Well, it certainly wasn’t the most fun match to watch, but the end result wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Tottenham Hotspur hosted RB Leipzig in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie, and although the visitors looked like the better side for much of the match, Tottenham had their moments even without Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min. It took a penalty from Ben Davies and a Timo Werner spot kick for Leipzig to come away with the 1-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Here are five things we learned from this match.
1. RB Leipzig are as good as advertised
Fair play to Leipzig — their attack is formidable. Timo Werner in particular looked particularly scary in the first half, and watching him helped clarify why he’s considered one of the top young attacking talents in European football. Considering that Leipzig had their own injury troubles and started this match without a recognized central defender, they held their own against what little Tottenham could throw at them. Keeper Peter Gulacsi in particular had a strong match, making some excellent saves off of shots from Giovani Lo Celso and Steven Bergwijn. It’s no secret why they are not far away from overtaking Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga — they’re a quality team with excellent young talent and they will be an extremely difficult team to break down in Germany.
2. Spurs played like you’d expect minus their two best attackers
This was always going to be a difficult match for Tottenham, and having to play a club like Leipzig so soon after Son Heung-Min went down injured is almost unfair. So in that light leaving the first leg down 1-0 and having that goal be a penalty instead of an open play goal is a halfway decent result.
But it certainly wasn’t pretty. In Son’s absence, Lucas Moura ostensibly started back at the tip of the spear, but the front line was pretty fluid with Bergwijn and Dele all moving around and at times swapping positions in what looked like at times a flat 4-4-2. Dele spent much of his time up top with Lucas and had a frustrating match, again working extremely hard, but looking very angry at times when the things he was attempting to do weren’t leading to shots or decent opportunities.
Tottenham tried to get forward on the counterattack but it was clear that they desperately needed Son and/or Kane to get on the end of runs from deeper positions. Nobody else looked like they were used to being the focal point of the attack, and it showed. If there was a bright spot it came from Bergwijn, who again showed for the ball nicely, had a couple decent looks at goal, and is already turning into one of Spurs’ best creative attacking options.
Even so, this wasn’t exactly a promising outing for Tottenham with a huge match against Chelsea looming. There’s not much to be done about Son and Kane, so Spurs are going to have to figure something out quickly.
3. Spurs had some truly outstanding performances which kept them in the match
Let’s focus on the good for a second, because there was some. Tip your hat to Davinson Sanchez and Hugo Lloris, who were both absolutely immense. Sanchez had perhaps his best match in a Tottenham shirt on Wednesday, marshaling Timo Werner and Patrick Schick and keeping them both mostly quiet, and racing back to make some pretty impressive tackles and blocks. That was apparent throughout the match, but especially in the frantic opening minutes when Leipzig came out with a flurry of chances and half chances.
Hugo, meanwhile, came through in a big way. We know he’s got a gaffe in him now and then, but none of that was evident on Wednesday. Hugo made five saves, several of them pretty spectacular, and kept what could’ve been a comfortable win for Leipzig anything but. He even guessed correctly on Werner’s penalty kick, though Timo’s shot was strong enough to take it past Hugo’s outstretched hand.
Giovani Lo Celso also had himself another outstanding, influential match, despite picking up a cheap yellow card early. He created three chances, was 4/5 in take-ons, and had an outstanding free kick that forced an amazing save from Gulacsi. If you want to hang your hat on something, it’s this — Lo Celso is a player whom Spurs are and should build a team around, and if Spurs give him the freedom to do what he does, good things will happen.
4. The midfield and fullbacks were absolute messes for much of the match
A lot of eyes widened when the starting lineup was released and it featured a midfield three of Harry Winks, Gedson Fernandes, and Giovani Lo Celso. While Gio had himself a lovely match, overall the midfield was completely porous and ineffective. A lot of that falls on Winks, who seemed to spend more time getting dribbled past and pointing at the ball than making tackles and progressive passes. Winks was as bad on Wednesday as he was good against Aston Villa three days prior. Gedson, meanwhile, continues to be an enigma. He clearly has some unique skills but as of yet doesn’t have the experience or the maturity to be an effective midfielder at this level, but perhaps that will come with time.
Leipzig was able to compound the poor midfield performance because they knew they didn’t have to respect Tottenham’s attack, so they could spend more time pressing and disrupting in the center of the pitch. That made an already toothless Spurs attack even less effective, apart from a couple of shots from Steven Bergwijn and Lo Celso. And apart from an unfit Ndombele, Spurs are thin at midfield — Oliver Skipp and Eric Dier weren’t even considered off the bench despite the midfield being pretty tragic for much of the match.
And then there were the fullbacks. Serge Aurier and Ben Davies were frightful in this match. Leipzig wingback Angelino tortured Aurier for much of the match, waltzing past him with impunity, and Davies had a horror-show of a match. The conceded penalty wildly irresponsible, but in Mourinho’s system he is supposed to provide safe passing in the space between the back line and the midfield. He most emphatically did not provide that. Instead he was a defensive liability for the majority of the match; perhaps strangely, Japhet Tanganga would’ve been a better choice against a team as good as Leipzig.
So what to do? It’s notable that the midfield improved significantly in the second half when Erik Lamela and Tanguy Ndombele came in as subs for Gedson and Dele. When Spurs were able to get, keep, and actually progress the ball through midfield, the attack started to perk up. Not by a lot, but by enough that they had some genuine chances to score in the second half (even if many of those were from set pieces). Lamela didn’t have a huge impact on the offense, but his sharpened elbows and terrier-like defending frustrated Leipzig in the late stages of the match. Ndombele’s confidence, ability to keep possession in midfield and turn players was a major factor in Spurs looking much better in the last half hour.
There’s not much that can be done about the fullbacks, at least in Aurier’s position, but after Wednesday’s match I’d very much like to see Tanganga play against Chelsea. That’s probably the key for Spurs in this post-Kane-and-Son era — it helps to have your best players on the pitch, even if they’re not necessarily 90 minutes fit.
5. There’s still hope... but not much
Cast your mind back to last season’s Champions League semifinal and you’ll remember Tottenham was in a similar situation after a home first leg to Ajax. And yes, there’s still time for Spurs to figure out how to play without Kane and Son well enough to Ajax the hell out of this tie. But in all honesty, it’s hard to see Tottenham doing that this time around without several key players stepping up and creating more shots. Maybe that’s Bergwijn, or Lo Celso, or Lamela. Spurs are lucky to only be down 1-0 after this match. They’ll need to play a whole lot better, and probably have luck on their side, to advance with a big win in Germany. And while you’re worrying, today’s match wasn’t exactly a glowing endorsement of Spurs’ ability to pick up a huge result at Chelsea this weekend, either. That’s as scary as anything we saw on the pitch today.