Plan B or not Plan B…

Before Mauricio Pochettino joined Tottenham Hotspur there were warnings from those who had watched him closely at Southampton that his one big failing was his inflexibility. It was so pleasing, then, to see him suspend his renowned pressing system for our match against Arsenal in September, so early in his reign. It demonstrated that, when required, he was able to change his tactics to suit the occasion. It put our minds at ease about that particular criticism.

On that day we were a compact unit that defended deep and soaked up pressure, with Younes Kaboul outstanding at the back in a system he was familiar and comfortable with. Six months later, against Burnley on Sunday, questions were rightly raised during and after the game as to why Pochettino didn’t make changes, albeit in-game changes on this occasion; to the personnel (sooner, at least), to the system, to the approach.

To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?

It may be a little uncouth to use Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in which he ponders suicide in order to create a football analogy. And, on the surface, it seems that I’ve chosen the title of this particular blog on the basis of the rhyme. Actually, though, the subsequent lines fit well too.

There have been times when we have seen flaws in some of what Pochettino has attempted, and ‘taking Arms’ might well end the troubles. In, instead, retaining the status quo, the same problems that were prevalent earlier in the season have remained fairly close to surface, even during our good periods.

An example commonly used is that our full-backs have frequently been exposed – take your pick from any number of the following reasons as to why that might be the case:
– a lack of defensive work ethic from the player ahead of them.
– a lack of cover from central midfield.
– a lack of tactical nous.
– a lack of ability.
– some or all of the above.

Likewise, we’ve seen our central midfield walked through as if it were absent when teams have managed to break through our press – the problem being that when one element of the press fails, the whole thing tends to fail. Pochettino has not yet addressed either of these issues.

Pochettino famously began his career at Newell’s Old Boys and played under Marcelo Bielsa, from whom his managerial philosophies have stemmed. The excellent Michael Cox of Zonal Marking wrote of Bielsa:

“…he’s an ideologue and a purist, arguably too extreme and inflexible to be successful at the highest level, but a wonderful inspiration.”

It sometimes feels as though Pochettino is so determined that his way is the right way of playing that he is unable to adapt to circumstance. The Burnley match was a good example (though there have been others); at 0-0 and with barely a chance created for Spurs, it was a surprise to see the same eleven emerge from the tunnel. When they arranged themselves in the same way on the pitch, eyesbrows were raised. That Paulinho lasted the full ninety was deemed by most (myself included) as utterly inconceivable (albeit he was part of a team that helped to keep its first clean sheet since we played West Brom, another game in which he started). And not bringing on Townsend or Lamela sooner meant that we were unlikely to change the flow of the match.

Burnley’s game plan was to pen us in when we had possession, forcing us to play long balls forward, which they then dealt with easily. Or they’d press the deepest-lying midfield players to the extent where our back four just passed back and forth across the line, unable to find the feet of an occupied teammate in midfield. But in Townsend we had a player waiting in the wings (if you’ll excuse the pun) who offers the ability to run in behind defenders – who we could play long balls over the top to when penned in. Or even just ask to beat his man in tight spaces, get beyond the intense Burnley press, and try to make them change their own game to accommodate him. That ignores the fact that he scored for England in midweek, and so might have carried a little more oomph than usual. Pochettino waited too long to make the change, though, and Townsend ended up touching the ball just once in his eight minute cameo.

Our Head Coach could fairly cite a lack of options within the squad as part of the reason why he has not changed things up more readily. He only has four or five players outside of his favoured first eleven that he seemingly trusts. In fact, in this interview Southampton fan Connor Armstrong suggested the same had happened at their club; Connor said that he would attribute Pochettino’s inflexibility “to the fact that beyond 14 or maybe 15 players, Saints have very little by way of options.” On Sunday, Pochettino had enough options to change shape or personnel – he could have brought on Stambouli to free up Mason to break forward more, or he could have introduced Soldado to move to a system with two strikers. But perhaps his lack of flexibility is deliberate.

