As football enthusiasts around the world turn their attention towards the first Europa League clash between Manchester United and Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur get ready for yet another heavyweight clash.
Both these sides have been playing exciting football this season, and have won the hearts of many neutral fans. However, only last week both the clubs settled for a draw each in fixtures against their arch rivals, which leaves some room for improvement for both the sides on the domestic front. In fact, both Dortmund and Tottenham are just five points off the top of the table in their domestic leagues. Both teams would be trying to make up for this deficit with their performances on the European front.
Thomas Tuchel: The harbinger of change
The current Dortmund side is nothing like the team that rampaged across Europe under the guidance of the energetic Jurgen Klopp, in spite of having many familiar faces from that squad. Over the course of the season, Tuchel has brought his own set of ideologies into the team, and there has been a significant shift in their style of play. Die Borussien now play a possession based game, instead of the energy-sapping heavy metal football.
There has been a dynamic shift from the 4-2-3-1 to the 4-3-3 formation under Tuchel, with the trio of Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang spearheading the team. This is an extremely attacking setup, and Tuchel will be looking to get his team to dominate possession right from the first minute. With the support of the famous 25,000-strong South Stand behind them, we can expect a flurry of attacks from Dortmund, as they try and establish a lead in the first leg of the fixture.
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Mauricio Pochettino: The architect of Spurs’s destiny
Pochettino’s managerial career has impressed fans and pundits alike, as the Argentine has made his way from Espanyol to Southampton, and is now challenging for the Premier League title with Tottenham. He has not only built Spurs into a very good side, but has also paid a lot of attention to the players coming out of the club’s youth system. The likes of Ryan Mason, Tom Carroll, and Harry Kane are all examples of how effective Pochettino’s youth policy is.
Like Dortmund, Tottenham also like to play a possession based game, but Pochettino places a lot of emphasis on pressing the ball high up the pitch, something that the German side used to do once upon a time. This aspect could be magnified even more, as the first leg is being played at the Signal Iduna Park, where Dortmund are expected to hog the ball. It would be interesting to see Tottenham try and press the home side high up the pitch.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang vs Eric Dier
Aubameyang has been one of the most prolific strikers in Europe this season, giving former Dortmund and current Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski a run for his money in the race for the golden boot in Germany. The Gabon international has been prolific on the European front as well, scoring four goals from five appearances in the Europa League this season. He will be looking to make darting runs beyond the line of defence, and latch on to through balls played in by the playmakers.
Spurs on the other hand, have had the meanest defence in the Premier League so far, conceding just 24 goals in 29 matches. Key to their success this season has been a new role that Pochettino has found for Dier — not in defence, but in midfield. Even though Dier might be starting from a midfield position, it his his shifting role that has made Tottenham so stubborn at the back. Dier often slips in between the two centre-backs, to form a back three, allowing the full-backs to bomb forward. In such situations, he will have to deal with the runs of Aubameyang, while coordinating with centre-backs Toby Alderweireld and Kevin Wimmer.
Ilkay Gundogan vs Dele Alli
Gundogan has been a key component of Dortmund’s midfield setup this season, and the Germany international is likely to play an important role in the Bundesliga side’s attempt to take away an advantage over Tottenham from the first leg. The 25-year-old is one of the best midfielders in German football, and that is proven by the fact that he is being pursued by many top teams from around the world. With his impressive range of passes, Gundogan will be looking to dictate the play against Tottenham.
Facing off against Gundogan in an intense midfield battle is Dele Alli, who has been one of the the finds of the season for Pochettino and his men. Brought over from MK Dons for just £5 million, Alli has been one of the greatest midfield influences for Spurs this season. In fact he is being tipped by many hopefuls in the English media to be the next Steven Gerrard. Alli also has a great range of passes in his kitty, and does not shy away from strong challenges when he needs to make one. His battle against Gundogan in the middle of the park could well decide the tie.
Mats Hummels vs Harry Kane
This is set to be one of the most intriguing battles on the pitch — arguably the best English striker, up against the best German defender. In Hummels, Dortmund have one of the most well-rounded defenders in the league. Not only does he possess the defensive attributes of tackling, man marking and being good in the air, the Germany international is also good with the ball at his feet. In fact, he is often the one who initiates the passes for Dortmund, as he plays the ball into midfield. Hummels’s composure on the ball would be of great importance against Tottenham, who like to press high up the pitch.
The man spearheading Spurs’ pressing game is Harry Kane. Over the last two seasons, Kane has established himself as the best English striker. Of course, Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy has established himself as a worthy competitor for that crown, but Kane has age on his side. Also, the 22-year-old has proved that he is not a one-season wonder. Kane will be trying all sorts of different tricks to penetrate the Dortmund defence. He can make runs off the defender’s shoulders, or drop back and shoot from long range.
The unstoppable force meets an immovable object
While Dortmund are the best attacking side in the Bundesliga this season, Tottenham have been the best defensive team in the Premier League.
The front three (Aubameyang, Reus and Mkhitaryan) have been instrumental for Dortmund’s goalscoring sprees this season, supported by the likes of Gundogan and Kagawa from the midfield. This has helped propel Die Borussien back to the top two positions in the Bundesliga, after a horrific showing last season. Aubameyang’s goalscoring form has also been crucial to Dortmund, and the Gabon international will be looking to add to his tally of four goals in the Europa League this season.
However, he would have to do it against a team that has conceded less than a goal per game in the Premier League this season. Pochettino has implemented a bit of the Catalan philosophy from his old Espanyol days, where the holding midfielder drops in between the central defenders to form a back three, with the fullbacks moving forward into midfield. The advantage of this fluid system is that the fullbacks can drop back, when under pressure, to form a solid back five and give ample protection to goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
With Dortmund expected to hog all the possession under Tuchel’s system, it would be a classic case of attack versus defence in this Europa League Round of 16 tie. Also, with the Yellow Wall egging Dortmund on, it would be interesting to see just how much pressure the Tottenham defence can contain.