Dnipro vs. Tottenham Hotspur: 6 Things We Learned
An 81st minute Yevhen Konoplyanka penalty gave FC Dnipro a 1-0 first leg win over Tottenham Hotspur in their Europa League round of 32 meeting on Thursday.
The spot-kick was awarded after Jan Vertonghen had failed to stop the run of Matheus, with the striker appearing to be pulled back by the Belgian defender.
It was not the first time Tottenham had struggled to deal with the penetrative running of the quick and purposeful Dnipro attack. The Ukrainian outfit might have scored before then, if not for an excellent display from Brad Friedel deputising in goal.
For all the danger posed by Juande Ramos' side, Spurs could have been in front prior to Konoplyanka's goal.
Early in the second half, Roberto Soldado somehow missed an open goal after Paulinho had picked him out at the back post. Just under ten minutes later, Christian Eriksen had a goal disallowed after being judged narrowly offside.
Nacer Chadli was unable to convert an equaliser late on after finding himself in a similar position to Soldado following Harry Kane's flick across the box from an Eriksen corner.
Spurs will still fancy their chances of overturning Dnipro back at White Hart Lane next week, but will need to be at their best against a team who will surely be brimming with confidence.
For now, read on for a few things learned from the first leg.
Soldado's Penalty Box Yips Are Undermining His All-Round Efforts
Straight after Roberto Soldado missed his open goal opportunity, he thought about kicking the post in frustration but decided against it. That was just as well. With his misfortune right now, he probably would have broken his foot.
Without a goal in 2014, it is difficult to pinpoint just where the Spaniard is going wrong when it comes to his finishing.
Tottenham are creating better chances than late last year, as evident by Kyle Naughton and Paulinho's smart, strong work down the right flank prior to the aforementioned howler.
Soldado's positioning has largely been good too. But a combination of bad luck and less than typical focus is undermining him in front of goal. His failure to sufficiently adjust led to Paulinho's ball bouncing off his shin, an error he clearly knew he was better than.
What made it all the more galling was that Soldado had otherwise played rather well.
He and Paulinho got their intentions mixed early on when the striker tried to lay it off, but later in the first half the latter played a tremendous through ball that led to the latter being failed on the edge of the area.
In the second half Soldado combined nicely with several of his teammates, especially so on one occasion with Christian Eriksen. The Dane won the ball in his own half and fed Soldado on the touchline, before collecting a sublime back heel. Both raced up the pitch and Eriksen picked out his teammate again, only for his well-hit volley to be blocked.
Soldado desperately needs a goal to regain his confidence. Such is the vicious circle he is stuck in right now—those penalty box yips may not be overcome easily.
With Emmanuel Adebayor ahead of him in the attacking pecking order, he may not have many chances to try and correct this.
Evergreen Friedel Highlights His Continued Importance for Spurs
Last week, I talked up the importance of Hugo Lloris if Tottenham are to finish in the top four this season.
On Thursday, his backup Brad Friedel reminded the North London club how fortunate they are to have such a capable deputy.
In his first appearance since the Europa League win over Anzhi Makhachkala in mid-December, Friedel's five saves—as tallied by Spurs' official website—ensured his team still have a chance of progressing into the next round.
The experienced shot-stopper saved Spurs late on after woeful defending allowed a free-kick to travel further than it should have. This followed sound work in the first half in which he denied Matheus after the Brazilian had raced clear on goal (and really should have done better).
There was further reminder that Lloris is not the only keeper who's good coming off his line, when the American raced out to deny a Dnipro attack prior to that.
Friedel's qualities as a goalkeeper have long been known. Yet, with first-team opportunities increasingly few and far between, it would not have been surprising to see the 42-year-old switch off.
Even with his playing days winding down, it is clear Friedel is still as professional as they come. He is going to be a hard act to follow at Spurs.
Sherwood Must Be Careful of How He Handles Defensive Alterations
Tim Sherwood's flexibility when it comes to tactics and personnel has helped reinvigorate Tottenham particularly going forward.
He must tread carefully in how he applies this to his defence, however.
Spurs were pulled apart expertly—and at times at will—by Dnipro's pacy and intelligent attack. It is a safe bet that even an established back four would have been troubled by Yevhen Konoplyanka's mazy dribbling or Roman Zozulya's desire to get beyond, and in and amongst them.
