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.
And on Sunday, Pochettino made his most surprising tactical change yet — starting the match with a 3-4-1-2.
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:
We actually miss Toby's distribution more than his defending
— Bardi (@BardiTFC) October 22, 2016
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.
@TTTactics 2v2 at the sharp end and enough bodies back to cope with their fluidity?
— Chris Miller (@WindyCOYS) November 6, 2016
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…
— Telegraph Football (@TeleFootball) November 6, 2016
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.
#thfc Following a discussion on the pod, I checked & Lloris, Toby, Dembele & Kane have started 1 league game together this season (S'land).
— The Tottenham Way (@TheTottenhamWay) November 8, 2016
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.