Earlier in the season – during Borussia Dortmund’s ‘crisis’ – I read this piece by Raphael Honigstein. Honigstein wrote:

“Schmidt and Klopp don’t believe in having a Plan B.

They’re exposed in that sense but they’re happy with that trade-off. Anyone who’s familiar with their respective bodies of work is aware that their ideas are fundamentally sound. But that’s only part of the job. Because their tactics are highly demanding, physically and mentally, of their players, they need to make sure that the players continue to buy into it.

As soon as one or two key figures start believing that the team would be better off with a less frenetic pace, they’d be finished as coaches. The great secret of Europe’s best coaches isn’t so much that they’re smarter than their peers but that they find ways to get their players to implement their ideas.”

Buy-in from each of the squad is vital, especially in a system such as Pochettino’s (or Bielsa’s) where each individual plays such a vital role. Of course, if Pochettino can mirror anything like Klopp’s successes we would be very happy to stick by him, even if he never tinkers, never changes a thing. And a fairer test will come next season, when he’s had a summer of working with Paul Mitchell, Rob Mackenzie and co to identify targets, as well as a pre-season of working with a squad made-up (hopefully) of players that not only buy into his system, but will stick with it during difficult periods.

But until then, I can’t help but feel that it’s important that Pochettino shows a little more flexibility – particularly in-game. If we are unable to impose our style on the opposition for whatever reason (be it fatigue, confidence or tactics) then something needs to change – either the players’ attitudes, the players themselves, or the system. I would be far more happy to see us play like we did against Arsenal, or the home game against Everton – using tactics that aren’t Bielsa-inspired, but that do get the result.

Pochettino and Klopp would argue, I’d guess, that that would show weakness; it would show that they are not fully committed to the system. But if the system is failing, it’s better to amend it or find one that does work, and then to explain to the players post-match what went wrong and why.

So we suffer the Leicester, the QPR and the Burnley of outrageous fortune, or we take arms against our own sea of troubles (in the form of an auxiliary midfielder, perhaps!) and end them.

