Having scraped their way through a tough group, Tottenham found themselves drawn against Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League’s last sixteen. Trying to keep pace in the Premier League title race while wrestling with an injury crisis and still failing to make any additions to the squad, the knockouts haven’t come at a good time for Spurs.
Mauricio Pochettino set up his team in a 3-4-1-2 formation, while Lucien Favre opted for a 4-3-3.
This fitted perfectly with Spurs’ pressing. The strikers could mark the Dortmund centre-backs, Christian Eriksen could stick to Axel Witsel, the midfielders on their opposite numbers, and the defenders would initially start as a back five, giving them plenty of cover against Dortmund’s forward trio. This would leave the full-backs as the only open players for Dortmund, so once they opted which side of the pitch they would play down, Tottenham’s wing-back on that side would rush out to get close to the opposing full-back, while the other one would tuck in on the opposite flank, ensuring Spurs’ defenders outnumbered Dortmund’s attacking trio.
Although often able to play around Spurs’ press because of their quality on the ball and quick passing, Dortmund nevertheless struggled to create much once the ball progressed into Spurs’ half.
Mario Gotze would often pull out into wide areas, acting as the tip of the diamond with the full-back at its base and that flank’s winger and central midfielder as the sides. This would help move the ball into spurs’ half, but it left Dortmund light in attack. Christian Pulisic was comfortable making runs through the centre when Gotze drifted to the right however Jadon Sancho wasn’t, although Spurs’ backline found it easy to smother them regardless.
Dortmund’s best opportunities came when they were able to quickly get the ball to the wingers before Tottenham’s wing-backs could recover, enabling the quick and tricky trio to go three-on-three against the centre-backs. More often though, they were trying to play short passes through Spurs to little avail.
Spurs’ set-up allowed them to defend comfortably against Dortmund, however it also stymied their own attacking. The 3-4-1-2 shape left them with obvious one-to-one match-ups across the field when defending against Dortmund’s 4-3-3, but that also meant the same applied to Dortmund when Spurs reclaimed the ball.
Dortmund would simply drop off into a 4-1-4-1 formation and ask Spurs to break them down. Eriksen and Harry Winks found little space in the centre, and Moussa Sissoko is never up to much creatively. This meant Spurs’ best work came in the wide areas, where Serge Aurier and Jan Vertonghen would get high and wide and Son Heung-Min and Lucas Moura would pull out, with one often dropping off the frontline to help work the ball forward while the other made runs through the centre.
Dortmund were comfortable though. Juan Foyth managed to get forward at one point in the first half, catching out Dortmund with an overlapping run, that showed, from an attacking perspective, Spurs could have donw with an extra man in attack: two of the back three were left open, but this didn’t really help going forward.
Spurs did take the lead though. Just after half-time, Dortmund attempted to play out from the back. Roman Burki rolled out the ball to Omer Toprak, who, under immediate pressure from Moura, passed it on to Achraf Hakimi. Vertonghen had ran out to the flank once Burki had passed over to his side of the field and so could quickly get on top of Hakimi. The full-back tried to play it round Vertonghen but Eriksen was quicker to the loose ball than Mahmoud Dahoud and Spurs could immediately attack. Dan-Axel Zagadou struggled to keep track of Son, enabling him to volley home Vertonghen’s cross.
Little about the game changed because of it though. Neither coach made any substitutions until late on and, although Eriksen moved a bit deeper alongside Sissoko in a 3-5-2, the difference was negligible.
Seemingly happy to go away just the one goal down for the return leg in Germany, Dortmund still dropped off when they didn’t have the ball, allowing Spurs’ centre-backs to keep it amongst themselves with little challenge.
That lead had of course been extended by the time the final whistle blew however. Not much of a target man, Gotze was unable to hold up a clearance, giving the ball back to Spurs. Aurier had the space to pick out an inch-perfect cross that was rifled in by Vertonghen ahead of Hakimi at the back post. Minutes later, substitute Fernando Llorente headed home a corner to make it three.
The scoreline didn’t really reflect what was a tight and largely uneventful game, but Spurs supporters won’t care. A three goal lead and no away goal from Dortmund relieves some pressure as Spurs keep grinding their way to victories.