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UCL Preview: RB Leipzig vs Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur, one of the oldest football clubs in the world, achieved their highest Champions League place finish in last season’s campaign, runners up to Liverpool. Before this, their biggest achievement was a semi-final knock out in the 1961/62 European Cup. More recently, however, a quarter final knock-out at the hands of Real Madrid in 2011 was the furthest they had ventured. History does not mean anything, however, as, Frustratingly for them, their opponent, 10 year old RB Leipzig maybe already look like the favourites. As Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle famously said, “the future is now, old man.”

Regardless of whether Tottenham can match their second place finish or even go on to win the whole competition, their entire campaign will forever have a bookmark of what happened on the 1st of October 2019. In the second Group Stage fixture, Tottenham Hotspur took an early lead against an out of form Bayern Munich. What occurred over the next 75 minutes was nothing shot of shocking. With a final score of 7:2 (crucially not to Tottenham) the team was shaken and damaged and just over a month later, Mauricio Pochettino was sacked having never seemed to fully recover. It was an inevitability though. This result wasn’t a total shock. They had failed to register a win away from home in the Premier League since January and the players were becoming indifferent, almost disenfranchised. Rumours of locker-room drama, players being grossly out of form, played out of position, it is amazing he lasted another month after the Bayern defeat. With Pochettino gone, who would possibly be brave enough to walk into that club?

Of course, the answer was José Mourinho. The Special One. At least, he was the Special One. Over the past few years, Mourinho garnered a reputation for being great and impactful before rapidly falling off, burning bridges as he went. But the Mourinho that showed up at Tottenham was a markedly different man. He had given touching interviews, making him seem almost human. Almost normal. He was still the smooth-talking, defend-his-players-to-the-death Mourinho that we all know and “love” but now he seems grounded, more mature and ready to listen. The Calmer One.

Regardless of who he is now, his CV remains the same. Two Champions League trophies. Two Europa League trophies. A litany of domestic titles. He is, objectively, one of the most successful and well respected managers in the world. Of course the answer was José Mourinho.

To put it bluntly, if there was one thing that hindered Spurs over the last season or five, it is their mentality. Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous quip “lads, it’s Tottenham” still rings true to this day. Despite chasing Leicester into the final stretch of the 2015/16 season, Spurs still managed to come third in what looked like a two-horse race. To their credit, they managed to reach the final of the Champions League last season, almost in spite of this mentality. They stayed resilient until the final seconds of both their quarter and semi-final matches. The mentality that perhaps defeated them in the final was a sentimentality. 

There was an unwritten rule that their star striker Harry Kane had to play the final. This came in spite of him missing 9 games in the lead-up, including the memorable semi-final against Ajax which showed that this Spurs team can get goals from places other than Kane. Although the Liverpool team they faced were so dominant, the final they played was over before it began. Harry Kane’s presence in the starting line up took Spurs back to a predictability that Liverpool were too good to let them get away with it. The forward line featuring Lucas Moura and Heung-Min Son provided Spurs with a dynamism that could have been more difficult for Liverpool. The main focus of deploying a false-9 is that it causes a disruption and confusion in the defence; if you are looking for an example, look no further than Liverpool. The forward line featuring Harry Kane was untested for almost two months.

This season, Harry Kane is out once more. The growing belief is that he will be out until May, potentially back in time for the Champions League final. Heung-Min Son will also be out. Despite scoring two goals against Aston Villa on the Sunday, by the Wednesday he was told by coach Mourinho that he would not be counted on for the rest of the season. An uphill battle for Mourinho but when has he ever shied away from a challenge? With newcomer Steven Bergwijn hitting the ground running and Lucas Moura looking to step up again, Spurs should not be put off and adopt a defeatist attitude or show any weakness as their opponents prey on this. They have made a habit of feeding on any sign of fragility since they burst into the top flight three seasons ago.

