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Will Miller provides a detailed tactical analysis about the Champions League match that ended CSKA Moscow 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur.
Spurs came into this Champions League tie with their manager Mauricio Pochettino describing it as a must-win game but without 5 of their first team players. Moscow were playing their first Champions league game in their new stadium – the Arena CSKA.
After a tight first half, in which each ‘keeper only had one routine save to make, the game opened up in the second half and Tottenham took advantage of this, creating significantly more chances. Eventually Heung-Min Son’s shot from a 1-on-1 trickled over the line to hand Spurs their first Champions league victory in more than five years and give CSKA a significantly tougher job making it to the knockout stages.
CSKA Moscow (4-2-3-1) – Akinfeev, Fernandes, Berezutski, Ignashevich, Schennikov, Golovin, Wernbloom, Tosic, Eremenko, Milanov, Traore.
Tottenham (4-1-4-1) – Lloris, Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Davies, Wanyama, Lamela, Eriksen, Alli, Son, Janssen.
Spurs again used a different formation from Pochettino’s favoured 4-2-3-1 to accommodate the loss of both Dier and Dembele following its success at Middleborough during the weekend.
Tottenham’s defenders were largely free from pressure as they looked to play out from the back into the creative midfielders. However the loss of both Dier and Dembele meant that Wanyama played as a single pivot, and he played a different role to the aforementioned pair. He is not as good a passer, so was bypassed as the centre backs played the ball into the second line. We can see this clearly from the diagram below showing him receiving very few passes and interestingly none at all from Vertonghen.
Instead the centre backs looked to play the fullbacks who could then take the ball forward, or alternatively Wanyama would move into the first line (usually to Vertonghen’s left) and one of the centre backs would carry the ball forward themselves. Wanyama’s primary role was to recycle the ball and to clean up when the Moscow defence cleared their lines.
Moscow offered very little resistance to this build up play from Spurs, with Eremenko and Traore offering only token resistance before retreating when the ball inevitably bypassed them. The rest of the CSKA team pushed up some way to support their strikers, but dropped off rather quickly into a low block once Tottenham played the ball into midfield.
For all of the first half and much of the second CSKA Moscow defended in a low block with two banks of four seeking to crowd out Tottenham’s midfielders, denying the likes of Eriksen and Lamela the space they need to be effective. There was space out wide, as there always is against a low block, but Tottenham looked to switch the ball from one side to space in the other then play it back inside rather than cross (and probably lose out to the Russian centre backs) in most cases.
For the most part this approach worked in the first half, with Spurs’ only chances being three extremely optimistic long shots and a pair of set pieces opportunities, from which Alli hit the bar and Alderweireld headed straight at Akinfeev. Aside from that, Tottenham generally only managed blocked shots or to lose the ball as they tried squeeze it between Moscow players.
The two good chances Spurs did create in the first half didn’t actually end in shots, but offered a glimpse of how this game could be won. The ball was played from deep into the space just behind the Moscow defence where first Alli then Son saw the ball just slip beyond their grasp to be snatched up by Akinfeev. Drawing the Moscow lines out then exploiting what little space there was behind would become a large part of Tottenham’s second half strategy.
In the second half Lamela and Son both started on their ‘natural’ sides as Tottenham looked to get more width in order to stretch the CSKA backline. This, combined with the inevitable tiring of the Moscow defence and midfield meant that more space opened up horizontally between the players within both lines, allowing Spurs’ midfielders the space they needed to take shots.
CSKA Moscow’s approach in possession was almost the polar opposite of Tottenham’s. They would play the ball long straight from Akinfeev, aim to win the second ball and play forward quickly. Their strikers often found space outside the Tottenham fullbacks, with Trippier in particular often being beaten or failing to close down his man. At times, the Spurs backline rode their luck as dangerous crosses came in only to miss their target in the box.
Moscow were also able to play on the counter attack when Spurs lost possession and only had Alderweireld, Vertonghen, and sometimes Wanyama to defend. Thankfully for Pochettino, both of his centre backs are very good at defending 1-on-1 so they were able to survive the Moscow counter-attacks.
When N’Koudou was brought on for Vincent Janssen, he continued and improved upon the work Tottenham had been doing. With great acceleration and pace, he was just what was needed against a deep defence; with his first contribution winning a corner after a mazy dribble to get to the byline in the box. He also hugged the touchline while waiting for the ball, which opened up the low block even more, as they felt the need to stay closer to him. This horizontal space between players in the lines allowed Alderweireld to slide a brilliant vertical pass into Lamela between the lines, who then slipped it to Son beyond the defensive line and squeezed it between Akinfeev’s outstretched arm and leg.
After this goal, Spurs dropped off slightly and allowed CSKA to have more possession than they had for the rest of the game. This nervy 20 minutes for Tottenham was exacerbated by the fact they had no genuine striker. Ironically, after being ineffective most of the game and taken off for N’Koudou, Janssen would have been a massive help for Tottenham at this point in the game. Several times, Spurs would clear their lines and the ball would fall to Son playing the no. 9 role, only for him to be outmuscled and give CSKA an immediate chance to restart their attack. A striker of Janssen’s stature would have been able to hold the ball up and play in runners from midfield to potentially get a second goal and seal the game. But as it was, attacks were hard to come by for Spurs and they had to be content with just the one goal. This one goal would end up being enough as they held on against waves of red shirts flying forward and Moscow were unlucky at times, with a particularly good chance being flashed across the face of goal with no one there to tap it into an empty net.
Through their persistence, Tottenham Hotspur were eventually able to edge this tight game. They dominated the game in terms of possession and shots, but CSKA Moscow always looked dangerous on the counter attack and could well have got an equaliser on several occasions.
Because Monaco and Leverkusen drew 1-1, group E is still very tight, with the teams each separated by one point. Spurs have their ability to top the group on their own hands, while Moscow will probably need to pick up four points from the two games against Monaco to progress to the knockout stages for the first time in three years.
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