Spurs learn from Champions League errors to come of age
Spurs put one foot into the Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday night, with a scintilating 3-0 victory over Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund. As Gregor Kerr writes, it’s the culmination of lessons being learned by Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
All the talk going into Wembley’s Wednesday night showdown was about the youth and promise of Jando Sancho, but by the end of the evening it was Spurs’ maturity that shone through; their clearest sign of progress so far under Mauricio Pochettino. Before it was hard to quantify where growth had taken place, but with one foot in the quarter-final door it feels like Poch’s Tottenham have finally reached a new level. Talks of stagnation and possibly even regression are now firmly put on hold.
It was this maturity, and ruthlessness that saw Spurs’ fall short of the hurdle at a similar time last season. Their performance over two legs to Juventus was arguably more comprehensive, with a two-goal comeback in Turin and a dominant performance. But it was the ‘dark arts’, the nous and smartness to negotiate past top teams that their opponents held over them.
After that game, Juve defender Georgio Chiellini pointed at that Tottenham ‘always miss something at the end’, believing it was within the DNA of the club. In that game they were the students, now they are giving out the lessons.
The first half looked to be turning in the favour of the German side, as Hugo Lloris had to dive low and claw away a Zagadou header to keep the scores level. But after the restart, it was a different contest altogether as Heung-Min Son, Jan Vertonghen and Fernando Llorente struck to leave the visitors stunned.
The lack of a recognised left-back meant that Vertonghen would start at the left-wing back position, an experiment that has produced mixed results under previous managers, this time it worked a treat.
Although it was his less experienced centre-back partner Juan Foyth taking the most risks at the back. The first time, it came off neatly leaving his attackers in the dust. The next time, he was lucky to see Christian Pulisic fail to capitalise on a lapse in concentration, shielded well by Hugo Lloris at the near post.
It was Pulisic’s partner on the opposite side, Sancho, who dominated the conversation before and during the game. Back in England and playing in front of his family, he looked vibrant and capable of weaving through the Spurs’ defence. On countless times before the interval he left them on the back foot with close control and direct running, but with the experimental Mario Gotze leading the line, he lacked a focal point to play into.
For all the pressure Dortmund had put Tottenham under, the Spurs backline were still sniffing out clear chances, and even then, Lloris was alert enough to palm away Zagadou’s goal-bound header. Pochettino himself said: “The first half was very difficult because we never felt the confidence to play. We took some rash decisions. It’s like we weren’t comfortable.”
There wasn’t a substitution made, or a noticeable tweak of tactics during the break, but instantly the flow of the match tipped in the hosts’ direction. Vertonghen, looking like Spurs’ best left-back, floated in a teasing ball for Son after 66 seconds, who simply can’t miss those chances at the moment. His ninth goal in eleven games against Dortmund, and the fourth game in a row in which the South Korean has scored in.
The Bundesliga side were without firepower of their own, just as Spurs missed Alli & Kane. Unlike Dortmund, the star players absence wasn’t felt. A month ago this tie felt a formality, but again, the spirit and adaptability of Pochettino was proved again, if it ever needed to be.
The waves of pressure at Wembley were relentless and Dortmund were struggling to simply escape their half. Vertonghen, playing with class and flair, flew beyond Hakimi time and time again and his near-post cross nearly flew into the path of Son once again.
The Belgian was stealing the show and he soon wrapped up the win, as Aurier found his late run with a low cross. Vertonghen, once again marauding into the box, connected beautifully with a first-time volley for just his second goal in six years. This was becoming a case of Spurs simply taking their chances when they arrived, the real Achilles heel in that Juventus tie 12 months ago.
Llorente, another man to step up in the last month, put the cherry on the win two minutes from the end, reaching to divert a corner into the far corner. Another sign of Spurs’ adapting, another goal to send Dortmund packing and put extra breathing space into the second leg. You sense that the Bundesliga leaders were content to take a 1-0 defeat to the Westfalenstadion next month, but those two late goals left them shell-shocked.
Barring a phenomenal second-leg comeback, Spurs should be in just their second ever Champions League quarter final. It’s unchartered territory for Pochettino and his team, the latest deep step in what could be a brave adventure this season. Last season they were knocked out by the streetwise and clinical Massimiliano Allegri after two exerting legs; a manger who was once knocked out by Tottenham’s Harry Redknapp in this competition.
Allegri was once in Pochettino’s position, and the only way to learn to swim with the big clubs is to learn from defeat against them. The Argentinean is learning, and the lessons have never been more on show.