In the eyes of some the Champions League is a corporate juggernaut of greed and excess, but the competition still holds a romantic allure. The mixture of the pre match music, floodlit games and two-legged knockout football is an intoxicating one and, as the European Championship showed, there is a sound argument that it is the highest level of professional football, surpassing even the international game. One criticism of the tournament is that it can be a little repetitive, with the same teams facing each other regularly (how many more times are Arsenal going to be drawn with Olympiakos or Manchester City with Bayern Munich?). However, with Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur automatically qualified for this season’s group stage, there is the promise of some more variety.
How both clubs fare in the competition will be fascinating, particularly Leicester. There are to competing schools of thought as to how they’ll get on. The more optimistic view holds that their counter-attacking style is ideally suited to European football. The Foxes are capable of absorbing pressure, before jabbing their opponents with sharp counter-punches. They are also used to playing without the ball against technically superior opponents; they averaged 46% possession in the Premier League last season with only West Brom and Sunderland seeing less of the ball. This style of play has been used to great effect in the Champions League in the past, and can be very effective in the knockout rounds when the emphasis is on grinding out a result. Chelsea in 2012 and more recently, Atletico Madrid, are two sides Leicester could seek to model themselves on.
The more pessimistic view argues that playing without the ball for three games a week will sap the energy from Leicester’s legs. Claudio Ranieri and his staff will be well aware of this and a major part of this summer’s recruitment strategy is to ensure they have the squad depth to rotate. Leicester relied on a fairly small core of players, as most title winning teams do in fact, and with a full week to prepare there was no need to rest key players. In fact, Leicester used fewer players than any other team in the Premier League. Ranieri may consider altering their style a touch; a move towards a more possession based game would be less taxing on the legs. With opposition teams likely to show the champions full respect, this change may be forced upon them as teams refuse to open themselves up against Leicester.
Similarly, Mauricio Pochettino will have to manage his players’ workload to enable Spurs to play the high energy, pressing game for which they are renowned. Pochetinno does this very well, often changing his full backs from game to game. With Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela tucking in from a wide starting position, there is a great onus on the fullbacks to defend in one on one situations and provide an offensive outlet. The added games will complicate matter further, though Spurs are used to playing a Thursday-Sunday schedule when in the Europa League.
The collective strength of Spurs’ high press is their greatest asset, forcing opponents into errors in their own defensive third. This tactic works very well against most teams, but it will be interesting to see if Pochettino sticks with it should Spurs draw Barcelona, Bayern Munich or the like. A technically average team regularly gives away possession when pressed, but sides of that stature have the composure and telepathy to play through the first wave of pressure. Once that first line of defence is breached, Spurs are fairly open due to the starting position of their full backs.
Pochettino has demonstrated some tactical flexibility in the past, however. In his first North London derby at the Emirates in September 2014, Spurs sat extremely deep and defended with numbers behind the ball. Pochettino hadn’t quite had time to drill his new charges, nor was the makeup of the team quite what he wanted so he took a pragmatic approach, Spurs got a creditable 1-1 draw, and they might need more performances of this ilk should they draw one of the big boys.
The Champions League has been in need of shake up for a little while, and how Leicester and Spurs fare promises to be one of the season’s most intriguing sub-plots.
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