Join the conversation

  1. I think he was going for a clean sheet and nothing more. The players are knackered, not actually good enough and we've not much to play for so it's head down, see the season out and hope for an improvement next year. I am a Poch fan but I'd like to see more balance to the side (Townsend on the left, Coco on the right), more rotation in certain areas (Eriksen needs a rest, Bentaleb needs some competition, Mouss deserves more game time) and some alternative formations for the rest of the season please. If it means we miss out on Europa I'll live...
    1. Cant agree more
    2. That'd be weird though, right? An odd game plan, and not like anything he's done yet. I'd be surprised if that were the case. But I agree that the players are shattered - it's hard to believe that some people still refute the idea of burnout when some of ours are clearly treading water at the moment. Totally agree about rotation - he's clearly reluctant to use his squad players more, but that has cost him freshness and impetus IMO.
  2. Townsend is nowhere near good enough and has been played too much. More questions than answers from Poch but the squad is piss poor. We are lucky the league is so poor
    1. Good enough for what? He has shown signs of improvement this season, and it's not like he has great competition...
  3. Very well written article Windy. I am a Poch fan as well but currently he looks like a good coach but a poor manager, we can't have any excuses for not creating any clear cut chances against Burnley, some players might be tired/fatigued but we have another 10/12 squad players who should be more than good enough to take on Burnley but he refuses to use any of them for reasons unknown which is poor management. Hopefully he learns from his 1st season managing a team play 50+ games a season.
    1. Thank you. I think that's a fair comment, but like I mention I am happy to judge him on next season when hopefully he'll have a squad that he's happier with.
  4. Totally agree on the tactical inflexibility windy. Been banging on about it for ages to anyone that will listen. Rodgers strength is his flexibility at Liverpool to move between formations to exploit opponents weaknesses and utilize his strengths. When we're good, we're very good but have been found out by many teams, both bigger (utd) and smaller (palace, burnley, Chelsea). Need to mix it up next season, not a fan of 4-2-3-1 week in week out.
    1. Hi Robin! Agreed, found out a bit too easily and don't keep them guessing enough. At Southampton I was aware of him changing the formation a wee bit more than he has with us.
  5. Thought this game was crying out for Dembele as well, as frustrating as he can be with holding the ball too long at times, there is no one close on the squad as good as retaining and recycling possession under pressure.
    1. Yeah that's a fair point, he'd have been a much better fit than Paulinho (though I'm not Dembele's biggest fan).
  6. This weekend, with three days to prepare, I think Pochettino only wanted to keep a clean sheet and not lose the game: a smash and grab was his aim, and there were a number of chances. I agree that he has not been flexible, but clearly can be when he wants to be. It's not so much about being wedded to a system as wanting to impose his team on others. This was a mistake that Rodgers made against Chelsea and Crystal Palace last year that helped to lose them the title. It's trying to fly too close to the sun when the team isn't ready. However, Windy, I do think that you are extremely reluctant to criticise our younger players. I have been heartened by Mason's displays, but he hasn't been good over the last few games; the Bentaleb-Mason axis has not provided enough cover to the defence. Your defence of Walker has been baffling: on the one hand, you state that people don't fully understand the role of the modern fullback, but at the same time you laud, rightly, Rose's improvement as a defender. Kyle Walker's fall from grace is not due to a lack of understanding on our part, it is his consistently weak decision making regarding passing and position. I think that his alleged lack of flexibility may be due to his youth as a coach. He needs to be a wizard and less the apprentice. Finally, I would like to know what has happened to Fazio, because I do have worries about Dier's lack of aerial ability and Vertonghen's wilting at the sight of any physical presence: this weekend's game against a rampant Benteke may be real test. I really don't want to watch more Sherwood touchline seizures.
    1. The team didn't impose it's style and yet he did nothing to change things - that's kinda my point. Mason's form has dropped off (as has Bentaleb's) and I'm certainly not unable to accept that - it's a thing, it's happened, and it can probably be attributed to them not being used to playing full seasons. They've been poor lately and need an extra body in there with them, hence I've been calling for 4-3-3 for a few weeks. Walker's confidence is shot. There's a good player in there and he'll get back to the levels he was at. When he does, people will constantly describe him as being 'out of position' when he's high up on the right. *That's* what I refer to as a misunderstanding of the position - full-backs simply play that high now, that's what they're instructed to do. He does make bad decisions, though, and he has been very poor recently (as I say, I think he's lost all confidence since his return from injury). Fazio made a few mistakes and presumably isn't trusted now. I think Dier generally holds his own in the air, Zamora gave him a tough game though.
