Now that the dust has settled on Tottenham Hotspur’s 3-0 Champions League win over APOEL in Nicosia, we can take a closer look at the match. It was, by many indications, a weird match. Spurs’ traveling squad was strange due to injuries and suspensions, the tactics were odd, and the final score probably does a bit of disservice to the hosts.
Here are some takeaways from the match.
1. Hooray! We won!
Spurs went to Cyprus minus seven of their best players due to a combination of injury and suspension. Heading into any Champions League match without Erik Lamela, Mousa Dembele, Victor Wanyama, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Jan Vertonghen, and Danny Rose is terrifying, but despite essentially a second string squad and one weird-ass lineup, Spurs managed to pull together a 3-0 win thanks to Harry Kane and some fine goalkeeping down the stretch from Hugo Lloris.
We’ve known that Spurs’ depth has been an issue for over a season now. We also know that their transfer window did very little to address that significant problem. This could’ve been a match where an opponent playing at home in a raucous atmosphere could’ve taken advantage of a dinged-up squad (like, perhaps, Spurs took advantage of Dortmund at Wembley a few weeks ago?). But they didn’t! Spurs now have six points from six in the Champions League and head into the Madrid matches with a bit of a cushion.
Not bad for a make-shift squad. Spurs’ lack of depth is concerning, but that shouldn’t take away from what was still a nice win away from home.
2. Harry Kane is inhuman.
There’s a decent argument to be made that Spurs got bailed out by their best player in Nicosia. That’s fair. Son Heung-Min wasn’t at his best, without Eriksen there wasn’t a whole lot of creativity on display, and there were more than a couple scary moments. But Harry Kane put the team on his back and it sure looked like he was determined to win this match. Kane scored a perfect hat trick — left foot, right foot, head — with absolutely clinical finishing and was without question the difference on Tuesday.
This is what world-class players do. In a match where as a whole the team wasn’t at its best, Kane stepped up in a big way and showed why he’s ready to take his Premier League scoring form to the Champions League. Maybe the biggest backhanded compliment to Kane’s performance was that after the match much of the English football media immediately tried to link him with a move away from Spurs.
3. Tottenham’s tactics didn’t work... until they did.
Going into Tuesday’s match, we literally had no idea how Pochettino was going to set up his tactics based on the personnel he had available. He opted for something even weirder than we imagined: a back three of Toby Alderweireld, Davinson Sanchez, and Ben Davies, with Serge Aurier as right wingback and Kieran Trippier out of position on the left. The central midfield was Harry Winks and Eric Dier, with Moussa Sissoko deputizing for Christian Eriksen at the #10.
And yikes, it wasn’t especially great.
APOEL had numerous opportunities to score, primarily due to defensive breakdowns. In the writer’s room this morning we talked about how Poch’s decision to start Davies as a LCB was probably due to him not fully trusting Davinson Sanchez in a back two. Sanchez has been very good with Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen on either side of him, allowing him to focus on the things he does well — tackling and simple distributions — while minimizing his weaknesses.
In theory, playing Davies in central defense, a position he plays for Wales, would help, but it super didn’t. Davies wasn’t great in that role, Trippier (despite a couple of good crosses) looked lost again at LWB, Serge Aurier was pretty mediocre overall, and APOEL probably should’ve scored at least once in the first half after De Camargo smacked the crossbar. Poch’s tactics with a back three rely on the fullbacks pushing forward and creativity in the midfield, none of which was on display in the first half.
Pochettino rolled the dice in the second half, bringing in Fernando Llorente for Aurier, effectively RUNNING THE DANG 4-4-2. And while Llorente didn’t have much time on the ball, he was able to effectively drag defenders out of position, which helped make space for Kane. Sanchez didn’t look entirely comfortable in a back four, and Hugo Lloris made some pretty impressive stops to keep APOEL out in the second half, but the team as a whole was a far sight better than the first half.
4. Harry Winks showed that he deserves more minutes.
One of the biggest takeaways from the match was further reinforcement of how reliant Spurs are on Christian Eriksen. The Danish dynamo missed the match due to illness, and without him Spurs lost much of their midfield creativity, and a major outlet to Kane. It’s telling that Spurs’ only goal in the first half began with a long diagonal pass to Kane from Alderweireld, bypassing the midfield entirely.
But one of the biggest positives from the match was the play of Harry Winks, who was quite tidy in the center of midfield beside Eric Dier. According to Squawka (now the place to go for stats since FourFourTwo StatsZone closed down), Winksy completed 86% of his passes, had two interceptions, and four successful take-ons. While he struggled along with the rest of the team in the first half, he was great after the shift to 4-4-2 and had a couple of turns and moves in midfield that were positively Dembele-esque. Spurs journalist Ben Pearce called him “Pochettino’s little Iniesta.”
I don’t know if Winksy is as far along as we expected him to be at this stage this season, but that surely is due in part to the injury he picked up last season. He’s healthy now, and put in a confident and assured performance against APOEL. Without hyping him too much, he’s certainly showed that he deserves more opportunities to play in the Premier League. I hope he gets them.