Holding the European champions to a draw, on their own hallowed ground, hinted at a growing confidence about Tottenham’s ability in the Champions League. Bringing the fight to Real Madrid back at Wembley, at a stadium where they were once plagued by a mystical ‘curse’ of disappointing play, would confirm that Tottenham can be a force both domestically and in Europe. A staggering 3-1 win on Wednesday night, however, has done more than assure that Spurs are a team to take very seriously. It has also opened up a discourse about the two sides, including Pochettino’s tactical nous, Kane, Alli and co’s determination and Real Madrid’s hidden frailties.
Pochettino fielded his now recognisable, but always mercurial, 3-5-2. With four changes made from the match in Spain, regular Lloris stayed in goal, whilst Davinson Sanchez took to defence alongside Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, the latter returning to central defence having been fielded as a wing-back in the Madrid game. Kevin Trippier and Ben Davies played as right and left wing-back respectively. In the centre, Harry Winks, whose impressive performance against Los Blancos in October earned him a reoccuring place, played alongside the solid Eric Dier and the imperative Christian Eriksen. Harry Kane, back from a hamstring injury, lead the front line, with Dele Alli playing slightly behind him in a comfortably attacking role.
For Real Madrid, Zidane was missing several key players, including Keylor Navas, Gareth Bale and Dani Carvajal, all suffering from previous injuries, whilst Raphael Varane had picked up a knock in the shock 2-1 loss to Girona on Sunday. Madrid lined up in their durable 4-3-3, with Kiko Casilla in goal, youngster Achraf Hakimi on right back, Marcelo on the left and Sergio Ramos paired alongside Nacho in the centre. Casemiro started in a holding role with Kroos and Modric either side. Isco played on the right side of the attacking three, with Benzema in the centre and Cristiano Ronaldo on the left.
From kick off Spurs pressed immediately, closing down Madrid players and cutting passing lanes with success. As a result, Real found themselves lobbing balls both horizontally and vertically, trying to stretch the compact Tottenham press. Initially, Real seemed to be making some progress, with Isco’s shot in the second minute being parried and collected by Lloris, whilst a 5th minute Sergio Ramos header from a corner was sent over the bar. However, Spurs kept up their pressure, deploying a high defensive line and a stifling midfield presence, with Dier, Eriksen and Winks looking to cancel out Madrid’s creative centre. By contrast, Madrid looked sloppy when Spurs were in possession, often leaving big gaps of space for Eriksen, Alli and Kane to drop into. When closing down, the Real defenders looked slow and their line was misshapen, and when back in possession, they passed the ball around languidly. A rare mistake by Marcelo in the 20th minute, trying to awkwardly clear a ball from the touchline, fell straight to Harry Winks who was unable to get a shot away; nevertheless, it was clear that Spurs were putting on the pressure, and the Madrid defence seemed unwilling to cope with it.
This was emphasised with the first Tottenham goal. Harry Winks dribbled forward before playing a sweet long ball to an unmarked (albeit offside) Kevin Trippier, down on the right side of the Madrid box. Marcelo, for unknown reasons, had shifted centrally, leaving the young Englishman total freedom out wide. The flag stayed down as Trippier volleyed a driven cross into the six-yard box, and Dele Alli was the man to get a toe on it, poking the ball past Casilla to give Spurs the lead in the 26th minute.
Whilst Madrid got on the attack afterwards, prompting a decent save from Lloris by Casemiro’s shot in the 29th minute, and a Ronaldo shot palmed wide in the 32nd, the score remained the same. Defensively, Tottenham mostly kept up their high line, inviting Madrid to send searching balls over the top, or diagonally to wide spaces, as shown here:
It was a risky tactic, given Ronaldo and Isco’s pace and dribbling abilities. However, Spurs utilised tight pressure and clearheaded movements in front of their own goal, the backline anchored by Eric Dier, dropping back to replace the injured Alderweireld. It was as if Pochettino ordered his defence, becoming a back five with the wingbacks, to stay central and compact rather than stretched wide.
The second half began with Real Madrid still searching for an equalizer. Their passing and positioning tightened up, Real continued with the long ball technique, searching with vertical and diagonal balls for Isco and Ronaldo to link up with. Often, we found Benzema and Ronaldo swapping places, with Isco dropping back to help in midfield. Real’s offensives, however, proved to be for little as Spurs went two-up in the 56th minute. Eric Dier picked the ball up and drove it forward toward the Tottenham front line, on a quick counter from a Madrid attack, with an Eriksen dummy leaving it to Alli on the edge of the box. Casemiro, sunk between the two Madrid centre-backs to try and provide some stability, only made things worse, as Alli held him off initially, then beat him with a feint that left the Brazilian on the floor. Striking hard, Alli shot bounced against Sergio Ramos’s shins and looped over a dazzled Casilla, the youngster turning to celebrate before the ball had even found the net. Madrid’s defensive vulnerability had been revealed: Dier’s searching pass travelled through an abyss of open field, whilst Alli showed determination to simply shrug off Casemiro, a player whose tenacity and solidity has been integral to Zidane’s team.
More offensives by Real again lead to nothing, but a 61st minute scramble in the Spurs box, in which a flurry of legs and boots were thrown but none found the net, would foreshadow Madrid’s only goal.
It was another counter, though, which gifted Tottenham their third goal, coming just after the hour mark. Alli’s long pass was collected by Kane, who in turn slotted a diagonal ball across to Eriksen, and the Dane finished it to give Spurs a 3-0 lead. The reigning champions were being exposed and humiliated. Their use of looping lobs for Ronaldo and Isco to run in behind on were failing, and the enormous gaps left in their defence were punishing them. Alli almost took the match ball home, but his header from a Trippier cross in the 78th minute glanced wide.
Ronaldo gave Madrid their only goal with ten minutes to spare, giving himself space in a crowded box to score from a Marcelo cross. The goal was arguably deserved, at least by the displays of Real’s front three. The was ultimately, however, a historic win for Spurs, the first ever victory against Real Madrid, and a step toward bright things.
Although Harry Kane’s name was not on the scoresheet, subbed off before the last ten minutes, the striker was instrumental in Spurs’ attacking presence, and Wednesday’s match highlighted his abilities as a creator rather than a finisher. Kane was boisterous, out-muscling Hakimi and the seasoned Ramos with determination. When not staying central, his ability to find space and hold-up play allows Alli and Eriksen to charge forward, as shown by his assist for the final goal. Below is a typical example, from the 13th minute:
Here, Kane peeled back and drifted out to the left, leaving Alli and Eriksen to run from the half-space into the box. The pass was directed to Trippier (not pictured), who was also unmarked, but unable to get a successful cross in. This manoeuvre was repeated 13 minutes later and rewarded with a goal, only with Harry Winks supplying the long ball to Trippier. Whilst Madrid would shift to stay compact and crowd, cutting off passing channels, a persistence in ball-watching gifted space for Alli and Eriksen, so notorious for their movement off the ball.
Pochettino’s Tottenham played with the bit between their teeth in attack, and looked solid in defence. Real Madrid, on the other hand, were sloppy and seemingly complacent at times; it was only in attack that they resembled being the reigning champions. The loss on Wednesday night was the culmination of a series of disappointing games for Los Blancos, and surely Zidane will be looking for reasons other than a cluster of injuries for the poor form. For Tottenham fans though, their mood was summed up the roars of ‘Ole!’ in the final stages of the match. From scraping outside the ‘top four’ only a couple of seasons ago, Spurs are now defeating European champions with confidence. And with several key players, including Kane and Alli, still only young men, there’s promise of more to come if they can keep up their determination.