Following an exciting goalless draw in Germany a couple of weeks ago, the reverse fixture saw Bayer Leverkusen travel to England to take on Spurs in the second of their Champions League group stage clashes. Leverkusen were unbeaten in the competition up until now, albeit with only three draws and in need of a positive result at Wembley, while Mauricio Pochettino’s team could open up a significant four-point gap over their opposition with a victory of their own here. So there was a lot riding on this one in matchday four.
Spurs, notably without Toby Alderweireld, Harry Kane and Erik Lamela due to injuries, set themselves up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 shape. Eric Dier was Jan Vertonghen’s partner at centre-back in the absence of Alderweireld, leaving Mousa Dembélé and Victor Wanyama to make up the double-pivot in midfield. Former Leverkusen man, Heung-Min Son, operated as the designated lone striker.
The away side opted for their usual set-up too. That meant a 4-4-2-based system, Javier Hernández and Admir Mehmedi being the pair to lead the line. Behind them was a talented midfield four of (from left to right) Julian Brandt, Charles Aránguiz, Julian Baumgartlinger and Kevin Kampl, the latter two having played a crucial role in a dominant second-half showing from the German side when they played out the 0-0 at the BayArena.
While in that first meeting the similarities in the teams’ styles contributed to it being quite an end-to-end game, here things were less open and a lot sloppier. That’s not necessarily meant as a slight on the overall standard of the match, just that both teams (Spurs in particular) made a lot of mistakes on the ball. For the most part it was well-organised, high intensity work out of possession that forced those errors to occur though: which was where the true quality of this game lay.
As is standard for Roger Schmidt’s team, Leverkusen’s plan from the beginning was to stifle their opponents. The nature of that was shown literally straight after the first whistle too, with Hernández charging forward from kick-off and successfully blocking Vertonghen’s attempted long pass forward – before then making Hugo Lloris miskick the ball out of play when it went back to him afterwards. Within ten seconds Leverkusen had already forced Spurs into a couple of mistakes, and they would be the first of many.
Leverkusen’s pressing structure throughout varied a little depending on the game situation and various triggers that were utilised, but typically it followed the theme of a 4-2-2-2 shape. Hernández and Mehmedi were the first line of pressure, those two pushing high and ensuring that Spurs’ centre-backs and goalkeeper didn’t have time to settle in possession. Either side of them the wide players Brandt and Kampl sat a bit deeper, so as to not leave lots of space behind them for Ben Davies and Kyle Walker to potentially run into from the full-back positions, although as soon as the ball was being played out to their flank they would then move up and quickly pressure the receiver.
To support Brandt and Kampl in those instances, the striker closest to that side of the field shifted over. One of Aránguiz and Baumgartlinger often did the same in midfield too, creating an overload and making it very difficult for Spurs to play out. That trap, of making Spurs think there was space before then quickly shutting it off, proved to be very successful – perhaps surprisingly so, given that it’s a manoeuvre which Spurs have often used themselves under Pochettino.
At times Aránguiz or Baumgartlinger moved high up the pitch as well, that being reliant on the size of the gap between their two strikers as well as where the deepest Spurs midfielder was positioned. If it looked as if Dembélé or Wanyama were an easy passing option in the centre, one of the Leverkusen pair could quickly take a few steps forward and cut-off that possibility. Seeing five or six of their players in the home side’s half wasn’t uncommon. And as many other teams have experienced, it’s very easy to misplace passes as a result of that like Spurs did.
Dembélé having to be brought off after half an hour because of an ankle knock certainly didn’t help the team in white either. He’d not exactly had a vintage start to the game, like everybody else on Pochettino’s side, but the midfielder is usually one of the most press-resistant players around. So not being able to count on his ability to overcome Leverkusen’s closing down was a big blow. Speaking of Belgians, Alderweireld’s calming presence on the ball was badly missed during the build-up phase too.
