March 8, 2018

Out foxed by Allegri or just unlucky?

Having completed so much of the hard work on Wednesday night, Spurs were sadly unable to see out a tie which we largely dominated across two legs. Ultimately we had 23 minutes to see out, but our wily opponents out foxed us and did enough to scrape through – which you could say is somewhat typical of them.

Juventus’ tactical switch on 60 minutes arguably made all the difference. Kwadwo Asamoah came on for Blaise Matuidi, with Juventus switching to a back four and Alex Sandro suddenly having greater support on the left. Max Allegri perhaps got slightly fortuitous with the next change moments later – his hand was somewhat forced with Medhi Benatia’s injury, but rather than bringing on Daniele Rugani to replace him like-for-like as a centre-back, he brought on veteran Stephan Lichtsteiner to play as an attacking right-back, shifting 36-year old Andrea Barzagli inside. The shape change created their first goal — and arguably their second.

Juventus goal - 1

Juventus goal – 1

Lichtsteiner had been on the pitch a matter of moments when he burst forward to support a Juve attack, immediately giving Ben Davies a problem with an overload on our left.

Juventus goal - 2

Juventus goal – 2

Davies did not have any real support and Lichtsteiner was easily able to get down the line and put a cross in.

Juventus goal - 3

Juventus goal – 3

The cross came in, Davinson Sanchez spotted Sami Khedira but couldn’t challenge him in time, and he flicked the ball on intelligently.

Juventus goal - 4

Juventus goal – 4

Neither Kieran Trippier nor Christian Eriksen followed Gonzalo Higuaín and he was left with a tap-in at the back post.

Spurs had seven defenders against four attackers in the box, and so to concede in this manner was disappointing – we can be vulnerable from crosses due to similar disorganisation, and it is one area where we could tighten up. When you play with attacking full-backs, covering at the back post is not easy, but this goal was very preventable.

Pochettino didn’t react to the tactical/personnel changes when they happened, but nor did he/we sort ourselves out from the restart. With Spurs’ back four suddenly having to be very wary of Juventus’ increased wide threat and, therefore, spread across the pitch and vulnerable, Juventus mounted their next attack through the middle.

Juventus second goal - 1

Juventus second goal – 1

Ben Davies had dropped deeper due to the threat of the pace of Douglas Costa and added support from Lichtsteiner. The back line was suddenly not playing ‘as one’. Despite that, when Davinson Sanchez moved forward to press the ball, Trippier needed to cover round, tuck in, and stay with the forward.

Juventus second goal - 2

Juventus second goal – 2

With Trippier caught in two minds he failed to track Paulo Dybala. Instead, he tried to play offside, allowing Dybala to run through unchallenged: he finished the move beautifully.

On the night, Allegri outdid Pochettino in these few key moments. He largely kept things tight (though Harry Kane did make a mug of Giorgio Chiellini for his big chance, and it could have been so different had that landed the other side of the post), restricting Mousa Dembélé with the extra body in midfield, and was able to turn the screw when it mattered, switching shape and adding additional support in wide areas through Asamoah and Lichtsteiner.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Pochettino used to use Harry Winks as a player to come on and close out matches. Even without Winks on the bench, could we have brought Wanyama on when that first goal went in to steady the ship and try to try to keep the ball for a few minutes? A midfield three might well have been able to prevent that second goal.

There is nobody in world football that I would want more than Pochettino as our manager right now, and this criticism is not meant as a definitive statement of Pochettino’s failure. In fact, this Champions League campaign can absolutely be seen as a great success, as we have punched above our weight throughout. Our approach across these two games was highly impressive, and this was never an easy tie. We were playing against some elite players with decades of experience and honours to go with it, and yet we played with energy, fluidity and were easy on the eye.

Ultimately what was lacking was a bit of nous at key moments to reorganise, adjust, and to hunker down when needed. Pochettino will have learnt bundles from this match, as will our players, and hopefully it will stand us in good stead should we qualify for the Champions League again next year.


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January 14, 2018

Post-Everton Thoughts

Yesterday’s 4-0 win over Everton was one of my favourite Spurs performances of the season. Everton look a far more competent unit under Sam Allardyce and, whilst they had not won in five matches coming into this match, three of those were against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, so expectations will have been fairly low anyway.

