For a man that once described Sam Allardyce’s approach as 19th-century football, this performance was another stark indication of how far Jose Mourinho has fallen behind the modern game, and how lucky Tottenham Hotspur are to only be 1-0 behind. This Champions League last-16 first leg against RB Leipzig really was football from 2004 against football from 2020. It just looked a lot more than 16 years in the difference.
That shows how quickly the game has evolved in that time, which was all the more fitting here because pure speed really was what so much of this Leipzig victory was about. Spurs just couldn’t keep up with the Bundesliga team.
The fair argument might be that this German franchise don’t have a proper club identity, but they certainly have a proper football identity. It is one that is light years ahead of Mourinho’s. Julian Nagelsmann would have been a far superior Spurs appointment than Mourinho. It is also why his side could weather the absence of their three best centre-halves, while forced to play full-backs there, and why any Spurs arguments about absent personnel don’t really cut it.
One side still looked so coherent, so vibrant. The other looked like they could only ever react to that – and usually a few seconds too late, to go with how many years they are out of date.
The first principle of that Leipzig idea, imbued into by celebrated director of football Ralf Rangnick, never felt more relevant than in this game. “One, add maximum possibility to the team and act, don’t react. So you need to dictate the game with and without the ball, not through individuals.”
Spurs remain totally reliant on individuals like Harry Kane. Leipzig dictated the game through collective modern movement. The contrast between the sides was that striking.
As good as Leipzig were in terms of playing the ball, it did play into Mourinho’s hands tactically. He got to do what he revels in, and set up an entirely reactive spoiling game, replete with the usual excuses and explanations.
It so often seemed like Spurs’ entire plan was just to take all the speed out of Leipzig, soaking their fluidity by just placing a mass of bodies in front of them. That really was the height of it, bar the now customary late rally against such teams.
For the Portuguese’s part, there aren’t too many of these Spurs players who you would consider vintage Mourinho defensive players, which is why he at least had to get the basic structure right. He did, to his credit, do that. But basic it certainly was.
It was also why it often felt like it was only Hugo Lloris and Giovani Lo Celso against the Leipzig XI. Lloris was the only player between Spurs and battering, keeping out so much. Lo Celso was the only player keeping Mourinho’s side moving, trying to get them up the pitch.
They were aided by the fact Leipzig were so profligate, especially the normally prolific Timo Werner. He squandered a spate of chances.
It was sometimes as if Leipzig were just that bit too quick. The energy that meant they opened Spurs in the first place didn’t translate into the poise needed to finish. There was more than one snatched effort, especially from Werner.
Mourinho’s side were more patient about their chances, but then they had to be. They were made to wait long stretches for them, and those chances were usually individualistic moments rather than anything like the intensive attacks Leipzig displayed.
There was one fine Gedson Fernandes cross, one bounced Steven Bergwijn shot, as well as some late set-pieces. There was nothing to compare to Leipzig’s intricacy, particularly the touches of Patrik Schick.
It was that which eventually did for Spurs, as the Bundesliga side were always one touch ahead. It led to Ben Davies steaming in on Konrad Leimer, and giving away a penalty that really didn’t need VAR. Werner eventually got his goal.
Leipzig should really have had a healthy lead by then. In that, it marked the third successive Spurs game against similar sides – after Liverpool and Manchester City – where the opposition missed so many chances.
It has felt like a bad beating has been coming for a while. Instead, Spurs again got lucky, which allowed them to stay in the match for another late stand that Mourinho can rationalise as some kind of even match. This was nothing of the sort. Leipzig were better in every department, right down to the scoreline.
It gives them a significant advantage going into the second leg, and should mean they go into the quarter-finals. It’s still cup football, though, and Spurs could get the kind of luck that dictates this level much more often than people like to admit. It’s just that, beyond resilience, that is what Mourinho is relying on. Luck.
It is all so painfully out of date. It is why, without a surprising turn-around, Spurs look set to be history in this season’s Champions League, and Leipzig the future.
That explained by the great difference between the teams, and the managers. It has led to that key difference in the tie.