Pochettino’s response to Dembélé’s injury was to bring on Vincent Janssen in his place, leading to a slight systematic shift towards a 4-1-4-1. Janssen was now their lone striker, Son making the move to the left flank and Christian Eriksen going into a more central role alongside Dele Alli (and ahead of Wanyama) as a result. That had a positive effect following their rather dire start, with Eriksen having his first real involvement in a dangerous area just a couple of minutes later when he finally forced Bernd Leno into a save, however comfortable it was for the 24-year-old goalkeeper.
The Danish international’s effort in the 32nd minute was actually the first shot of the game for either side. Spurs had largely struggled to work anything at all, with Son’s minimal six touches until that point being indicative of just how isolated he was up top, while Leverkusen had got into some dangerous areas, both through good pressing and some neat combination play, but without quite managing to ever pull the trigger.
It became more lively after that though at least, and Leverkusen went on to have the best chance of the half just a few minutes before the interval. Unsurprisingly it appeared after they forced a turnover high up the field, Brandt robbing Walker of possession on the edge of the area; where Vertonghen managed to stop him before then getting a crucial touch on Hernández’s goal-bound effort when the ball fell back to the striker.
Spurs did actually find the back of the net even later on than that chance, only for it to be – rightfully – disallowed for a foul, and the excitement from those last few minutes of the first-half carried over into the second. While there were only four shots in the opening 45 minutes, the second-half treated us to a considerably higher 16 efforts at goal.
Regardless of more shot-based actions, things stayed rather similar on a tactical basis throughout the second-half. Seeing how Pochettino’s early substitution continued to play out was interesting, though, and it did contribute to things being less one-sided. Alli and Eriksen were now more accessible to Dier, Vertonghen and Wanyama thanks to their deeper starting positions, and this gave them some more chances to then get into the space beyond Leverkusen’s first line of pressing. These runs weren’t really utilised to their full extent, with Janssen (as Son experienced when he was upfront) not getting enough support as he should’ve, however more penetrative moments were undoubtedly a positive thing.
That put some extra pressure on Schmidt’s Leverkusen side, whose quality of pressing wasn’t quite as high after the interval – partially due to Spurs being set-up in a better way, and also because of a natural decline in intensity from them. The Germans were still playing at a consistent level on the ball though, having less of it but continuing to look threatening whenever space arose for them to combine on the quick attacks that they thrive on.
Kampl’s breakthrough goal in the 65th minute, which turned out to be the winner, was a great example of that. It originated from a long ball up the pitch, which Hernández successfully flicked into the path of Brandt. He then surged forward up the left against a backtracking Spurs defence, cutting infield and playing it to Kampl who teed Aránguiz up for a shot on the edge of the box. The Chilean’s effort was blocked, but, quite unfortunately for Spurs, it trickled through right into the path of Kampl again – and he didn’t need any invitation to tuck it home and give his side the lead.
Following Kampl’s goal Spurs instantly took the unusually quiet Eriksen off for Harry Winks. Soon afterwards they also brought on Georges-Kévin N'Koudou, the young Frenchman replacing Son on the wing, although neither of those two changes really had any notable impact. Their best chance in the remainder of the game came through Dier instead, his well-struck free-kick from range beating Leno but striking the underside of the bar instead.
Understandably the game dropped in tempo during the closing stages, Leverkusen being happy to slow things down in order to see out their lead. They were forced into a couple of changes due to injury though which also contributed to it becoming a bit broken up, Kampl (who alongside Benjamin Henrichs was a strong contender for the best performer on the pitch) and Aránguiz coming off for Kevin Volland and talented youngster Kai Havertz respectively. Shortly before those two Hakan Çalhanoğlu had also come on for Brandt, but, in a similar fashion to Pochettino’s changes, the personnel Schmidt swapped in didn’t really change anything.
And so it finished 1-0 to Leverkusen. A deserved result for sure, the German side having completely prevented a talented Spurs team from playing their usual game – and now putting themselves back into a good position to qualify again. For Spurs, meanwhile, this was their second home defeat of the group stages and probably their worst performance of the season so far. If they’re going to go through, there’s very little room left for error in their final two games.