Last season was a rude realization for Tottenham Hotspur that their way of playing – so sophisticated and successful in England – did not count for quite as much in Europe. That was the story of one point from four games against Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen, as they looked everything that in England they are not: simplistic, predictable, too easy for a good team to make them look stupid.
Of what has been so impressive about this Champions League campaign is how they have learned new facets to their game, learning the adaptability that marks out the top teams at this level. That was clear against Borussia Dortmund, when Spurs did what they never do in England, defending on the edge of their penalty box and playing on the break. They were rewarded with a 3-1 win that has set up their progress from the group.
When Tottenham arrived in Madrid on Monday all the talk was that they would come here and try to dominate possession, just like they do in England. But in fact they played a different game: defending in 5-3-2, not giving Real Madrid space between the lines to break into, and with two big strikers up front in Harry Kane and Fernando Llorente. Last year they did play with a front two at times but Llorente is a far more conventional front man than Dele Alli, to say the least.
Pochettino then explained that this is exactly what Spurs did not have last year – different nuances – but that this was the only way to get results against sides like Dortmund and Real Madrid. If Spurs had opened up and pushed the wing-backs high and wide on Tuesday they would have been taken to pieces.
But Jan Vertonghen, drafted in at left wing-back, never pushed too far forward, even Serge Aurier picked his moments and the Spurs back five held strong.
“I knew you would be surprised by the starting 11,” Pochettino smiled afterward. “But it’s important to work and find different options and surprise our opponents, to be flexible and have different ways to play.”
Pochettino loves to say that his football is more about philosophy than formations and he made the same point again here. For the next two games against Real and Dortmund, the plans will likely change again, and no-one would bet against Spurs picking up more crucial points.
“You know we can play three or four at the back, one striker or two strikers, two or three in midfield,” he said. “We are flexible. In different circumstances, we decided to work and play in that way. We are happy because, in the end, it worked.
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