Tottenham Hotspur vs Bayer Leverkusen – A Tactical Analysis

Bayer Leverkusen hosted Premier League title-challengers Tottenham Hotspur in Matchday 3 of the Champions’ League Group Stage last night, in a tactical battle which proved to be an intensely thrilling match up.

With their eyes set on winning what is a difficult Group E containing Monaco and CSKA Moscow, Spurs needed the win. Leverkusen, however, saw this game as an opportunity to move up into first and give themselves a point-and-goal-difference advantage going into the second half of the group stage.

Forgive the cliché, though it really was a game of two halves. Although Leverkusen dominated early with their aggressive press, Spurs held their nerve and began to penetrate through into the open wide-midfield areas. This width allowed Spurs an outlet to stretch Leverkusen, and it paid off throughout the first half, leading to chance after chance. The second half however, was all Leverkusen. They started the second half with a high intensity press and forced the ball wide, pinning Spurs’ full-backs into their defensive third and preventing the overlap which had caused them so many problems in the first half. A clever half-time substitution worked in their favour and they controlled the game for the majority of the second half, creating chance after chance which, had it not been for Hugo Lloris’ heroics, would’ve given them the three points.

 

Line-ups

Spurs lineup

Spurs stuck to their all-too-familiar flexible 4-2-3-1 in defence, and 4-1-4-1 in attack, with Alli drifting forward alongside Eriksen in attack. Alderwiereld, Kane and Walker all missed out through injury and/or fitness concerns, and so Trippier and Dier filled the holes in defence, while Janssen took on the role of lone striker. Lamela, Eriksen and Son interchanged as an attacking midfield trio, moving as a compact unit in both defence and attack to allow the full-backs space down the wings.

Leverkusen lineup

Leverkusen began the game as a flat 4-4-2, though a half-time substitution of Calhanoglu for Baumgartlinger meant that their shape became more of a 4-3-1-2 in attack, with Kampl allowed a free-roam between the lines from the left hand side. Youngster Henrichs and veteran Bender filled in at left-back and right-back respectively, providing much-needed width in a narrow shape which leant itself towards a central overload. Calhanoglu struggled out on the wing, while Mehmedi’s tendency to drift inside caused Spurs problems through the middle. Kiessling made his first start for Leverkusen this season alongside Hernandez. The pair caused problems for Spurs with hard pressing and quick transitions towards wide areas, though Kiessling’s lack of match fitness caused play to break down in the final minutes of the game – arguably when they needed his presence most.

 

The high press

 Both teams’ ability to press in their opponents’ defensive third truly was a joy to watch. Within seconds of the opening kick-off, Leverkusen had five players between Spurs’ defence and midfield, and continued to press aggressively throughout the remainder of the game. Not only did it put Spurs under pressure, it meant that as soon as Leverkusen won the ball, they had five players in the final third; Spurs were already outnumbered.

Press

Spurs soon found an outlet, however, in the form of their right-back Kieran Trippier. All credit to Spurs, they recognised the press immediately and wasted no time in finding a solution to their problem. Instead of playing long towards Janssen and hoping for a knock-down, they insisted on playing out from the back by stretching the play with long, diagonal balls along the floor between Leverkusen’s attacking players. Both centre-backs moved towards the corners of the 18-yard box, the full-backs pushed forward and the central midfielder – in this case, Wanyama – dropped. The change in “vertical height” created angles and passing lanes which Spurs could use to penetrate the first line of Leverkusen’s press.

Diagonal passes work so well against the press because they are difficult to defend. Because it is both a vertical and horizontal pass, the defending team must change their shape asymmetrically. High-intensity pressing requires the team to move as a unit towards the ball, if the players are moving asymmetrically they lose that compact unit and holes begin to open up between defenders.

Diagonal pass

What made these diagonal passes so successful for Spurs, was the they were toward their wide players – primarily Kieran Trippier. If the ball is played from the centre towards a player on the wing, automatically he is facing his opponents’ goal. Due to his position on the pitch, he has no risk of being closed down from behind (the touchline is in the way) and he has a full view of the pitch and players ahead of him. Therefore, he needs less time on the ball and has a greater chance of making the right decision of where to go next, speeding up his teams’ transition and allowing them to attack whilst their opponents are the wrong side of the ball.

Calhanoglu’s reluctance to protect his left-back meant that Trippier’s attacking runs caused countless problems for Leverkusen, with the majority of Spurs’ first half chances coming from crosses from the right-wing.

Leverkusen’s press did cause difficulties for Spurs, however, particularly in the second half as they began to use the space in the wide areas to their own advantage. Kampl stuck to Trippier when Spurs had the ball, and drifted inside when Leverkusen had the ball, opening up the space behind him for Henrichs to attack. Kampl’s presence stopped Spurs’ from creating anything in the second half.

 

Individual Performances

Although Kieran Trippier was Spurs’ standout player for reasons stated above, he disappeared in the second half after Leverkusen’s tactical switch. Spurs struggled to create in the wide areas and so turned to Eriksen for inspiration.

Eriksen started the game in the centre of an attacking midfield trio, occasionally interchanging positions with his counterparts though primarily attempting to create through the centre. Though his team dominated the early stages, Leverkusen’s overload of the centre of the field meant that Eriksen was merely a pivot in the centre; allowed little time on the ball and so played simple one-touch passes to retain possession. His forward runs into the half-spaces were exceptional though rarely capitalised upon by his teammates.

As the game opened, however, Pochettino opted to substitute Janssen for Dembele, dropping him into central midfield and giving Eriksen more freedom to drift into wider positions in attack. He became an outlet for Spurs, picking up the ball behind Leverkusen’s wide players and driving at them with intent, always looking for a forward pass. When defending set pieces, he was the prime target for which Spurs would clear the ball to, though his final ball was uncharacteristically poor on the day.

It was a very similar story on the opposite side of the field for Leverkusen’s Kampl, who himself had a poor start to the game before being pushed into a wider role with more freedom to create. His vision on the ball was excellent as he picked apart an outnumbered Spurs midfield with simple one-twos and deft footwork. Though, unlike his opponent, his final ball was excellent. Rather, the attempts on the receiving end were poor.

 

Conclusion

The BayArena saw the return of the old cliché “fight fire with fire” with two very similar teams with identical play styles locked horns in what was an extremely tight affair which honestly could have gone either way.

Leverkusen left themselves open at the back with their aggressive style, – something which they have paid for in the Bundesliga this season, having conceded 9 goals in 7 games so far – while Spurs’ stout defensive strategy and Lloris’ exceptional goal-line save kept the hosts at bay.

Both teams showed their quality on the ball, with impressive performances on both sides. In a game that was crying out for a moment of brilliance, it seemed a shame that two teams with incredible ability were unable to provide such a moment and break the deadlock.

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