November 23, 2016

What Was Plan A Again?

After the Arsenal match I wrote about Pochettino’s new-found flexibility being a positive. I’m back again to add caveats. Yep, fickle Tottenham fan here, changing my mind within a couple of weeks. Hands up. You got me.

In the last two matches (against West Ham and Monaco) we’ve started with a sort of narrow diamond in midfield with two forwards at the sharp end:

Average Positions vs Monaco

Average Positions vs Monaco – image from WhoScored.com

And you don’t need a tactics board to show you that a team lining up like this can take full advantage — note the width:

Monaco's Average Positions vs Tottenham

Monaco’s Average Positions vs Tottenham – image from WhoScored.com

Monaco’s doubling up on the flanks, with the excellent Bernardo Silva (number 10) and Thomas Lemar (number 27) linking with the talented and athletic full-backs, Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe caused us the sorts of problems we often caused teams last season, when Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen/Dele Alli would drift wide to create triangles and help to get our own talented, athletic full-backs into dangerous areas.

The first goal came from Monaco’s system getting the better of ours. Mendy makes a late run — so late that Harry Winks cannot get close to him, with Kieran Trippier tucked in.

Monaco First Goal (1)

Monaco First Goal (1)

Once Silva has fed Mendy he steps inside Winks (who commits himself) and, with Victor Wanyama too slow to come across (having, to be fair, just been to close down Silva), Mendy has ample time to pick out his fellow full-back, Sidibe, who has created an overload at the back post, with Rose choosing to not mark *anyone* rather than to try to get close to at least one of his men.

Monaco First Goal (2)

Monaco First Goal (2)

The second goal is so preventable too. As soon as Monaco kick off, Sidibe gets on his bike down the right, leaving Danny Rose with an instant 2v1 situation. It’s Dele Alli that’s closest to getting back and trying to cover, but I presume in this formation that it should really be either Mousa Dembele or one of the forwards (possibly Son Heung-min) covering that run. We didn’t work out all night who was taking responsibility for that unenviable task.

Monaco Second Goal (1)

Monaco Second Goal (1)

Once into a crossing position, we’ve got similar problems on the other side of the pitch. Trippier has had to tuck in to mark Falcao, and nobody has shifted round to pick up Lemar; again, I presume this is Winks’ job, but who knows (I’m not even sure that Mauricio Pochettino did — and if he did, he clearly did not get his point across, given the regularity of our failings throughout the match).

Monaco Second Goal (2)

Monaco Second Goal (2)

Pochettino should have been fully aware of this threat because he’s been playing the ‘overload’ game himself for the best part of eighteen months, so why did he not change things?

Even with Erik Lamela absent (boy did we miss his tenacity on the flanks last night), we had options. With Moussa Sissoko and the barely seen Georges-Kévin Nkoudou sat on the bench, he had players who could come on and chase the full-backs down the line — many of us had previously warmed to Nkoudou for his apparent ability to track back, and Sissoko is nothing if not a physical barrier to a marauding opponent.

Tottenham were tactically schooled, and it was the second time in a week that this odd formation had been unsuccessful — only a late substitution saves our blushes against West Ham.

It’s time to return to our tried and tested 4-2-3-1 vs Chelsea next week, or we risk getting a real pummeling at the hands of one of the most in-form teams in the league. Hopefully, despite injuries and suspension, we’ll be able to put out a team that looks something like:

Lloris
Walker Dier Wimmer Vertonghen
Wanyama Dembele
Son Eriksen Alli
Kane

The centre-back pairing concerns me — particularly given how susceptible they were to long balls over the top on Tuesday night — but the Wanyama and Dembele pivot should provide plenty of cover. We might have to adopt a deeper defensive line (low block) and play more on the counter for this one. Either way, it’s time to go back to basics, and that means Plan A.

 

For more of this kind of tactical pondering, listen to the first in a special series of extra episodes of The Fighting Cock Podcast where I will be joined by Bardi and Talking Tottenham Tactics — hopefully out on Friday.