The return of Michael Dawson and Danny Rose, with Kyle Naughton also switched to right-back, did not help Spurs' handling of these and others threats. Though solid and commanding at times, too often they were out of shape, and as the minutes ticked away they grew especially disorganized.
Dawson was caught playing Dnipro onside in a late second-half chance. Much earlier, Rose and Jan Vertonghen's lack of communication left mammoth gaps between them. This was the latter's poorest game since returning from injury. Save for some nice interceptions and runs forward, he was at his un-proactive worst.
These players train together everyday and know each other well. But more than any other position, it is crucial in defence that rhythms and understandings of each other's habits are established.
Former manager Andre Villas-Boas' constant tinkering of his back-line last season was very problematic in this regard. The Portuguese realised that this season, and it was no coincidence that Spurs were better at the back when no unnecessary changes were made.
It is not always a negative to change things up. Younes Kaboul came in and played well in last week's defeat of Newcastle United.
But Sherwood and his coaches must keep disruptions to a bare minimum if they want their team to stop goals as well as score them.
Greater Discipline Will Aid Capoue
The best and worst of Etienne Capoue were all displayed within the first ten minutes of this match.
Four minutes in, he raced back to cover Michael Dawson after the centre-back had been pulled out of position. He was alert to the Dnipro danger and he snuffed it out.
Four minutes later, Capoue dashed forward to win the ball after Paulinho had been dispossessed. He lost his challenge and Dnipro players poured in to take advantage of the ample space left behind him.
Capoue's athleticism and desire to win tackles are a large part of what makes him such a fine defensive midfielder, when he is on his game. The inclination to move forward and impose himself in areas beyond the centre circle is admirable too, in the right circumstances.
What he must learn is the discipline of when and how to apply this.
When he was there, the 25-year-old provided solid covering for his defence. Too often though, he and his fellow midfielders were caught out of position, and the players behind them were having to adjust more frantically than had he been there.
In fairness to the Frenchman, better inter-positional relationships should come with more playing time alongside these players. The question is, how much will he get in the coming weeks?
Sherwood Has Set out His Priorities for Spurs
Tim Sherwood wanted Tottenham to win this game. That much was clear by his pained reaction when Dnipro went up one-nil.
It is safe to assume that he wants his team to progress in the Europa League.
Even considering the niggles several first-team players had heading into this game, the inexperienced substitute's bench highlighted Sherwood's inclination to ensure some of his main guys will be fresh for Norwich City on Sunday.
Christian Eriksen was the most experienced player among the subs and came on to fairly lively effect. Harry Kane is capable of making a difference, and nearly set up an equaliser late on.
But with Jordan Archer (goalkeeper) and Zeki Fryers serving as defensive players, three players who were not necessarily geared toward influencing a game were left in an imposing environment.
Joshua Onomah made his first appearance in the matchday squad. The teenager was detailed by the Spurs official Twitter page as "a 1st Year Academy midfielder, 16, played 16 times for U18s including FAYC and once for U21s this season." Kenny McEvoy and Milos Veljkovic are older and talented in their own ways, but not much more experienced than Onomah.
It is sensible planning in some respects, and Spurs probably had enough available in Ukraine to win this game had they converted chances. But if things do not work out next week back at White Hart Lane, the manager must accept that he did not give his team the best possible chance to win this tie (though a good one, nonetheless).
Ramos' Dnipro Showed Great Pride on Sad Day for Ukraine
The underlying theme of the Tottenham talk throughout this article was that Dnipro played very well and were good for their win, despite the game's closeness.
Ex-Spurs boss Juande Ramos set his team up well to deny his former club space in the final third. Only after Nacer Chadli and Andros Townsend switched wings to their more natural sides, did their side really stretch the Dnipropetrovsk club.
Their attack was even more impressive, and the likes of Matheus and Yevhen Konoplyanka will relish the stage provided them in North London next week.
On a day when violence in Ukraine has grown even worse—with CNN reporting over 100 deaths in the capital Kiev—Dnipro equipped themselves professionally and with great pride.
The minute's silence prior to the game demonstrated that the gravity of the situation goes well beyond the confines of one city. Football matters little amid such tragedy, but Dnipro's performance offered a brief respite and a hint of hope for some good still to come.
For Ramos and his players, they will feel they have enough to make Spurs work extremely hard back on their home turf.