The 2018/19 edition of the UEFA Champions League was arguably the most exciting edition ever. Unexpected defeats, exhilarating comebacks and sensational quality were all on display in last season’s knockout rounds. Now, on the brink of the 2019/20 knockout stages, fans across the world will no doubt expect the forthcoming fixtures to match and even surpass the thrilling, high-quality showdowns witnessed a year ago.
At the forefront of this breathtaking Champions League wave have been young, unproven sides with an approach characterised by bravery and exuberance. Last season it was Ajax. This season the young side with the most potential to conquer Europe’s finest has got to be RB Leipzig. Like Ajax, they’ve got a high-tempo, pro-active playing style, a young manager and young players all hungry to make their mark on European football. This is what makes Leipzig the most interesting underdog at this stage of the competition.
Their first challenge? A trip to London to face last season’s runners-up, now managed by the special one himself, José Mourinho. No further introduction needed. Let’s take a look at how their first leg tie might play out.
The Influence of League Performances on this Fixture
RB Leipzig currently occupies the 2nd spot in the Bundesliga, 1 point behind leader Bayern Munich. A 3-0 win over Werder Bremen last Saturday allowed them to win 3 valuable points and keep pace with chasing pack, a difficult task considering how tricky the Bundesliga has been this season. They managed to secure 2 points in consecutive ties against their main rivals, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayern, despite a number of key injuries/absences. Their start to the second half of the season produced inconsistent results, conceding more goals than expected and have done well to turn those performances around thus far.
Similarly, Tottenham have faced tricky challenges but further down the Premier League table, as they continue their fight to squeeze into the top-four. They scraped into the 5th round of the FA Cup and gained 10 points in four games to put themselves just 1 point behind 4th placed Chelsea. The fact that they’ve managed to get the results they’ve needed despite the inconsistency of their performances and without their talisman, Harry Kane, just tells you how difficult it will be for Leipzig to overcome.
The Key Battle: Mourinho vs Mini-Mourinho:
16-years ago, José Mourinho’s Porto defeated Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in a last 16-tie, pulling off a massive shock before pulling off an even bigger one by going on to win the competition. That moment was a landmark one as it proved to the world at large that José Mourinho was capable of leading a team to victory under the most difficult of circumstances. Looking at Julian Naglesmann’s career, against Tottenham he now has the opportunity to do the same.
Although Spurs and Leipzig have tremendous talent in each of their squads, both teams are still developing and maturing and key to these processes are the managers of both sides. The influence they have over their teams at this stage of their developments are crucial in all facets of the game. No individuals on and off the pitch will have more impact over this game than the two managers.
The Psychological Battle
Firstly, although for different reasons, both sides are desperate to prove their ability and worth by winning on the biggest platform available. Spurs because of their loss at the final hurdle in 2018/19 and Leipzig because of their newness to this level of competition and their determination to succeed significantly when it matters. It’s fair to say that since 2015/16 both clubs have been on a steep rise with Spurs being taken over by Mauricio Pochettino and Leipzig winning promotion to the Bundesliga. Since then however no trophies have been captured and they’ve both surrendered league titles and cup finals to bigger, traditionally more successful sides. In short, both sides will come into this fixture each with a huge chip on their shoulder.
Mourinho and Nagelsmann will play a big-part here because of their expertise in handling large expectations, under pressure (although Mourinho definitely has an advantage here!). The pressure created in these fixtures often results in players lapsing in concentration in key moments which almost always results in the opponent taking advantage. Mourinho himself knows that errors play a huge role in deciding the outcome of such matches and that the team who commits the fewest errors has the highest probability of winning the game. Both coaches being excellent man-managers will prepare their players to sustain their concentration for as long as possible. However, most importantly, they will also prepare their players to respond appropriately in the highly probable event that they do commit crucial errors.
The Tactical Battle
Secondly, from a tactical point of view, Mourinho’s impact will be evident as he has the responsibility of creating balance and overcoming a Leipzig side that is cohesive and plays bravely by taking a lot of risks. Spurs’ pressing game isn’t as functional as it should be, as evident in their tie against Manchester City two weeks ago. José Mourinho is still trying to improve a side that conceded 7 goals to Bayern Munich earlier this season. The reason for their poor defensive performances I can’t say for sure. But what I can say for sure is that Leipzig’s counter-attacking game is at a level good enough to take advantage of this aspect. It’ll be interesting to see how Mourinho tactically adapts to this problem.
