It was another glory, glory night for Tottenham Hotspur in European competition on Tuesday. Despite going down by two goals to Juventus in their Champions League clash in Turin, Spurs righted themselves quickly and bossed the two-time European champions in their own stadium, putting two goals past them for the first time since October and taking a draw — and two crucial away goals — with them back to Wembley Stadium.
We’ve already seen Tottenham play at their best in this year’s Champions League, defeating Dortmund and Real Madrid en route to winning the “group of death.” Still, this was a stiff test for these young Hotspurs, and one they passed. Here are four things we learned from the 2-2 draw in Turin.
Tottenham Hotspur have matured, and it’s showing
As Spurs have improved the past few years, a lot has been written about their relative youth and inexperience. They’re not wrong. While Spurs challenged for two Premier League titles under Mauricio Pochettino, they showed at times a naïveté in the biggest of matches, and especially in Europe.
That’s changing. Spurs have shown a real maturity in their matches this year, and that was readily apparent in Turin. The Spurs teams of two years ago, or even last season, likely would’ve collapsed inward after going down 2-0 after seven minutes and ended up losing by four or five goals. Not this squad — it is made of sterner stuff and is reaping the benefits that comes from having a core of young players that has played together under the same system for a few years.
Facing a Juventus squad that was extremely well organized and defensively sound, Spurs kept the ball, steadily chipped away at Juventus’ resolve, and eventually broke through via a Dele Alli through ball to spring Harry Kane one on one vs. Gigi Buffon. From there you could see the determination in their eyes. The equalizer was nothing less than Spurs deserved after a spectacular second half of football, and you wouldn’t have been surprised if Spurs had gotten a third.
If the wins over Dortmund and Real Madrid hadn’t convinced you that this team is different, or if you hadn’t noticed that Spurs took seven points from recent games against Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal, maybe this match will change your mind. This is a Spurs side that has been galvanized through adversity and they are much stronger for it. They can beat any team left in this competition.
Mousa Dembele is irreplaceable.
There was a point before the match against Manchester United where I thought that Mousa Dembele was crocked. He’s already playing with near-constant pain from a long-term foot issue that Mauricio Pochettino revealed during the summer, he didn’t appear to be able to play more than a game a week, and he was coming off of a string of insipid and very un-Dembele-like performances. He looked... broken.
How wrong I was. Dembele turned around and played four games in 12 days, his only rest coming in the FA Cup replay against Newport. In those games, he bossed the midfield against United, Liverpool, and Arsenal, and even national pundits started taking notice of his underrated ability and importance.
Against Juventus in Turin, it was more of the same: Dembele was imperious, slaloming through the middle of the pitch and making the link between defense and offense look effortless. He completed 95% of his passes on Tuesday, created two big chances, put in four tackles, and had a number of dribbles, including one that broke the ankles of Sami Khedira. He was the best player on the pitch, and that pitch included Harry Kane, Gonzalo Higuain, and Gigi Buffon.
Is this level of play sustainable? I have no idea. What I do know is that we’ve seen what happens to Dembele when he’s absent or off his game, and it’s not pretty. Tottenham are a much, much better team when he’s on the pitch and playing with this kind of confidence.
Ben Davies and Serge Aurier were pretty bad, and that’s a problem.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, however. If there was one glaring weakness in Tuesday’s match, it was the play of Tottenham’s fullbacks. Both Ben Davies and Serge Aurier gave away penalties to Juventus, and Spurs were fortunate that the Old Lady only converted one of them. Had Higuain not smashed the second PK off the bar, the match might have turned out very differently.
To be fair, Federico Bernadeschi and Douglas Costa give fullbacks much better than Trippier and Aurier problems. But whether it was an off-day, a gulf in talent, or both, the defensive liabilities of Spurs’ fullbacks on Tuesdays were laid bare and neither were able to really redeem themselves on the offensive end either.
Davies was coming off of an excellent performance in the North London Derby, but he was afforded a lot more space and a lot less defensive responsibility against the Gunners. Bernadeschi, by contrast, went straight at Davies and pinned him back for much of the game, not allowing him the freedom to do what he does well. Aurier was likewise burned on a few occasions by Costa, especially in the first half, and with Juventus sitting so deep it negated the pace that he can use so effectively. Alex Sandro is likewise a very good defender, and that didn’t help matters either. Both Aurier and Davies also showed some real questionable decision making with the ball; Davies making a number of wayward passes, and Aurier plonking some ridiculous balls into the middle of the pitch.
I honestly don’t know if Danny Rose or Kieran Trippier might have made a difference against Juventus, but at this point if you had to point to the biggest weakness in this Tottenham side, it’s the fullback play. With Aurier now suspended for the return leg, we will for sure see what Trippier can do against Juventus in March.
Spurs are perfectly set up to advance.
A draw on the road in the Champions League against Juventus is a very good result. A 2-2 draw that puts two away goals in Tottenham’s pocket for the return leg at Wembley Stadium is absolutely fantastic.
With this result, almost all of the pressure is now squarely on Juventus to make things happen. Juventus can advance with a win, of course, but Spurs can now move on to the quarterfinals if they win at Wembley, or achieve a 0-0 or 1-1 draw. That’s a huge advantage. It’s quite likely that Paulo Dybala will be back for the return leg, and there’s a chance Blaise Maitudi, a real difference-maker in midfield, will be healthy in time for the match on March 7. Spurs have the home field advantage and will be playing in front of 83,000 rabid fans, but this is still not a Juventus side to overlook. Spurs will go out looking to win, but it will help knowing that there are a few scenarios where a draw also puts them through.
BONUS: Doesn’t Lucas look exciting?
We didn’t get a real good look at Lucas Moura against Juventus — Mauricio Pochettino threw him on for the last few minutes in place of Erik Lamela and he played centrally instead of in his usual right sided midfield position. But in that short cameo he showed some glimpses of what he can bring to Spurs. He had a couple of nice dribble-stops in possession and wasn’t afraid to take on a couple of Juventus defenders when he had the chance. Not much to go on, certainly, but it was enough to make me hope that we get to see him in extended minutes this weekend against Rochdale.