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November 8, 2016

Pochettino’s Plan B (And C)

It will seem strange to many Spurs fans for me to suggest that this season has illustrated Mauricio Pochettino’s growth as a manager. Strange due to a number of reasons:

  • We seemingly signed Moussa Sissoko for £30m based on Pochettino’s wishes, with Pochettino having taken on a new role with a wider remit. That signing has not gone well so far (though it is very early days, of course).
  • In fact, Pochettino has taken greater control in signings generally, and we have ended up with a lot of potential, but not a great deal of new players for the ‘here and now’.
  • Whilst last season we finished as the Premier League’s second top scorers, this year we are currently joint 7th (with Watford and Everton. Watford and Everton.).
  • Draws. Lots of draws. All of the draws! We have drawn six matches already; we drew 13 last season, which is near enough one in three. This year we’ve drawn more than half of our Premier League matches.
  • The hapless performance against Bayer Leverkusen, plus disappointing run-outs in several other games.

And yet I think there are mitigating factors for most if not all of those, and that we have notably seen him take strides in something he had been widely criticised for last year: adaptability.

Last season Pochettino rolled out his 4-2-3-1 most weeks. The starting eleven could easily be predicted, and there were very few tactical switches to compensate for other teams — one notable exception being a switch to a back three at Watford to cope with the in-form front two of Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney.

This season, though, we have already seen numerous changes.

In our second game of the season (vs Crystal Palace) we started with Harry Kane playing off Vincent Janssen.

In Mousa Dembélé’s absence we reverted to a 4-1-4-1 in various fixtures, with Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli (largely) playing ahead of Victor Wanyama.

We started with Son Heung-min as a counter-attacking focal point vs Manchester City.

Average Positions vs Manchester City

Average Positions vs Manchester City – Son Heung-min leading the charge – image from WhoScored.com

And on Sunday, Pochettino made his most surprising tactical change yet — starting the match with a 3-4-1-2.

Average Positions vs Arsenal

Average Positions vs Arsenal – image from WhoScored.com

Shocking though it was, it made sense, at least in hindsight, for many different reasons.

Pochettino stated in his press conference — reported here, by the excellent Dan Kilpatrick — ‘Maybe the problem is not in front. Maybe it’s because we are not building in a very good way from the back and the ball arrives in the last third in different condition.’

With Toby Alderweireld missing, our build-up play has been stifled. This is something that Anthony Lombardi (amongst others) had pointed out previously:

Indeed, I touched on this on The Fighting Cock podcast that week too (great minds and all that).

The extra man at the back — and not least another player comfortable on the ball in Kevin Wimmer — meant that we had bodies back to cope with Arsenal’s fluidity, as well as the possibility for all three centre-backs to care for the ball, and ensure that play started properly from the back.

We must also remember that this was Harry Kane’s first game back. It made sense to have extra legs (in Son) alongside him, and whilst Kane’s 8.66km covered in his 72 minutes compared favourably with the 9.73km in 87 in his previous match (vs Sunderland), his top speed of 29.18km/h against the 31.39km/h in that Sunderland game perhaps shows that he’s not back up to speed yet (quite literally).

Christian Eriksen had a freer role, where he could focus on trying to nick the ball from the wrong-side of Arsenal’s midfield, plus look to free Kane and Son when in possession. Eriksen’s form has been a concern, so perhaps this was an attempt to give him more to aim at or play off.

Or, as I put it somewhat simplistically when responding to another Twitter must-follow, TTTactics… maybe it was just a case of allowing us to go with two up whilst having enough defenders available to stem the flow of Arsenal’s attacks.

And, of course, let’s not forget that the system is not *too* different to what we’re used to, given the propensity for Pochettino’s defensive midfielder to drop between the centre-backs, as well as how high the full-backs play.

Whilst Pochettino’s willingness to experiment with his starting formations this season has been welcome (to me anyway), he still doesn’t make in-game tactical alterations or substitutions early enough if at all. Against Bournemouth we struggled to contain their press, and might have found ourselves behind. We had no answer to their onslaught, and though the second half improved, we never really looked like winning. Pochettino’s substitution — Janssen for Son on 62 minutes — was an odd move (surely it would have been better to leave Son on to run off the target man) and, besides, some kind of switch had been necessary for half an hour at that point.

That match was, in terms of the pressing at least, similar to the West Hame game of last season (where, ironically, they played 3-4-3), though at least this time we had less of a rotated line-up out, and so didn’t totally collapse.

Against Leicester City, Pochettino waited until the 83rd minute to make his first change. Again, too little too late.

