UEFA Champions League 2019/20: Tottenham Hotspur vs Red Star Belgrade – tactical analysis
On Tuesday night Tottenham Hotspur hosted Red Star Belgrade in a Champions League group match. With only one win in their last seven games in all competitions, it was a must-win game for Tottenham, who before this game had only collected one point from their first two fixtures in this year’s Champions League.
Red Star, on the other hand, are already sitting four points clear in their domestic league and were seeking to build on their win over Olympiacos in their previous Champions League game.
However, it wasn’t to be, and Tottenham put on an attacking display of the highest quality to win 5-0. There were two goals each for Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son, as well as one for Erik Lamela, with three of Tottenham’s goals coming before half-time.
Toby Alderweireld, Danny Rose, and Harry Winks were the only players who featured in Tottenham’s last Champions League game, the 7-2 drubbing by Bayern Munich, to lose their place for this fixture.
However, Pochettino avoided using a midfield diamond again, instead fielding a 4-2-3-1 with Vertonghen partnering Sanchez at the heart of defence, flanked by both Ben Davies and Serge Aurier. Tanguy Ndombele partnered Moussa Sissoko in midfield, as Dele Alli sat in front of them in the 10 role, with Harry Kane as the lone striker. Son and Erik Lamela played on the wings, with both given license to move inside and play narrow.
Red Star Belgrade fielded a 4-4-1-1, with Marko Marin playing behind Portuguese forward Tomané. Mateo García and ex Huddersfield winger, Rajiv van La Parra, provided the width on the wings, whilst Milan Rodić and Marko Gobeljić sat behind them in the full-back positions. Pochettino would have been very aware of the threat Red Star posed from crosses, statistically being one of the most accurate crossing sides in Europe. In order to get past them, Spurs would have to nullify the threat posed by these four players.
Tottenham stuck with the 4-2-3-1 for the first half, however, for the second half Pochettino changed to a 4-3-3. Although there were no personnel changes, Sissoko stayed sitting deep whilst Ndombele was allowed to push higher next to Alli, who himself sat a little deeper. Along with this change, Son and Lamela were afforded the chance to push higher and play as a front three with Kane.
Red Star’s attempts to prevent Spurs playing centrally
From the first minute, Red Star set out to prevent Spurs from playing in central areas. They sat deep, with a 14.2 PPDA over the course of the game, and sought to avoid Tottenham breaking the lines with direct passes into Kane or Alli.
The image below shows Red Star dropping into a 4-4-2 to defend, with their front two and central midfield two creating a square around Sissoko, whilst their two wingers, Mateo García and van La Parra sit narrow and occupy the passing channels in the half-spaces.
However, Pochettino’s side were seemingly prepared for this and within the first three minutes had already broken the midfield line with two direct passes into their forward line, bypassing their midfield.
To do so Spurs utilised their full-backs, in this case, Davies who picked out Alli operating in the half-space and playing between the lines. Below we can see Son cutting inside from a wide position to receive, as Kane makes his run into the space created by Alli’s initial movement.
This pass is something Tottenham use frequently, and although Red Star had done their homework, Spurs were equal to the challenge. They simply played around their central block due to the excellent movement of their forward line, which I will speak about in more depth later.
Over the course of the game, Tottenham were dominant on the ball with 58.6% of possession but looked to play forward quickly, managing just 6.56 passes per possession.
How Spurs prevented Red Star from capitalising from crosses
As mentioned earlier, Red Star are one of the most accurate crossing sides on the continent. For teams that make over 20 crosses a game, only Slavia Prague are more accurate across all top tier leagues in Europe.
To nullify the threat from out wide, Spurs dropped into a 4-4-2 formation when defending, with Ndombele pushing alongside Kane to form a front two, whilst both Son and Lamela dropped back into orthodox wing positions.
Spurs were cautious not to overreach going forward in the early stages either. Both Aurier and Davies sat deep to begin with as Spurs looked to play out. It is possible that Pochettino wanted to ensure that if Red Star were to break quickly on the counter, there would be two full-backs there to meet Red Star’s dangerous wide men and avoid any early crosses into the Tottenham 18-yard-box.
Due to the cautiousness with which Tottenham approached Red Star’s crossing game, the visitors looked to use their full-backs more frequently as crossing options as the game developed. Both of their full-backs ended up being their most prolific crossers over the course of the game.
Rodić was often seen taking a deep and wide position and was frequently used to switch the play to. Immediately he looked to cross, but Pochettino had set his side up defensively to ensure Tomané was given no easy headers inside the box.
As crosses came into the Red Star forward, it was common to see three Tottenham players surround him in a triangle, with one man-marking him but standing in front, one sweeping behind, and a midfielder dropping in as well.
With these three players marking Tomané so tightly, it made it very hard for Red Star to create anything from wide areas.
Even though Red Star still ended with an excellent 53.3% accuracy from their 15 crosses over the game, a lot of these crosses ended with tame headers. The Serbian side struggled to fill the box with great numbers too often, and even if they did win a header in the Tottenham area, there was often no one there to claim the second ball.
