At White Hart Lane
“There’s only one side playing football,” said former Liverpool defender, Jim Beglin, in the ITV4 commentary in the Europa League match between Tottenham and Lyon in in France. That team was Tottenham while Lyon were content, as they had been in the match at White Hart Lane, to spoil and deny Spurs in their efforts to hold whatever advantage they had. Over the two games, Lyon sacrificed their attacking threat in an attempt to contain and stop Tottenham.
In the 1st leg match at Tottenham, Lyon were content in the first half to play for a draw. They looked threatening when they counterattacked at pace and they troubled the Tottenham defence. They failed frequently to take advantage of those opportunities, however, by over-hitting a pass or straying off-side. When they lost possession they immediately fell back into a very organised defensive formation and were satisfied with their first half performance which had included cynical professional fouls to halt Aaron Lennon and Kyle Walker. Gareth Bale’s goal from a free-kick on the stroke of half-time disrupted their strategy.
Immediately after the interval, Lyon displayed a greater appetite to get forward, knowing they needed a goal. Their forward play was rewarded within ten minutes as Umtiti scored an outstanding equaliser. While they were still dangerous on the attack, Lyon quickly dropped back into defensive mode, trying to deny Spurs in whatever way they could. Time wasting was taken to an extreme with every player going down theatrically when tackled and then requiring lengthy attention. Their spoiling tactics appeared to have worked until Bale’s second free-kick strike late in added time.
Lyon showed early initiative in the 2nd leg as they looked for a goal to bring the aggregate scores level. After 17 minutes their captain scored and with an away goal from the first game, Lyon help the advantage knowing that Tottenham needed a goal to have any chance of qualifying for the next round. Lyon’s forward play was reduced to sporadic attacks on the break as they concentrated on a defensive display to prevent Spurs scoring. In the first half Tottenham had plenty of possession but could make little headway against the well-organised defence with five across midfield to protect the back four. The two lines sat deep and there was little room for Spurs to play between them making it very difficult to break through. Tottenham’s first real threat came close to the interval with a shot from Lewis Holtby which the goalkeeper pushed on to the post.
Lyon’s plan was working and so they sat back and conceded possession and territory regularly in the second period, getting back into position ready to defend. Even from free-kicks they failed to send players forward or try to put the Spurs defence under pressure, content to play the ball into space and then prepare for the next attack. Spurs had a couple of scares defensively as they pushed players forward in an effort to get a goal, leaving space for Lyon’s counter-attacks. These were restricted, however, to only a couple and in the last thirty minutes the home side rarely threatened Brad Friedel. In that time Spurs came more into the game but for all their possession they rarely looked like scoring until Mousa Dembele struck at the end of normal time. Lyon were devastated, their defensive plan had worked so effectively but with only three minutes of added time to play there was no way back for Lyon and Tottenham progressed to the next round.
What occurred to me in contemplating this match was that Tottenham would have to batten down the hatches, man the ramparts and rise to the occasion. Well, you know what I mean. Lyon’s approach in the first leg was cynical and history shows they were likely to get away with more in their home leg. Our players needed to remain level headed and not be conned into reacting to provocation. One or two of them such as Assou-Ekotto and William Gallas and the youngsters do allow the red mist to rise to the surface sometimes.
Tottenham Stand Up to the TestTottenham rose to the occasion but it wasn’t a backs to the wall display as might have been expected because Lyon’s cautious approach allowed Spurs to play their passing football. The Lyon style of going down at the slightest irked Kyle Walker early on but having been booked after less than thirty minutes, he showed restraint for the remainder for the game. The referee, again, allowed them away with it but Gallas made his views clear when Spurs’ claims for a penalty for a foul on Lennon were turned down. All the Tottenham players retained their composure and especially in the second half, showed total commitment and deserved the equalising goal.
The match contained four outstanding goals and Demnele’s strike was worthy of being the goal which decided such a competitive tie between two well matched teams.
Ironically, if Lyon had not been so set on defending, they could well be the team looking forward to two matches against Inter Milan. Lyon’s attacking threat troubled the Tottenham defence and they should have given Spurs a more rigorous examination. In the end it was a victory for football as Tottenham’s footballing philosophy triumphed over Lyon’s spoiling, defensive, negative tactics.