What a match! Tottenham Hotspur went into Wednesday’s Champions League match against Dortmund at Wembley Stadium hoping to get a solid result in the first leg of the series. And boy howdy, did they ever! Spurs got goals from Son Heung-Min, Jan Vertonghen, and Fernando Llorente en route to a mammoth 3-0 win that makes them solid favorites to advance to the quarterfinals.
There’s a lot that can be talked about concerning this match — Son Heung-Min’s continued dominance of Dortmund, Harry Winks’ solid match in midfield, Juan Foyth’s continued growth and development — but let’s focus on three things that really stood out from Spurs’ critical win.
Pochettino’s subtle tactical tweaks made a huge difference.
The first half of this match was very different from the second half. Tottenham started off in a back three formation, a nod towards the athleticism and ability of Dortmund’s trio of Mario Götze, Christian Pulisic, and Jadon Sancho. Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko effectively formed a double-pivot in midfield, with Christian Eriksen at the 10, playing just behind Lucas Moura and Son Heung-Min and working to play them into space. And while the first half was a very even affair, Dortmund came away looking slightly like the more dangerous side after capitalizing on a few key missteps in midfield and defense which led to some dangerous chances for the visitors. Spurs, by contrast, didn’t look much like they were able to get the chances on goal that they were hoping for in the opening 45.
Credit to Maurico Pochettino in that he didn’t throw out his original plan in the second half, but instead made some very subtle but clever tactical tweaks. Most notably, he moved Eriksen deeper into the midfield, forming a flat three with Winks and Sissoko. This created an overload in the middle of the pitch, opening the game up for the two fullbacks in Serge Aurier and Jan Vertonghen. Adding a third central midfielder compressed Dortmund’s shape and allowed Aurier and especially Vertonghen more space on the flanks to push forward, creating more opportunities to pull Dortmund defenders out of position and create space for Spurs’ attackers.
In addition, Eriksen’s dropping deeper also allowed Harry Winks more time to focus on containing Jadon Sancho on Spurs’ left side of the pitch, much like Sissoko was doing to Christian Pulisic. Doing so helped to negate the things that Dortmund did so well in the first half. Mario Götze was mostly held in check by Spurs’ central defenders, and reducing Sancho’s effectiveness more or less took the oomph out of Dortmund’s vaunted attack.
Certainly the match was helped by Son Heung-Min’s quick goal just after halftime — that discombobulated Dortmund to a great degree. Spus were fully dominant late in the game as the visitors began to tire, and their two goals were well deserved. However, Pochettino deserves a lot of credit for making a few minor changes to Spurs’ formation that made a very big difference in the overall course of the match.
Jan Vertonghen is, at least at present, Tottenham’s best left back.
We know that Jan Vertonghen CAN play left back, just as we know that he usually doesn’t LIKE to. What Tottenham’s past two matches have proven is that he’s also pretty damn good at it. You could see his attacking instincts in full display on Wednesday night — he was 4/5 on take-ons, 4/5 in passing in the attacking third, had seven ball recoveries, and whipped in dangerous cross upon dangerous cross. None were better than the gorgeous ball that found Sonny for Spurs’ first goal.
Super Jan doesn’t possess the pace of Danny Rose, but he makes up for it with an incredible awareness of when to push forward, as well as very solid defensive instincts. Jan is no stranger to mazy runs into space — he loves doing it when deployed in a back three formation as a center back. It’s those instincts that served him well against Dortmund. Take a look at his movement just before his own goal late in the second half.
Jan has the awareness to be in an forward position for the initial shot by Eriksen (which is blocked). He then runs back to mark and tag Achraf Hakimi to both prevent him from potentially starting a counterattack and to stay on his back shoulder. Jan recognizes that Aurier has the ball in space, sees that he has an opportunity himself, and makes the run into the box to receive the cross. It’s certainly helped by a pinpoint ball from Serge Aurier, but Vertonghen’s finish is sublime. Those are the instincts of a striker. Harry Kane couldn’t have done any better.
Vertonghen isn’t going to beat many defenders for pace on the left flank, but he overcomes that through sheer guile and the recognition of when to break. He also has the ability to put in a lovely ball from wide positions, something he rarely gets to do from the back line. Jan was also tasked with containing Sancho on his flank, a difficult enough task, and while he had some tough moments in the first half he did a capable job overall.
I don’t want to see Vertonghen playing left back frequently — he’s much too valuable as a central defender. But it’s hard to think Danny Rose or Ben Davies could’ve possibly done any better under the circumstances. Jan was a big reason why Spurs came away with a solid win.
Spurs can win the Champions League. Stop laughing.
Hahaha, you say, that’s putting the cart in front of the horse, no? Maybe. But it’s also looking a lot more likely than it did a few hours ago. Think of it this way — thanks to Wednesday’s win, Spurs now have a 96% chance of progressing to the quarterfinals, according to FiveThirtyEight. There are still a lot of variables, but should they advance, they will be placed in a field that will likely contain Roma, Manchester City, Liverpool/Bayern, PSG, Real Madrid, and Juventus/Atletico Madrid. There are some scary matchups in there, of course, but Spurs have already proven they can hang with, if not beat, any team left in the competition, at home if not away. They’ll also likely be playing whoever they draw with a healthy Harry Kane and Dele Alli, and at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
There are no guarantees, and Spurs still have to finish off Dortmund before we really should start looking ahead. But I like Spurs’ chances against Roma, Madrid, Atletico, and Juventus, and they have a puncher’s chance against PSG, Bayern, and even the top Premier League sides left in the draw. Anything can happen in a two-legged series like the Champions League knock-outs. Spurs are on a scintillating run of form right now and are riding their confidence. And unlike the Premier League, which requires both Liverpool and Manchester City to slip up along the way, Spurs have their Champions League destiny in their own hands. Win and advance.
The odds are still not in their favor, but Tottenham CAN win the Champions League, and it might be their best chance to lift a trophy this year. Spurs should go all out to do just that. Let’s win the Champions League and be legends.