Naglesmann’s impact will lie in the pressing moments too, although for a different reason. Leipzig has executed their high-pressing strategy really well this season, conceding just 34 goals in the league and in Europe. Not great, but just good enough to remain competitive. Unfortunately, they will be missing 3 of their best centre-backs in this tie, with Ibrahima Konate and Willy Orbanout injured and Dayot Upamecano suspended.
In midfield, Tyler Adams, a skilled defensive player and the energetic and versatile Kevin Kampl will also be missing. This is a factor that weakness Leipzig defensively as their ability to defend in isolated situations, or remained organised in the defensive line is unlikely to be good. But will it really be an issue?
Big news out of the Tottenham camp today revealed that Spurs’ star attacker Heung-Min Son would be sidelined for this game as he will undergo surgery for a fractured arm. Considering Leipzig’s defensive frailties, this comes at the worst time possible for Jose Mourinho who is now only left with Lucas Moura, Steven Bergwijn and academy graduate Troy Parrot as attacking options. The complexity of what Leipzig might have had to overcome in terms of individual and combined quality has been simplified greatly at least from a tactical point of view.
In attack, Die Roten Bullen certainly have the quality, versatility and tactical solutions to the problems they’ll face against a Spurs when they defend deep. If Mourinho instructs his team to commit fewer numbers to the attack in order to maintain defensive balance against Leipzig’s counter-attacks. On any other day, Leipzig would have the upper hand in this aspect because of their ability to adapt their shape and structure to find/create space in key areas and exploit opportunities with the quality they possess.
But tactical flexibility, Leipzig’s most important weapon this season, might not be possible because of the absence of key players in their defensive lines. Both Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg will likely to start in central defence. Leipzig will have to answer questions such as how they’ll give freedom to their full-backs without compromising defensive cover down the wings, how can they use a back 3, while maintaining high-numbers ahead of the ball and overloads in midfield etc.
Before concluding this post, I was led to a simple conclusion considering all of the factors and forces that will influence and impact the game. That is, that the game would be evenly balanced, in almost all areas. That the quality and superiority of one side gets cancelled out by the weakness of the other due to psychological/technical factors or other external factors such as injuries and suspensions. I thought that the decisive factor would lie within the strategy and tactical solutions provided by each manager to their players, to respond to the errors and faults of that they commit. But that was then. With Spurs’ South Korean superstar now ruled out of the tie (at this stage the second leg as well) any advantage Spurs had, has now been written off almost completely.
Date: Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Kick-off: 21:00 (CET)
Venue: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (capacity: 62,000)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Turkey)
Broadcasting: DAZN (Germany), BT Sport 2 (United Kingdom)
This will be the first-ever fixture between the two clubs.
Norwich City 2-1 (H) | Southampton 1-1 (A) | Manchester City 2-0 (H) | Southampton 3-2 (H) | Aston Villa 3-2 (A)
Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 (A) | Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-2 (H) | Eintracht Frankfurt 1-3 (A) | Bayern Munich 0-0 (A) | Werder Bremen 3-0 (H)
Injured: Harry Kane (hamstring), Moussa Sissoko (knee), Son Heung-min (fractured arm)
Doubtful: Erik Lamela (groin), Ben Davies (ankle)
Injured: Tyler Adams (calf), Kevin Kampl (ankle), Ibrahima Konaté (hip), Willi Orban (knee)
Suspended: Dayot Upamecano
Lloris – Aurier, Sanchez, Alderweireld, Tanganga – Dier, Winks – Lo Celso, Alli, Bergwijn – Lucas (4-2-3-1)
Gulácsi – Mukiele, Klostermann, Halstenberg, Angelino – Laimer, Haidara – Sabitzer, Olmo, Werner – Schick (4-2-3-1)
“[We have]No strikers, no market. Nothing. The only help we can have is our crowd, the Tottenham supporters. That is the only thing I ask because to the players I cannot ask more than what they are giving.”
“Leipzig have the power of a very good team, very good players and of course an emergent club without a history like the big ones that you have in Europe but with the potential to be first in the Bundesliga for many months,”Source: BBC
“I have a huge amount of respect for José Mourinho. He’s won lots of titles and been a massive influence on European football.”
“I get a bit nervous before every game. But this isn’t the most important game in the club’s history. Of course, we want to reach the quarterfinals, but first, we need to negotiate the away leg.”Source: Twitter.com/RBLeipzig_EN
Tottenham Hotspur 0-4 RB Leipzig