Tottenham Hotspur have won their last three games, all at Wembley, ahead of Wednesday night’s Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund at the national stadium.
Without talisman Harry Kane, Spurs have edged past Watford, Newcastle United and Leicester City in the Premier League, proving their strength of character amid an ongoing injury crisis.
However, Dortmund will pose a different level of challenge altogether. The Bundesliga leaders lost to Tottenham home and away in this competition last season, but they are a much improved side this term – as their league position suggests.
They, too, will be without one of their key players; Marco Reus has been ruled out with a thigh injury. Striker Paco Alcacer is also sidelined with a shoulder problem, meaning the Germans will be looking to a certain Englishman for inspiration in attack.
Jadon Sancho has enjoyed quite the rise since moving to Dortmund 18 months ago, and he will now face an English club for the first time since his Manchester City exit.
Tottenham will need a plan to deal with Sancho and Dortmund’s other main threats. Here are three things Mauricio Pochettino needs to do to stop Sancho and Co. and the line-up Spurs should go with tonight.
1. Reintroduce Eric Dier
Spurs have conceded just two goals across their last three games, but they’ve gotten away with some dubious defending. Remarkably, Leicester had 20 attempts at Wembley on Sunday, including nine on target, while Newcastle and Watford shared 17 between them in the matches prior.
There’s no denying defenders have been to blame in individual cases. However, Tottenham have been far too open in midfield of late, almost inviting the opposition onto themselves.
Consequently, the Dortmund match will be the perfect opportunity to reintroduce Eric Dier to the starting line-up.
Dier returned to fitness last month after a lay-off with appendicitis. He has struggled to win his place back in the team and missed the Leicester game with a virus, but the 25-year-old is available on Wednesday.
Harry Winks has made the deepest role in the midfield diamond his own in Dier’s absence. He is often the player tasked with collecting the ball from the defenders or Hugo Lloris to start attacks. Yet by selecting Winks in this role, Spurs’ back line lacks protection. Winks and Moussa Sissoko have too many attacking responsibilities to solely focus on stopping the opposition.
That’s where Dier comes in. Dortmund will look to exploit the space Tottenham leave between their defence and midfield; Mario Gotze, who could start as a makeshift striker, will be key in that regard. It’s up to Dier to plug those gaps. Winks will then be given permission to roam into more advanced areas.
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2. Where Sancho goes, Sissoko follows
Sancho is likely to start on the right for Dortmund, but there is a chance he will begin on the opposite flank. Regardless of where he starts, the tricky teenager will pop up in a variety of forward positions.
When attacking down the right he will be up against Jan Vertonghen, who will be playing out of position due to the absence of Ben Davies and Danny Rose – the latter suffered a gashed shin against Leicester and will only be fit enough for a place on the bench.
Considering he is a centre-back by trade, Vertonghen likes to attack regularly when forced to play full-back. His crossing ability is more hit than miss and he is a relatively composed dribbler. That said, Sancho has the potential to pin Vertonghen back early and often, and the Belgian will need help.
With Dier protecting the central areas, it will be Sissoko’s job to help out the full-backs. Pochettino should deploy Sissoko on whichever side Sancho occupies. The Frenchman usually plays on the right of the diamond, but that may have to change here.
On Sunday, most of Leicester’s attacks came down Tottenham’s right, where Sissoko was tasked with helping Kieran Trippier but ended up having to make up for the right-back’s constant positional slip-ups. Pochettino will be forced to decide between who needs more protection: Vertonghen or Trippier. Sancho’s starting position may determine the final decision.
3. Give Vertonghen an outlet
Spurs may also be wise to follow a clichéd but sometimes worthwhile mantra: offence is the best defence. If and when Vertonghen is able to dispossess Sancho, the defender will need an outlet, someone Vertonghen can use to bypass Dortmund’s press and fashion counter-attacks.
With that in mind, Lucas Moura should get the nod ahead of Fernando Llorente as Son Heung-min’s strike partner. Lucas is a more suitable option to make runs in-behind Dortmund when Vertonghen is in possession but under pressure.
In contrast, Llorente would still provide a target for Vertonghen to hit but it would be a stilted one. The Spaniard’s lack of mobility and inability to replicate Kane’s hold-up play will only slow Tottenham down. And in a game bound to be played at a frantic pace given the make-up of both sides, Llorente could end up doing more harm than good.
Pochettino usually prefers his team to dominate possession and build patiently as opposed to frequently looking for opportunities to counter. But when Dortmund visited Wembley last season, Spurs changed tack in response to the visitors’ dominance. Having Lucas as an option provides Pochettino with the opportunity to once again exploit Dortmund when they are on top.
Ultimately, Pochettino should stick with his tried and tested midfield diamond, albeit with a couple of personnel tweaks.