, doesn’t he? The Frenchman’s energy was apparent throughout the match, and it was his job to threaten Madrid down the right flank — in behind Marcelo when the Brazilian would push up. Typically in this type of setup, the wing backs would be the ones pushing forward, but with both Aurier and Vertonghen locked in defensive 1v1 battles with their respective opposing fullbacks, someone else was needed to exploit these spaces of the pitch. Eriksen on the left side just isn’t suited to that type of role, considering he’s more comfortable on the ball with his head up looking to pick a pass. Sissoko, on the other hand, fit this role to a T. His mobility was a strength for Spurs, and some of his touches to set him off and running down the flank were sublime. He and Llorente served as Tottenham’s primary attacking outlets in the buildup, and they were both effective.

Final thoughts/questions to ponder

It’s interesting to consider how perfectly Sissoko fit this role, and you have to wonder how other midfield players being healthy might have affected the game plan. Would Wanyama have played in midfield? Considering his appearance record under Pochettino since joining Spurs, you have to think he would. If Rose or Davies were fit, surely Vertonghen would’ve been in the back three and Dier would’ve played in midfield. Would that have affected the outcome or the way the team played? They are interesting hypotheticals for which we don’t really know the answers. One thing that is certain, though, is that Tottenham Hotspur is an incredibly tactically flexible side. The ability to play in a wide variety of shapes and philosophies this year is just another positive data point in this teams natural ascension up the world footballing ladder. Two or three years ago, Tottenham fans and pundits rightly accused Pochettino for not seeming to have a Plan B. And he probably didn’t at the time. But he is growing up with Tottenham, and Spurs are growing with him. Maybe the most exciting part about all of this is not knowing how high we can go.