Tottenham Hotspur welcomed FC Barcelona in the second group game of the UEFA Champions League, Spurs were in need of result considering that they lost their first game away to Inter Milan. Barcelona on their part also needed a result seeing as they were winless in their last three matches and needed a result to get their season back on track. Barcelona Coach Ernesto Valverde made a number of changes to the team that started against Athletic Bilbao, the major changes being Messi returning to the starting eleven after being rested at the weekend. His opposite number Mauricio Pochettino had a lot of injuries to deal with as many of his key players including Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Moussa Dembele were all out injured and unavailable for the game.
Tottenham (4 – 2 – 3 – 1): Lloris // Trippier – Alderweiled – Vertoghen – Davies // Wanyama – Harry Wink // Lamela – Son – Lucas Moura // Harry Kane.
Coach: Mauricio Pochettino.
Barcelona ( 4 – 3 – 3): Ter Stergen // Semedo – Pique – Lenglet – Jordi Alba // Busqests – Rakitic – Arthur Melo // Messi – Coutinho – Suarez.
Coach: Ernesto Valverde.
Mauricio Pochettino has a reputation as a tactically versatile coach, however, he found his options constrained by a slew of injuries so he elected to play in a 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 formation which became a 4 – 4 – 1 – 1 when the North Londoners were defending. In the first half, Spurs rarely challenged Barcelona’s centre-backs during the early build-up.
Instead, they sought to congest the centre of the pitch and crowd space for Barcelona’s midfielders. Usually, they sought to achieve this by using their cover shadow to block passes into midfielders and encourage Barcelona to pass the ball out wide to the full backs who they would now confront using the touchline as an extra defender.
Unfortunately, things mostly didn’t go as planned for Pochettino as Barcelona were able to build up comfortably, overwhelm Spurs’ pressing efforts and create chances. Barcelona set up in their customary 4 – 3 – 3 but Valverde made a lot of wrinkles to the system.
Suarez was used in a slightly different way from how he has usually been used as the Uruguay striker was used mainly to bind opposition defenders and create space for Messi to exploit. Messi was used in a false nine-ish way as he was given freedom to move all around the pitch making it more difficult for the Tottenham defenders to track him down. Coutinho played more like a left midfielder than as a left wing forward and this allowed Barca to overload the centre.
Barcelona were able to manipulate Tottenham’s midfield block through the abilities of two of their most important players: Coutinho and Messi. The Brazilian regularly dropped into midfield and together with Messi, they were able to overload the Tottenham midfield 4 vs 3 and sometimes even 5 vs 3.
Tottenham’s difficulties in these situations stemmed mostly from the pace of the Barcelona full-backs Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba as they timed their movements perfectly to discourage the Tottenham defenders from stepping out into midfield to confront Messi when he had the ball, these overlapping runs combined with putting Suarez on binding duty allowed Messi to have a lot of space between the lines Barcelona had some initial struggles as Rakitic was playing badly in the right midfield position, so around the 25-minute mark, Ernesto Valverde made a subtle change and switched Rakitic over to the left side of the midfield and Barcelona stabilised their game.
In the second half, Tottenham began to press higher and challenge Barcelona’s initial build-up and began to assert their authority on the game. Barca were not unduly bothered as Ter Stergen was on his best game and played a lot of accurate passes to the free full backs. With Tottenham committing more bodies forward to chase the game, Barcelona were able to engineer several chances on the counter-attack as Busquets, Coutinho and Arthur used their press resistance to release Messi and Suarez against the Tottenham back line.
Again, while Tottenham usually had three players in their best defence and at least one backwards pressing midfielder, Suarez made a number of excellent defence binding runs allowing Messi to dribble forward into the created space.
Tottenham were eventually rewarded for their efforts as they were able to pull one back through Harry Kane and later Eric Lamela. In the end, it wasn’t enough as Barcelona were able to seal the win late on.
This was probably Barcelona‘s best away performance under Valverde in the Champions League as La Blaugrana looked comfortable for almost the entire match and the 2:4 scoreline was actually kind to Tottenham.
There was a lot to be excited about in Arthur‘s performance as he controlled the game in the midfield and enabled them to break the press on several occasions.