We played with an attacking verve and defensive solidarity – at Wembley – which was a joy to see. Our attacking impetus was led by Son Heung-min, who put in a masterclass of how to play the wide-forward role.

Son’s often mentioned solely in terms of stereotypes of Korean footballers, and I’ve been guilty of doing this myself – he *is* hard-working, he *does* attack his full-back relentlessly, but he’s so much more; so technical, so intelligent. His out-to-in movement for the first goal to drag Cuco Martina inside to leave Serge Aurier free to receive Eriksen’s fabulous switch of play in space was subtle, creative brilliance.

Son's movement inside 1

Son goal – movement inside

Son's movement inside 2

Son goal – dragging Martina away

On that note, Aurier ran forward untracked by Gylfi Sigurdsson over and over, and was a hugely positive outlet.

In their BT commentary, Darren Fletcher and Glenn Hoddle repeatedly mentioned the two-footedness of Kane and Son, and it’s such an advantage to have two players willing to use both feet to dribble, pass and shoot. But let’s not forget Eriksen, who is arguably one of the most two-footed players in our team. When Eriksen moved to play mostly on the right I was concerned about him cutting in onto his left foot, but since making that move he has become more consistent, more influential, and more mature as a player. That may be coincidental, but the pocket of space suits him.

Spurs player PL shots by body part

Spurs’ Premier League shots by body part

Spurs player PL goals by body part

Spurs’ Premier League goals by body part

One player who does struggle to use two feet – backed up both by the above, and his fairly awful left-footed shot when clear in yesterday’s match – is Dele.

Dele has been in sparkling form over the past month, but he can suffer from being a little one-footed and could learn something from his attacking colleagues’ willingness to use their weaker side.

Spurs’ front four were masterfully backed up by Eric Dier and Mousa Dembélé behind them. This was probably Dembélé’s best game of the season and he looked somewhere close to his best form, wriggling away from challenges as if he were five years younger. The big difference, though, was his aggressiveness with the ball – he passed forward a decent amount (38/66 passes) but also ran forward and committed players. He set Kane away for a shot with a clever slide-rule pass, and created another shooting opportunity as well, his two key passes double his usual rate of 0.9 per 90.

And Dier arguably shone just as much without gaining the same plaudits. Dier will not run with the ball, but he certainly runs without it. Each time an attack broke down, Dier was there closing the angle, squeezing Everton, snuffing out any potential for a counter and ensuring that we won it back quickly. Dier was not just defensively sound, though. 48 of Dier’s 66 passes were forward and he got an assist with a wonderful cross for Kane’s second goal. Neither Dier not Dembélé was particularly expansive – 61/66 passes were played short by Dier, 65/66 for Dembélé – but they used the ball quickly, intelligently, and progressively.

Whilst on the subject of eye-catching play, the team move (every player touched the ball) for our final goal was a thing of beauty. We went from back-to-front quickly and efficiently with so few touches required; Dele’s flick to take Jonjoe Kenny out of the game was a particular highlight of the move. Eriksen’s finish made it look easy, but he timed it to perfection and met the ball with a sweet connection which oozed technical brilliance.

Aurier was again heavily involved in that move, getting away from Sigurdsson’s lethargic attempt at tracking back. Aurier had a mixed bag in terms of his productivity in this match, with none of his five crosses finding a Spurs man (his assist didn’t go down as a cross), but he is adding a regular outlet on the right with his dynamic forward movement. He also averages 1.2 dribbles per 90 minutes, two-thirds of which are successful. He takes his man on more regularly than Ben Davies (0.8 per 90) and Kieran Trippier (0.6) but less so than Danny Rose (3.0), though only 1.6 per 90 of Rose’s take-ons have been successful. I’m excited to see what Pochettino can do to develop Aurier over the next year as he settles into our style.

Spurs have a very tricky period coming up in a fortnight where we play Manchester United (H), Liverpool (A), Arsenal (H) and Juventus (A). This will likely be our most challenging period of the season but we’re coming into it in good nick. We may have a dilemma, though. With Toby Alderweireld’s return reportedly not too far away, Pochettino must decide whether to revert back to a back three to accommodate him, Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen, or to stick with the 4-2-3-1 which is working so well at the moment.

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