  7. How on earth is he a good coach He plays the same formation week in week out And it's barely worked He is arrogant and clueless The sooner he is gone the better believe me Inverted wingers does not work Their is so much wrong we have gone backwards U10 managers over Hackney marshes would have changed formation months ago Bye bye poch and good riddance
    1. If we get 5th or 6th you could argue it has work - that'd be punching our weight based on wage bills, right? The fact that he also maintained cup runs is something we should laud, really. In his first season the signs are there that he's a good coach and a good person to be a figurehead at Spurs.
      1. Should also be pointed out that despite the harder training we hear about we haven't been crippled by injuries this year for the first time in as long as i can remember
      2. They are clearly mega-fit.
  8. Call this man coach manager whatever He's a fool He will not be at Spurs by this time next season Not happy about it either We can not keep sacking mangers But I think he wants the sack Paulinho 90 minutes please
    1. I couldn't disagree more - I full expect him to be here for another two seasons at least.
  9. This formation was plan B !! so did you want to go back to plan A which you've said in the past we should change to plan B.Why did you want Townsend to play ? when was the last time he played well ? did he not get taken off after 30mins against Utd because he didn't do what Poch wanted him to do ! At the moment it doesn't matter what Poch does because it's all about the players not being good enough, it's not rocket science !!!
    1. No, far from it - if Burnley were going to pen us in, we needed a way to get out of that. Either another option in midfield for the centre-backs to find, or another target up front to aim for with balls over the top. Either way, we fell into their trap and they had it so, so easy. Do you think Burnley have better players than us? I don't.
  10. I'm sure every team has gormless supporters like Colspur, if he is actually a fan. My point about you not wishing to criticise the younger players, but something that you don't mind doing about Lamela and Chadli, is made again by your defence of Walker. He made mistakes when he was on top form, eg that pass that gifted Liverpool the game when Bale was with us. Patrick Barclay commented on him as not having had his brain catch up with his feet; he said this last season. This isn't about people not understanding the intricacies of modern fullback play, it's about him consistently choosing the wrong defensive options. He also ball watches as if he's part of an Amazonian tribe that has seen its first plane.
    1. Totally agree agree that Walker is error-prone, but he gets blamed for things that are systemic and not individual errors too. Re: Lamela and Chadli - I've been pretty patient with Lamela and want him used for the rest of the season. Chadli I just think is pretty lazy or - like Dembele - too laid-back/lethargic. His workrate is probably amongst the worst in the squad, and had he not punctuated his performances with regular goals, there's no way he'd be starting. His goals have been great, don't get me wrong, but we should expect more from his overall performances.
  11. Interesting article Windy, I must admit it is my first time on your website too. The part about Klopp and Bielsa is most relevant to me, because I have been moaning all season about his "lack of plan B" - some have argued that he has a Plan B and that is a change of personnel, I however want a change of formation as his Plan B. Too many times (Sunday Included) we have needed to make the opposition "think" more...we are too predictable to play against especially at home when "poorer teams" set up to defend, we have struggled many times to break them down. On another note, we all love a "youth" team player making the grade at the club but I think that the reason he is using so many is because they listen to him, they dont know another way, which is why the Klopp comments are interesting, Poch knows he can trust them, as opposed to potentially the "bigger names" at the club who are internationals and have been managed by other people and probably think they know best...the problem with this that the players arent good enough to get us into the Top 4...fact...I am sorry but Bentaleb and Mason are nowhere near good enough and probably wont be either...add to this Townsend and Rose, again they are not top 4 team players and never will be...and this will raise everyone's eyebrows but lets hope Harry can do the same next season and it isn't a one-season wonder, cos I have my doubts.
    1. Some great points there. I disagree on the bit about Bentaleb, Mason, Townsend and Rose. For me, Bentaleb is going to be very close to a top-level player: his ceiling is that high. The others are very decent Premier League players that the majority of teams would be happy to have. Perhaps they'll never be courted by top 4 clubs, they're serviceable players nonetheless. Every club in the league would want Bentaleb in their squad.