The analysis of Red Star’s crossing below shows that a lot of their crosses arrived in areas slightly deeper in the area between the six-yard box and penalty spot, a difficult area to score directly from headers. It also highlights Rodić’s (23) issues with his crosses throughout the game, with only one of his five attempts reaching its target.
Tottenham’s movement and use of the half-spaces to create attacking opportunities
As mentioned earlier, Red Star looked to prevent Tottenham playing from central areas. It is interesting then that Tottenham were so devastating from wide areas over the course of the game. They were excellent at using width to get in behind the Red Star defence in the wide areas, but just as equally at manipulating the space out wide to pull Red Star’s defence around and create openings in the central attacking areas.
Their pass map highlights the importance of Aurier. Although he started the game playing deep, as the game progressed, particularly in the second half, he was able to push high and wide and allow Lamela to occupy the half-spaces closer to Kane. He was heavily involved throughout the evening, with Sanchez and Aurier forming Tottenham’s most common pass-link.
The pass map also highlights how Lamela played closer to Kane than Son did. Son instead opted to stay wider and allow Alli to drift into the half-space to the left of Kane, an area that Red Star would have expected Son to occupy as Lamela did on the other side.
This is exactly what happened for Tottenham’s second goal, which Son scored. Alli pushed up to run into the left half-space and create a front three with Kane and Lamela. In doing so he brought the Red Star right-back, Gobeljic, closer to the rest of his defence, in order to deal with Alli’s run.
Son instead stayed in a deeper wide position and allowed the play to develop. The image below shows how narrow the front three became, bringing Red Star’s back four equally narrow.
Kane dropped to the edge of the box to give an option to the ball-carrier Lamela, and subsequently, this brought Red Star’s centre-back Nemanja Milunović out of his back four and towards Kane, causing Red Star’s defence to move even narrower as Gobeljić tucked inside. Son was able to make a late burst into the box with acres of space to run into. He was picked out by Lamela and scored.
Son’s movement was excellent all evening, constantly varying his movement and subsequently manipulating the shape of Red Star’s back four. When he cut inside to link with a player in a central area, he did so creating space on his own flank for Davies to run into and offer a crossing option.
Son wasn’t alone in this. The movement from Kane and Lamela was equally as impressive throughout the evening and showed great tactical intelligence, as well as selflessness between the three of them, constantly making runs knowing they would create space for their teammates.
For the third goal, it was Kane’s decision to run across Ndombele as he surged forward with the ball that created the necessary space for Son to score his second of the game. It is likely Kane saw that Son was making a run past the Red Star right-back who was mismatched for pace with the South Korean all evening. Kane’s run across brought both Red Star centre-backs to him enough to provide space for Ndombele to slip in Son, who was able to run onto the ball with no one in front of him, and score once more.
Tottenham were able to create plenty of good goalscoring opportunities throughout the evening, with an xG of 3.35. Tottenham’s shot map, shown below, shows how close to Red Star’s goal the majority of their shots were. Their 17 shots were on average only 14.63 yards away from goal. It is no surprise that they hit the target with 12 of these efforts. In the image, we can see five black diamonds: these are all chances with an xG of 0.25 or higher.
A hapless defensive performance from Red Star
As good as Tottenham were going forward, it would be fair to say that Red Star didn’t cover themselves in glory with their defensive performance. Their back four consistently showed an inability to stay in a compact shape. This was partly down to poor individual performances from these defenders, however, the lack of cover their full-backs received from their wingers led to a knock-on effect of players being dragged out of positions.
In the second half, Aurier was able to move into higher areas as Lamela played closer to Kane. Red Star played very narrow as a defensive unit.
For the fourth goal, they were unnecessarily narrow due to centre-back Milunović pressing the ball, a job which one of his two central-midfielders could have easily done, and meaning the rest of his back three had to sit even tighter. As the ball was hit to the right-flank for Aurier, this brought left-back Rodić across and meant Lamela was able to move into this area.
Tracking back, in general, was an issue throughout the evening and for Tottenham’s fourth, Lamela was able to move into the Red Star area without being tracked properly, moving inside, as Aurier dribbled down the right flank.
Milunović had a tendency throughout the evening to press the ball-carrier, even when marking Kane. For an experienced defender who has played at international level, this showed bewildering tactical naivety.
In the image below we see him move towards the ball-carrier once more as Kane runs in behind him to receive the through-ball, and score Tottenham’s fifth of the evening.
The result will come as a huge relief to Tottenham fans, even if they should be expected to beat a side like Red Star at home.
Although the visitors didn’t play the way they would have wanted, nothing can be taken away from Tottenham’s excellent attacking performance. Pochettino’s tactics prevented Red Star from causing problems from the wide areas whilst exploiting them in the final third. The movement of their front three was too good for Red Star on the evening, and Alli played an important role in providing space for Son to work, particularly in the first half.
This was Tottenham’s first win in this season’s competition and importantly puts them in second place after three games. Should they beat both Olympiacos and Red Star in their second games against these sides, they will qualify for the next round of the Champions League.
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