I’m not going to pretend that this one isn’t absolutely crushing. It is. Tottenham Hotspur had the upper hand, if only barely, on Juventus in the Champions League, taking a draw and two away goals to the return leg in front of 80,000 pro-Spurs fans at Wembley Stadium. And for about minutes, it looked like they’d pull off the aggregate victory.
But Juventus made a tactical switch, took advantage of a Spurs side asleep at the wheel, and scored twice in four minutes to send Tottenham crashing out of the Champions League, winning the match 2-1 and winning the tie 4-3 on aggregate.
I don’t especially want to write about Tottenham Hotspur after such a painful loss, but needs must. And there’s plenty to talk about in this match. Here are five takeaways from the match. There are more, but we’ll just stick with five for now.
Allegri changed tactics to target Spurs’ fullbacks, and it worked
Spurs was dominant in the midfield in both matches against Juventus. In Wednesday’s match, the midfield of Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele, with Christian Eriksen frequently dropping deeper to help transition the ball to the attackers, stifled Juventus’ midfield of Miralem Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi, and Sami Khedira. Tottenham likewise understood that the way Juventus were set up the majority of their attacks were going to come through the center of the pitch, so they packed the middle and mostly ran the show.
Unfortunately, Massimiliano Allegri realized this too. Midway through the second half, he brought on Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichsteiner, and immediately started targeting the weak point of Tottenham’s squad: the fullbacks. It paid dividends almost immediately. Juventus were able to move the ball into wider positions, which stretched Spurs, leaving them more open to exploitation by Alex Sandro and Douglas Costa.
Within just a couple minutes of Asamoah and Lichsteiner coming on, Juventus had equalized. Ben Davies, who had a very poor match, failed to track Lichsteiner on an overlapping run, and he was wide open to put a cross into the box that Gonzalo Higuain eventually converted. Davies was also caught unawares on the second goal, failing to recognize Paulo Dybala’s run and playing him onside.
Just like that, Spurs were down a goal. By the time Mauricio Pochettino was able to adjust, the damage was already done.
Kieran Trippier had a much better match than Davies, to be fair, but the vulnerability of Spurs’ fullbacks was a known problem from the first tie that Spurs were able to mostly mitigate up until that point. The added width provided by the substitutions of Asamoah and Lichsteiner changed the match. Allegri’s subs were deliberate, calculated, and effective, and he should be given credit for both recognizing and implementing those changes.
Spurs had plenty of chances, but couldn’t finish them
Tottenham were very, very good in this match, especially in the first half. Son Heung-Min in particular took advantage of an excellent match-up against Andrea Barzagli and torched him over and over in what was a fantastic game for the Korean. Between Son and Harry Kane, Tottenham had no lack of scoring opportunities.
However, except for Son’s first half goal, they weren’t able to turn those opportunities into goals. Son went close on a handful of occasions, but either put his shots wide or had them saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Kane also had a number of decent opportunities, none better than his 90th minute header that went off the post and across the face of goal but didn’t cross the line before being cleared. Christian Eriksen tried, but had most of his shot attempts blocked.
You can blame luck, you can blame a minor finishing slump, you can blame Juventus’ defense. Either way, Spurs had opportunities to put the match away and couldn’t quite get the job done.
20 > 160
It’s fair to say that in 180+ minutes of football between Tottenham and Juventus over two legs, Spurs were clearly the better team for about 160 of them. Juventus scored two goals in 12 minutes in the first match in Turin, and two more goals in about eight minutes before Spurs could right the ship in London.
It’s one of the unfair truisms of football that there are times you play better for longer than your opponent, and you still don’t win. This is one of those times. On balance, you’d say that Spurs looked like they were better than Juventus in this series, but Juventus hasn’t gotten to the Champions League final two out of the last three seasons without learning how to play incisive football and beat teams even when they aren’t at their best.
We are living in Bizarro World. In Bizarro World, 20 is greater than 160. It sucks, but there’s no arguing with math.
The officiating was poor, but that wasn’t why Spurs lost.
It would be very easy to turn your ire towards Polish match official Szymon Marciniak for the way he called Wednesday’s match. After all, Spurs had two potentially important handballs waved off — one in the box, one on the edge, Barzagli should’ve been red carded for stamping on Son three times in short succession, and there were a number of other dubious calls (such as the phantom foul on Dybala at the end of the match) that made you scratch your head or shout at your TV.
However, to do so would also mean failing to mention that Juventus had a clear penalty on Jan Vertonghen waved off as well. Marciniak didn’t have a very good game, but his errors weren’t biased in favor of one team or another and it would be unfair to lay Tottenham conceding two goals in short succession at his feet.
This one hurts.
I don’t really know what else to say. Tottenham battled through the Group of Death, beating Real Madrid and Dortmund to get here, and played better football than Juventus over two legs. And they still lost. It’s disheartening, it’s aggravating, and it hurts like hell. However, unlike in 2016-17, Spurs can be extremely proud of this Champions League campaign. Tottenham may not have gotten as far in the competition as they wanted, but they played some excellent football and earned a lot of respect in Europe for how they handled themselves.
With every competition and every season, Mauricio Pochettino has gotten this group of Spurs players to believe in the project and themselves more and more. This may still feel like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill, but at the bare minimum we can say that we got the damn rock about as high as we’ve ever done. Maybe next year.