      1. Absolutely spot on about Bentaleb, who has the makings of a vociferous captain. I think he is very close to MP and learns a lot. As regards the others, I think that young British players tend to bloom later than others. Both Rose and Mason seem very keen to learn. I really don't think we can make any conclusions yet; Rose's improvement has been exponential. I agree about Chadli, but the same can be said about Demebele. Both have "it" in the locker, but what it is that holds them back is baffling. Dembele seems to have a phobia when it comes to making a forward pass, running directly at the defence, and most of all, shooting. In fact, he's afraid of making mistakes. Finally, there seems to be a tendency for some of our players to go down looking for fouls. At the weekend, we got nothing from the referee.
      2. The fact that Bentaleb is renowned for being a good trainer can only benefit him too - Pochettino and the other coaching staff will love that.
      3. OK we can agree to disagree on Bentaleb, albeit I hope you are right! Glorified Vinny Samways in my opinion :) You make the point about the other boys being decent premier league players and probably never be courted by top 4 teams, this is my issue...we strive to be a Top 4 club and were a Top 4 club several seasons ago. We need lots of players that are courted by Top 4 clubs like Vertonghen, Lloris, Eriksen (Dembele previously) and Kane potentially. Over the years since the early 90s very few "home-grown" players at Spurs (and other clubs) have been courted by Top 4 clubs because it is so difficult to produce them...Barmby, Carr, King, Bale/Lennon (albeit we bought them) and the other one whose name we dont mention are the only ones in 25yrs...therefore as much as we love to see the current crop playing for the club week in week out and they are serviceable they are not good enough to consistently play week in week out in the Prem and achieve that top 4 place. All boils down to poor recruitment after Bale left and not re-investing it in 6 more Eriksen's rather than a Chiriches, Lamela, Paulinho, Soldado, Chadli and Capoeue!
  12. We were overrun in midfield vs Burnley & United. We needed a bigger physical presence in their like Dembele in place of Paulinho. Paulinho has only shown glimpses of flair and does not offer enough to the team. The goal threat that he posed at the beginning of his career has seemingly dried up too. On a personal note, I am curious as to what has gone wrong with Capoue. In his first game against Arsenal (when he was injured) he looked a gem of a player. I appreciate that was some time ago, however. I'm not a fan of us playing one up front. The creative trio in behind are not creative enough. We don't have a true winger in the squad. As ridiculous as it might seem I'd like to see Soldado starting. While he's been gormless in front of goal, his touch, crossing and passing in the final third has been excellent at times; he's naturally creative for others. I think Chadli is a natural goalscorer and is wasted when directed to esssentially play on the left wing. He needs freedom to wander and get involved where he sees fit-like he did earlier in the season. It's unfair to berate Poch at the moment. He's done a good job with an average squad to be fair. The one aspect that has disappointed me is a seemingly inability to sort out our defence. Wasn't he an international centre half? This is the one area that I've expected more. I'd like to see Walker trialled as a right winger for the remainder of the season. His defence game has been poor (he fouls a lot and tends to come incredibly narrow and get caught out of position) but he still has a lot to offer going forward.
    1. Great comment! Capoue famously annoyed Sherwood with his attitude on the training pitch so I suspect that is his issue. Re: Soldado - not for me. I appreciate his touch and crossing ability, but he doesn't involve himself in the game enough for my liking. Chadli has been a major letdown at times yet has provided vital goals. He's a bit of a Dempsey but without the will to win! I share your disappointment about the defence.
      1. Good point re:Capoue! No excuse for not putting in the effort in training. That's an attitude or communication issue. I think he could be a great player,however. Re: Lamela- there has been an extraordinary sense of patience with him. Would you not like to see him playing as a left winger (being naturally left footed) with Lennon or Walker playing on the right wing? I don't really buy into this playing them on the opposite wing and cutting in tactic. It denies a team true width and service to the front man/ men. Interestingly, with two natural wingers, might Soldado have been given the service he needed and done better? SOLDADO KANE LAMELA BENTALEB ERIKSEN WALKER ROSE VERTONGHEN DIER YEDLIN LLORIS Mason and Chadli mightn't be too happy with this line-up but Mason would be fighting for a spot in that middle 2 and Chadli fighting for a spot with Soldado?
      2. My understanding is that Yedlin's nowhere near ready. I'd be very worried about that midfield two, and Walker on the wing is not for me, personally.
  13. That game was appalling. It was pretty obvious how Burnley would set up. Chadli is lazy and to play Paulinho is insane. Remember him in the wall against West Ham.! The best team we've played is the one that beat Chelsea and he's never played that again!