Despite this failing of his and some slack performances with an injury-hit team, our comparative results (switching the relegated teams for the promoted teams) are the same last as last year. Plus, after eleven matches last season we had 20 points, whereas this season we have 21. Hell, check this out…

And we really have been injury-hit. As lucky as we were last season, we couldn’t have been much more unlucky this — not just due to the number of injuries, but specifically who has been absent. Key players down our spine.

With Kane coming back into the fold and Dembélé and Alderweireld’s returns, we can look forward to an upturn in results (hopefully). Plus, if Pochettino can add in-game changes to his experimental starting formations, he should also be able to help turn some of these draws into wins.

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October 8, 2016

Know Your Role

Hey, remember when we comprehensively beat The Best Team In The Country™ last week? That was nice.

What staggered me about the City game was not so much the quality or even the aggression with which we played, but how every man stuck to his task impeccably. It’s been a trademark since Mauricio Pochettino’s second season, but rarely so clear.

From our set-up from City’s goal kick (check out Wanyama midway inside the City half)…

…to Son Heung-min’s pressing of Claudio Bravo, knowing full well that Dele Alli and Erik Lamela were backing him up and backing City in. In this match Dele made an incredible 90 sprints, Lamela 76, and Son 73. City’s Aleksandar Kolarov made 78, but nobody else on the pitch cleared 67 — such was our intent to put their goalkeeper and centre-backs under pressure.

But nobody covered more ground than Christian Eriksen (12.72km). Eriksen had an imperfect game, in which he won just one out of his five attempted tackles and dropped 5% lower than his average pass completion of 78.6%. What he did brilliantly, though, was cover huge areas of the midfield, supporting the full-backs in possession and picking up the pieces when City lost the ball.

Whilst Victor Wanyama was throwing his weight around, making six tackles and five fouls to disturb City’s rhythm, Eriksen was latching onto loose balls and retrieving possession. In fact, he gained possession 16 times in the match — the next highest number of ball recoveries for Spurs was Victor Wanyama’s nine.

But Eriksen does have more to do, and he has still not found his best form. He failed to complete a single pass into the box, and notably wasted two or three fantastic counter-attacking opportunities by misplacing passes — one in particular drew groans at a crucial period, and that’s the side of Eriksen’s game that hasn’t quite clicked yet.

And whilst he gained possession 16 times, he lost it 19 times. Put into context, though, that is a net loss of 3 compared to Jan Vertonghen and Erik Lamela’s 10, Dele’s 13, Moussa Sissoko’s 14, Son’s 19 and Danny Rose’s staggering 29. In fact, the only players on the pitch to gain possession more than they lost it were John Stones (2), Eric Dier (3) and Victor Wanyama (1). It was a fast-paced, high-risk game, and so it was natural that the ball would be surrendered frequently.

Of all Spurs players, only Rose had more touches than Eriksen (78 to 70) and Eriksen attempted 15 more passes than any of his teammates. He kept things moving nicely, and that is a role that cannot be understated.

Christian Eriksen's passing vs Man City

Alongside Eriksen, though, was the game’s outstanding player. As I said on this week’s Fighting Cock, Victor Wanyama was not a player who I was particularly excited about signing. It made complete sense, of course, because Eric Dier played too many matches last season, and Pochettino knows exactly what Wanyama is capable of. In fact, the only reason Eric Dier broke through at defensive midfield last season was that Pochettino failed to sign Wanyama.

On Sunday, Wanyama played the archetypal Pochettino defensive-midfield role. Dropping between the centre backs to create a three in possession, covering the full-back area when Kyle Walker and particularly Rose had pushed on, and disrupting City’s flow in the centre of the pitch with tackles and tactical fouls. After an early booking I think we all expected him to be substituted or sent off, but it seemed to add an extra focus to his game, and he put in a nearly perfect defensive midfield display.

Victor Wanyama's Dashboard vs Man City

Wanyama’s control of midfield since Mousa Dembélé was injured has led to Pochettino switching to a 4-1-4-1, and his post-match comments suggested that this is the set-up for the foreseeable future.  “The design to play is not only [for] today. We played against CSKA [Moscow] and against Middlesbrough and different games with only one midfielder holding. I think that the future and the project of the team is to play with only one.”

Dembélé’s return, therefore, will cause an interesting selection dilemma. One would imagine that Sissoko would drop out with Alli moving wide left and Lamela right, but it’s a nice problem to have.