RB Leipzig, as hated as they are in Germany, must be applauded. From top to bottom, they attack opponents with a cunning ferocity that is matched both on the field and off. After being founded 10 years ago, RB Leipzig set their sights at the top of football in Germany and then eventually Europe. There have been a number of Red Bull/RB inspired teams in the most recent generation but none have had the sort of thunderous impact that RB Leipzig had (Rasen Ballsport). While Red Bull Salzburg have helped to bring players such as Sadio Mané, Erling Haaland, Naby Keïta and a heap of other Leipzig players past and present, they come a very clear second to their German counterpart. As do New York Red Bulls, Red Bull Brasil… the list goes on. Having worked out their goals, they acted. The same can certainly not be said of Spurs. As discussed in the Group Stage preview, they acted on investment when it was already too late.

While it is easy to highlight someone such as Timo Werner, rumoured to be going to Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Manchester United or just about any other big club in Europe, the biggest players come in midfield dynamo Marcel Sabitzer and defenders Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté. As one of Leipzig’s longest serving players (which perhaps seems somewhat oxymoronic), Sabitzer has developed into a leader on the pitch, seemingly able to run full sprint for 90 minutes. For all the rumours of Timo Werner going to Liverpool, one has to imagine that Marcel Sabitzer would fit seamlessly into that set up. As for Upamecano and Konaté, if Raphaël Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez, Clément Lenglet, Kurt Zouma, Presnel Kimpembe and any other French defenders all fell ill, Upamecano and Konaté would still be one of the best national team partnerships in the world. Both only 20 years old, they have firmly established themselves as top defenders in the Bundesliga and will be enjoying the chance to take that mantle to Euope as well.

At 32, Julian Nagelsmann is one of the youngest managers in professional football. After suffering a string of injuries before making a senior appearance, Nagelsmann retired whilst part of the U19 set up at Augsburg but managed to maintain his career path any way he could, opting for management. In 2012, aged 25, he became assistant coach at Hoffenheim. At 28 years, 3 months and 4 days old, Nagelsmann was announced as Head Coach for their 2016/17 season. It is hard to ascertain whether fans were excited or terrified by this idea. He was familiar with the club, had shadowed Markus Gisdol for three years and could potentially bring some new ideas. But he was only 28. Saying that, the Hoffenheim team he was due to take over had an average age of 23 so, all things considered, Nagelsmann was something of a senior upon his arrival.

In his first season, Hoffenheim finished 15th – safe form the relegation zone. The following season, they finished 4th. This was not an anomaly, though. The season after, despite having his team picked apart, he took them to 3rd. It was clear throughout his time at the club that Nagelsmann was capable of making a team worth more than the sum of their parts. This was not a team that was jam packed with star talent but rather a group of players brought in much like any other mid-table club. Nagelsmann was clearly special.

Young, gifted but at a club that he could not necessarily take further. 

This is the zone that Leipzig operate best in. Timo Werner, an underwhelming winger for VFB Stuttgart, was transformed into a deadly forward to play off target man Yussuf Poulsen and has reached double scoring figures every season. Emil Forsberg was seemingly too good for the Swedish league and unable to progress beyond Malmö. But in the Bundesliga, he was an integral part of the initial “winger-less” Leipzig iteration that helped them become the first team to knock Bayern off of their top-spot perch in over a year. To put it simply, Julian Nagelsmann is the RB Leipzig of coaches, although markedly less disliked. He brings dynamism, tactical flexibility and speed. A lot of speed.

If there is one question this match will answer, it is whether José Mourinho can still bring it to the biggest stage. His unfortunate second spell at Chelsea, his rapidly declined time at Manchester United – is he still the Special One or the Special Once Was. What a line!

As the managers go head to head, Mourinho faces someone who represents a breed of football that is becoming more and more prevalent across Europe; youthful, adaptable, flexible, energetic, quick and not to mention youthful. We have seen this before, haven’t we?

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