  14. The whole point of the article (correct me if I'm wrong, Windy) is that Poch needs to show that he can adjust based on the situation at hand and not on what the game looks to be on paper. It's true Towns hasn't played to his potential in a Spurs kit lately, but this was a game in which his skill set (which may not be what we need week to week) would've benefited the team. I don't think anyone expected Burnley to out-Spurs Spurs with the high pressing game. Certainly Poch didn't. But at that point, Dembele for Paulhino and Towns for Chadli is what we needed. We wouldn't be removing players that are in form by any means and we'd be putting out players who would've benefitted from that sort of game. What we haven't seen from Poch is that willingness to put players on the pitch who may not be the "best" option all around, but fit that game the best. After all, that's half of what having a deep squad is about (also, fitness). We need to see if this changes once Poch is done this summer and presumably has 4 or 5 more players that he has faith in, be it Pritchard and Carroll or new signings he feels will fit his liking. Great Article yet again, Windy.
    1. Agree with the comments Sean, in fairness I think he got it wrong based on paper too but that is my opinion...Dembele should have started whether it be as the 10 or perhaps deeper with Eriksen as the 10 and Townsend starting...agree with the hope that it changes when he brings his own men in but once again without banging on about it and boring everyone (as per my last comments) are Pritchard and Carroll going to propel us to Top guess is no...good "serviceable" premier league players at best but not taking us to the next level.
  15. I don't know where else to post this as I don't have a twitter account and won't be doing so. You complain that people say that you stick up just for academy players and apply a different standard to our purchased staff. The fact is that you do and it is getting frankly irritating; furthermore, it seems totally out of character. For example, you now state that Chadli doesn't offer much apart from goals, which I tend to agree with, but you also started that dolphin meme. Now, you've undertaken another trip through the retrospectoscope and think Dawson would have been better than Fazio, a player who's been with us for less than a year. It's great that you think that Stambouli may make the grade, but it should be in place of Mason as he needs some time on the sidelines to rethink his game.
    1. Hello, Academy kids have more to offer than players bought from outside for two reasons - 1. they're something to hold up to other Academy players to show what they can do. 2. They help with the homegrown quota. So there are legitimate reasons to be *slightly* biased. Re: Chadli - Alongside Dembele, he's one of the most frustrating players in the squad. He's so big and strong but barely ever uses these attributes to his advantage. Also has such a poor work ethic which could be linked to his general lack of 'will to win' - he seems (like Dembele) almost too laid back on the pitch. And yet there's no denying that his goals have been vital. The dolphin meme wasn't created by me, but is a bit of fun regardless. Re: Dawson vs Fazio. The point being made was that Dawson's vocal presence and leadership would make up for any shortfall in quality when compared with Fazio. I find that very hard to disagree with. Mason's played too many matches this season, and should have been rotated far more. Stambouli, Mason and Bentaleb in a three would make up nicely for each of the individuals' shortcomings. Why do my opinions irritate you?
      1. I didn't say that your opinions irritate me; I said the bias towards homegrown players was irritating, ie. beginning to grate. I basically think that you need to cut some slack to the likes of Fazio given that it is his first year. We certainly saw that he can be vocal vis-a-vis Bentaleb. For the record, if I found your opinions irritating I wouldn't listen to them, whereas I always listen to TFC and Rule The Roost. As regards Chadli, if he doesn't up his game in terms of work rate, esp given the reaction of the team to one of his decisions in the second half, then he may end of playing second fiddle to Mirallas.
  16. Dear Windy You tweeted Seb Stafford-Bloor's piece from the Premier League Owl, and I picked this out as a way of explaining what I meant by irritation: "One further word on Ryan Mason. The Spurs fans are loathe to criticise their academy products, but finding fanciful ways of attributing blame to other players – as for today’s goal, as for Graziano Pelle’s first last weekend – helps nobody. Mason will learn from this experience and, given that his top-flight education is still ongoing, that’s no bad thing. He’s a big boy playing big boy football; he doesn't need any excuses. He’ll learn from the error, he’ll take responsibility for it, he’ll be better for it." Best Wishes
    1. Hello Sweetsman! I thought Seb's piece was excellent - basically we should be looking at the positives with Mason in his first year of Premier League football - we've seen more promising signs from him in his first year than we did from most of the 'magnificent seven' showed in their first years. Mason's made mistakes in recent games, but will come back stronger. Have a good weekend.


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