What a batch of fixtures we’ve got coming our way, people.
The Champions League round of 16 draw – which feels like it took place in six years ago now – was undoubtedly the most exciting in recent memory. The fixtures it produced, not the actual event. Even Manchester City didn’t get away with drawing Fleetwood Town.
But while Chelsea vs Bayern, Dortmund vs PSG, Atletico vs Liverpool and Real Madrid vs City all represent mouth-watering clashes – albeit a few of those sides aren’t exactly what they were a few years ago – the most intriguing of them all is Tottenham vs RB Leipzig.
In Jose Mourinho and Julian Nagelsmann – who was dubbed ‘baby Mourinho’ during his time at Hoffenheim – you have two of Europe’s most tactically versatile managers, and it’s incredibly tough to predict what approach both will take for Wednesday’s first leg in north London.
Take Nagelsmann. The 32-year-old has turned Leipzig into more of a possession-based side this season – with their average possession up from 49.5% to 54% this time around – but has often changed his approach in some of his side’s bigger games this season, most recently against Bayern where they saw just 30% of the ball.
In the stalemate against the Bavarian giants, Die Roten Bullen sat deep in their own half and looked to exploit the space left behind by Bayern’s full-backs in transition – a ploy that led to two great chances in the second half.
Under Nagelsmann, we’ve also seen this Leipzig side line-up in a plethora of formations. Early on in the campaign, a 4-2-2-2 was prominent with Emil Forsberg fully, fit but in recent weeks, they have generally used a five at the back set-up – with a 5-2-3 being deployed at Bayern and a 5-2-1-2 utilised in their 3-0 home win against Werder Bremen on Saturday.
However, with Dayot Upamecano suspended, it’s hard to envisage Wednesday’s visitors lining up in a back five – a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-2-2-2 seems the more likely.
So how does Mourinho go about ensuring his side go into the RedBull Arena in three weeks with an advantage?
The key will be nullifying the space in behind for the likes of Timo Werner and Christopher Nkunku, therefore you can expect the Portuguese boss to set his Spurs side up in a deeper block – with the likes of Davinson Sanchez and Japhet Tanganga providing much-needed pace to the Lilywhites backline.
Not only will the deeper block counteract Leipzig’s ability in transition, but it’ll also help out the positionally erratic Serge Aurier – who could play a similar role to the one he played against Liverpool last month.
The absence of Upamecano doesn’t only help Spurs going forward, but the Frenchman has also been key in kickstarting swift counters. The centre-back’s 5.8 long balls per 90 in the Bundesliga this season leads all Leipzig players. So with Upamecano missing, the onus will be on the criminally underrated Konrad Laimer to find Werner – whose versatility will allow him to go one-vs-one against the ill-disciplined Ivorian – in behind from deeper positions. The Austrian averages 2.7 long balls per 90 with a respectable 71.4% success rate.
Laimer’s ability to threaten in behind was on full display against Werder, as he set-up his side’s third with a wonderfully weighted lofted through ball for wing-back Nordi Mukiele to pounce on before rounding the keeper and finishing.
Unlike they were at Villa on Sunday, Spurs have got to be compact and limit the space between the lines in this one. Under Nagelsmann, Leipzig’s verticality and their overloading of creators in behind opposing midfields have been pivotal in their success this season. It’d be wise for Mourinho to drift away from the 4-4-2 shape we saw out of possession at Villa Park – where the Lilywhites’ incoherent press and ill-disciplined shape ensured the home side had plenty of joy going forward.
In possession, the key to beating Leipzig’s intense, high-octane press falls on the shoulders of one man: Tanguy Ndombele. The Frenchman’s fitness issues has seen him miss plenty of time this season, but some of his finest performances/cameos in a Spurs shirt have come in the Champions League.
Ndombele’s variation and unpredictability on the ball make him, arguably, the most press-resistant midfielder in Europe and if Spurs want to expose Leipzig’s typically suicidal high-line, the former Lyon man will need to be on the pitch. Giovani Lo Celso’s creativity and ability in tight spaces will also be pivotal as well.
The recent injury news to Son Heung-min is, of course, a huge blow. But in Steven Bergwijn and Lucas Moura, Spurs still carry enough threat on the counter. And with the powerful Upamecano absent, Nagelsmann will be forced into either deploying two full-backs – Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg – as his centre-back pairing or bringing Mukiele (a natural centre-back) into the back three alongside the full-backs.
Laimer’s role as the shielding midfielder – which he’s taken on since Diego Demme’s departure to Napoli – will be pivotal in trying to prevent Spurs from having joy in transition. The 22-year-old has the engine of a marathon runner and covers serious ground in a typical 90 minutes. Nevertheless, there’s little doubt in thinking that Spurs will have some joy against this makeshift Leipzig defence, especially if Ndombele and Lo Celso are on the pitch.
Although it’s unlikely to be as entertaining as the 16-goal thriller between Dortmund and PSG, this fixture comes with so much intrigue.
The adaptability and versatility of two managers 25-years apart age-wise makes Wednesday’s clash so fascinating. Will Nagelsmann take the game to Spurs? How will Leipzig line up in defence? Could Jose surprise the visitors with a high press? Will Ndombele last more than 60 minutes? So many questions!
Overall, it seems like the ultimate chess match between two managers who are stereotyped as seeing the game at opposite ends of the spectrum.