The Champions League rolls on and so do our previews.
Tottenham Hotspur vs RB Leipzig
Spurs are running desperately low on shots. It’s not just Harry Kane, now Son Heung-min is also sidelined. Although José Mourinho might have some tricks up his sleeve, to us mortals his sleeve seems to hold only Lucas Moura, Dele Alli, Erik Lamela and Steven Bergwijn as natural front four players, though Ryan Sessegnon, Giovani Lo Celso or Tanguy Ndombele could theoretically be pushed up the field. Regardless, none of those players are particularly prolific shooters. Lamela and Moura are both at the top of the list, though Lamela’s 2.21 shots per 90 minutes are from extremely limited minutes while Moura’s are simply not an impressive return for a player who has spent significant minutes functioning as a striker. Bergwijn hasn’t yet played 600 minutes for Spurs, so he doesn’t make the chart, but he was at 2.19 per 90 in the easier Eredivisie with PSV Eindhovern. It’s possible that Spurs will be ably to get by simply by spreading all the shots around, but that’s a pretty big ask against a very good RB Leipzig team. Of course, Mourinho has experience scuttling more talented teams in the Champions League. Perhaps the most relevant place to look for inspiration is the first year of his second stint with Chelsea. He reached the semifinals of the Champions League despite the fact that the only two true strikers at his disposal were a mostly washed out Samuel Eto’o and a mostly injured Fernando Torres. So, Spurs fans can take heart that stranger things have, in fact, happened. If Mourinho’s history is any guide, he will attempt to muddy up the game and nip a goal on the counter, first and foremost denying control of the midfield to Leipzig. If that fails, he'll hope his side will be able to absorb sustained pressure. For Leipzig this likely means they’ll have to find alternate avenues to get into dangerous positions. Luckily for them, they have Timo Werner. It’s not just his obvious goal-scoring ability, but the fact that he’s equally superb at providing an outlet on the wings to receive the ball and turn and run in space. Here are all the successful passes played from Leipzig’s own half that Werner's received in the opposition half. Don’t be surprised if Spurs work hard to take away Leipzig’s ability to combine in midfield, forcing the German side to turn toward springing Werner over the top and in behind Spurs right back Serge Aurier. It’s nice when you can rely on a player who is both an expert goal scorer and an elite ball mover on the wing.
Atalanta v Valencia
Valencia has a longer Champions League pedigree than Atalanta; they’ve been in the competition five times in the last decade (though they've only made it to the knockout rounds twice, and never past the first round). Meanwhile, this is Atalanta’s first trip down this long and treacherous road. That, however, fundamentally masks the nature of this matchup. This Atalanta team is simply much better than this Valencia side. In Serie A this season Atalanta sit comfortably in fourth. They might be significantly behind the top three, 12 points off first place Juventus and 9 behind third-place Inter Milan, but the side’s stats suggest they are good enough that in other years they’d be in contention for the Scudetto. In fact, Atalanta has by far the best non-penalty xG difference in Serie A. Most impressively, Atalanta have added a strong defense to the attacking juggernaut that carried them to the upper reaches of the table over the past few seasons. Only Juventus have a stingier record when it comes to xG conceded. This isn’t the profile of a team that is just be happy to be here. Rather, Atalanta look prepared to dispatch a much weaker opponent as they gear up for stiffer challenges deeper in the tournament. In part, that’s because Valencia are simply not a good side at the moment. They sit seventh in La Liga, tied with Villarreal on 38 points, but the stats suggest that position strongly flatters them. They have one of the worst non-penalty xG differences in the league. The side’s attack is average, but on defense they are simply absolutely terrible, the second-worst team in La Liga in xG conceded. This is, uh, not a sustainable defensive approach. Valencia take dropping deep and defending their own penalty area to extremes. They manage to not give up many truly dangerous shots, holding opponents to below 0.10 xG per shot on average. However, they simply give up one too many attempts — even if those attempts are mediocre — conceding almost 15 shots a game on average, the second-most in La Liga. Giving an elite attacking side like Atalanta carte blanche to attack the penalty area is not likely going to end well for this Valencia team. Sports are awesome and unsure and no result is guaranteed, but what is overwhelmingly likely is that Atalanta are going to take the game to Valencia, and Valencia will have to hold on for dear life and hope for an unlikely chance to steal some points against the run of play.