Spurs will need to show similar focus if they want to match City this season, and the early signs are that we are an even meaner machine another season on.

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August 7, 2016

25-man Squad Update – August 2016

I was asked to provide an update on our home grown players and 25-man squad, so without further ado…

Once the transfer window closes in September, we will be required to notify the Premier League of our 25-man squad.

To summarise the rule, as I do each year, we are able to name a 25-man squad if eight of the players are ‘home grown’. We could name fewer than eight home grown players, but would need to also name fewer than 25 players in our squad — for example, if we only have seven home grown players, we can name a 24-man squad, 6/23, 5/22, etc. A home grown player is defined as follows:

… one who, irrespective of his nationality or age, has been registered with any club affiliated to the Football Association or the Welsh Football Association for a period, continuous or not, of three entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday (or the end of the season during which he turns 21).

We do not need to name players who are under 21 on our squad list; for the 2016/17 campaign, players considered ‘under 21’ will have been born on or after 1st January 1995.

Since the beginning of last season we have lost three potential ‘home grown’ players (Andros Townsend, Alex Pritchard and Grant Ward) from our squad list. We have added non-home grown players in Vincent Janssen and Victor Wanyama.

Also, since last season, Eric Dier and Nabil Bentaleb have passed the age threshold and will need to be named in the squad (assuming we keep Bentaleb), whereas last year they were simply included in our list of under-21 players.

Our ‘named’ 25-man squad should consist of the following (* = home grown player):

Hugo Lloris
Michel Vorm

Kyle Walker*
Danny Rose*
Kieran Trippier*
Ben Davies*
DeAndre Yedlin

Jan Vertonghen
Toby Alderweireld
Kevin Wimmer

Mous(s)a Dembélé
Eric Dier
Victor Wanyama
Ryan Mason*
Tom Carroll*
Nabil Bentaleb*

Christian Eriksen
Erik Lamela
Heung-min Son
Clinton Njie
Nacer Chadli

Harry Kane*
Vincent Janssen

NB: Federico Fazio is on loan at AS Roma for the season.

We are then able to select any players who were born on or after 1st January 1995 without needing to register them. This means that any of the following (plus the other first and second year academy scholars) would be available for selection. NB: I have presented them in age order.

Dominic Ball
Luke McGee
Harry Winks
Connor Ogilvie
Nathan Oduwa
Dele Alli
Filip Lesniak (on loan at Slovan Liberec)
William Miller
Joe Pritchard
Harry Voss
Anton Walkes
Luke Amos
Anthony Georgiou
Cy Goddard
Kyle Walker-Peters
Joshua Onomah
Shayon Harrison
Ryan Loft
Christian Maghoma
Charlie Owens
Joe Muscatt
Thomas Glover
Cameron Carter Vickers
Kazaiah Sterling
Marcus Edwards

As it stands, we have only 23 players that would need to be included in our squad list, eight of whom are home grown players.

Our squad is in a very healthy situation leading up to the end of the transfer window – we could make a further two signings without worrying about having to ‘make space’ for them, or either of them being home grown.

Of course, some further changes are expected. Clinton Njie, Nabil Bentaleb and Nacer Chadli are likely to leave (either on loan or permanently), with other exits possible. Mauricio Pochettino has said that he will be looking to bring more players in too. With this in mind, I will provide a further update towards the end of the transfer window.

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August 6, 2016

Benchmarking

I’m not very good at predictions. I lucked out with one about Harry Kane, but last year I said that Nabil Bentaleb would be our main man and that Mousa Dembele should be sold to Sunderland (or the highest bidder). Essentially: I know nothing.

But what I am good at, even if I say so myself, is summing up a moment; of assessing a ‘state’, of distilling my thoughts, and of encapsulating a point in time.

And so I am writing this with exactly that in mind. This is not a set of predictions for me to come back and gloat over, or — more likely, if my record tells me anything — to never mention again. This is an assessment of where we are right now. Because I think a benchmark at the start of the season is useful in order to fairly judge our achievements (or lack of) at the end.

Last season we over-achieved compared to what was expected at the start of the year, and anyone who says otherwise had unrealistic expectations. But, of course, expectations shift as seasons progress, and that’s fine. Once we got into the title race (it still feels strange to be writing that), and got into a position where we looked on course to finish above Arsenal, a large proportion of fans expected that. Rightly, because we’d become that good. But when benchmarked against pre-season expectations, we had little right to make those assumptions, regardless of the mid-season shift. Periods of bad form are just as normal as periods of good form.

So where are we? We’re good. We’re really good! We’re an excellent team now, and there’s no reason to think that we won’t be better in the coming season, having added Victor Wanyama and Vincent Janssen to the squad, and having a bunch of youngsters that have grown and developed along the way.

But here’s the rub. Most of the top half of the Premier League under-performed last time out. New managers, new players, millions spent — surely they’ll deliver, or some of them at least. Manchester United should be good, though there’s something that makes me doubt them; Jose Mourino lost his swagger at Chelsea, became desperate and made mistakes. Liverpool will take another stride under Jurgen Klopp, but their squad still has weaknesses. I can’t help but feel that Manchester City and Chelsea will be back to their old selves, given the riches and talent available to them. I like Antonio Conte, and Pep Guardiola is supernatural. It feels unfair to leave out Leicester City, but I just don’t think they’ll be anything like last season’s Leicester City. And Arsenal? So much depends on their transfer window activity.

But we’re established. It wasn’t just Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Kevin Wimmer having their break-out Premier League seasons last year; you could argue that Mousa Dembele and Erik Lamela did too. Josh Onomah and Harry Winks have now had a full year of training with the first team.  Cameron Carter-Vickers, Marcus Edwards and Kyle Walker-Peters are poised and just about ready to break through. Another year older, another year more experienced, another year more accustomed to Mauricio Pochettino’s style.

A case for any position from 3rd to 6th can be made, and the justifications can all be made to seem plausible. Anything above or below those positions would be a surprise, but then achieving 3rd last season was a surprise too — we were ahead of the programme. Ultimately what I am saying is that I will not be calling for Pochettino’s head should we finish 6th, and nor will I be getting over-excited if we finish 3rd again.

Fans expect year-on-year improvement, but with the money sloshing around, plus the number of under-achievers last year, that may not be viable. In a way, we’ll need to benchmark our achievements against ourselves, rather than against others. And, indeed, one of my two main hopes for the season is that performances don’t regress from last season (the other being that we do not embarrass ourselves in the Champions League…). It sounds as though I’m making excuses for us: I’m not. Well, maybe a little. We’re as good as or better than most of the top 6, despite having a far lower wage bill, but many of those teams have scores to settle, and will be extra-motivated to settle them. We will be in fierce competition for the top four, whilst trying to compete in the Champions League for the first time in five years — it will be tougher, and we will need to be patient.

We need to show that last season was not a freak, and that we are as good as we were for much of the campaign. With a little individual and team progression we can finish in the top four again. And there are progressions to be made in other areas too: particularly with our youngsters.

We have, arguably, our best ever crop of youngsters coming through. Josh Onomah and Harry Winks are now seen as established squad members, but we have barely seen the tip of the iceberg where those two are concerned. Carter-Vickers, Walker-Peters and Edwards will push for minutes (and, judging on pre-season, so might Shayon Harrison, Will Miller, Luke Amos and Anton Walkes!). Not only is the team moving in the right direction, the squad is too. We have an excellent starting XI, have improved our back-ups, and now have genuinely viable youngsters amongst them. With another month of potential transfer activity, and Pochettino hinting at more signings, this situation should only get better.

Being under the radar and having the pressure off us a little can only be helpful; not only is it the way that I prefer us to operate, but I think Pochettino enjoys it too. The only times he seemed flustered last season were when the pressure was on. With expectation levels low, we can go about our business in a workmanlike fashion, until it becomes impossible to ignore us.

It’s far easier to enjoy a football season without the added pressure, and I think that’s one of the things that made last season so great. We weren’t in the title race until late on, and so there was no need to feel anxious or stressed — instead, we were able to enjoy each match for what it was, with some wonderful football to watch along the way.

So, without further caveats, here are my predictions/benchmarks to look back on in May — leave yours in the comments!

Premier League: 4th
Champions League: Progression from the group stage as runners-up, but eliminated in the first knock-out stage.
FA Cup: Quarter-finals
League Cup: Winners
Player of the Year: Toby Alderweireld (with a 15-goal and 15-assist Erik Lamela a close second)
Young Player of the Year: Dele Alli (I can’t believe he’s this good at 20)

COYS!

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