As Tottenham Hotspur prepare to take on Borussia Dortmund at Wembley, the north Londoners will be looking for their first home win of the season as well as a vital good start to what is a very tough Champions League group.
With Dortmund and Real Madrid two of the other three teams in Spurs’ group, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that this is their most important European game of the season. Win it, and all logic seems to point to a path to second place behind the reigning champions. Lose it, and qualification would seem to rest on winning some of the hardest games the Champions League has to offer.
That’s why Spurs want to be there, of course. There’s no point hoping for an easy group. Not unless your side is consistently in the competition and has the pleasure of welcoming the likes of double champions Madrid or a team of the renown of Dortmund on a regular basis.
But as daunting as this test is for a Tottenham side who have started off the season with their now-trademark slow start, this could be the moment when the club’s so-called ‘Wembley hoodoo’ is dropped, along with any suggestion that Spurs don’t belong in the Champions League. If there’s ever a game Mauricio Pochettino’s side could win and turn the feel of their season around in one fell swoop, it is at home to Borussia Dortmund in a crunch Champions League game.
There might be reasons to be cheerful, too.
For one thing, a 3-0 victory over Ronald Koeman’s Everton at the weekend will have brought some form back to the side after the international break, which crucially also saw Harry Kane get off the goalscoring mark this season. After scoring for both England and for Spurs in the last few weeks, a fertile September has replaced a barren August for Kane, and could well do so for his club, too.
And then there’s the fact that this game perhaps comes at a bad time for their opponents, who will be without up to three defenders who might have legitimate claims of starting in Dortmund’s best back four.
Marc Bartra is a doubt in the centre of defence, but perhaps more importantly, both full-backs Marcel Schmelzer and Raphael Guerreiro will miss the clash at Wembley. And that gives Spurs a huge chance.
Last weekend against Everton, Kane and Dele Alli played 36 accurate passes between them all game. Despite winning 3-0, arguably the two most important players in Spurs’ team managed – collectively – fewer accurate passes than Michael Keane did by himself.
In a sense, that’s an embarrassing figure, but it’s also telling of a game in which the middle of the pitch was crowded and space was at a premium. As a result, Spurs’ most important players were their wing-backs in their 3-5-1-1 system. Wide players are often vital to Pochettino’s way of playing, but even more so when they’re up against second-choice full-backs – and especially the 18-year-old Dan-Axel Zagadou who has played a couple of times already this season and looks like he will have to again. The young left-back could well find himself up against a former teammate.
New signing Serge Aurier could tempt Pochettino into giving him a starting berth this midweek. The Ivorian is a player who is experienced at Champions League level, having played for Paris Saint-Germain whilst Zagadou was a young player there, and is the kind of attacking full-back who could well bring Spurs a threat which can expose Dortmund’s biggest weakness at the moment.
And yet, it’s legitimate to ask whether or not Aurier is the right man for Spurs.
The player’s off-the-field problems over the last few years have been well-documented, and are clearly a worry for anyone who thinks Spurs should be interested in a squad with a strong team cohesion. And that would surely also include Pochettino, whose side doesn’t tend to include players of Aurier’s seeming volatility. Perhaps a new environment will do him good, taking the player out of the Parisian environment in which he grew up, but it has been a signing to raise eyebrows.
Indeed, it’s interesting to see who PSG have in their right-back roles instead. This season, Dani Alves will surely be the first choice for the Parisians, but second choice is the Belgian international Thomas Meunier. Not as explosive as Aurier going forward, Meunier is perhaps a safer player, and probably not the kind of full-back who would enhance Spurs as much as the Ivorian will.
But Meunier is also a player who will add something more to the squad’s self-image. He’s a player with a personality, but not necessarily one with an ego. In an era where players are almost superstar brands, building that persona is pretty much building up their ego. For Meunier, a glance at his social media feeds will show that he is active and funny without being brash and egotistical.
And when you compare the sorts of characters we’re talking about here, you start to see patterns. Spurs’ capture of Aurier will perhaps allow them to cause Dortmund some very unwanted problems on Wednesday night, but they have bought a player who might not work for the overall cohesion of the group.
Meanwhile, Dortmund, despite being depleted by injuries, are a squad pulling together after offloading Ousmane Dembele for a massive fee. The Barcelona-bound youngster wanted to leave and his insistence was disrupting the squad, so the Germans let him go.
But the strangest part of such comparisons is surely the notion that since the manager’s arrival, Pochettino’s side have been one of the strongest team units in the Premier League, and have become a Champions League side on the back of that. And yet, here we are talking about a game where Spurs are the bad boys and Dortmund – and perhaps even more strangely, PSG – are the level-headed clubs who favour team-ethic over individualism.
For Spurs, this is a must-win fixture given the nature of the group, and it’s a game where they seem to have caught their opponents at the perfect time. Yet it’s also a game which seems to portray Spurs in a different light than they are usually shown in. Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen.