It’s a rare thing to be able to look at a 4-1 loss and see signs of progression in a team, but that’s what we were left with as the final whistle blew in the Etihad on Saturday afternoon. The overall balance of play wasn’t as lopsided as the scoreline would suggest, though City were definitely the better team.
We could talk about the decision-making of John Moss, or how Aguero had his best game in recent memory, or how Joe Hart actually looked like an international goalkeeper, but this article is focused on what Tottenahm did/didn’t do on Saturday, and what it means going forward.
The Press is Coming Along
We all remember what it was like trying to press last season. The defence would be playing a high-line, the front four attacking players wouldn’t close down the ball, and the opposition would have all day to pick out a pass over the top or through a completely exposed defence.
Saturday, and in previous matches, we have seen a much more controlled pressing approach. Unlike his Southampton team from last season, the press Pochettino is instilling into his Tottenham side is purely situational, rather than a constant pressure from the opening whistle. You could chalk this up to several different factors: maybe the team isn’t fit enough for a constant press, maybe he doesn’t completely trust the players with the responsibility, or maybe he just realises that this new style of play suits his team better. Whatever the case, this situational pressing is showing itself to be Tottenham’s best creator in terms of goalscoring opportunities, and it is what lead to the only goal on Saturday.
Up until the 14th minute on Saturday, there hadn’t been much in the way of pressing. The front-line was doing a good job of applying pressure to City when they played out from the back, but once they broke the initial pressure, Spurs, for the most part, retreated back. What this did is establish in the minds of Fernando and Frank Lampard that when they received the ball from the defence, they would have time on the ball to turn and find a pass without the threat of someone marking them very closely.
City attempted to build up play from the back, and were forced to work the ball to Tottenham’s right sideline with Eriksen and Soldado essentially playing a 4-4-2 in the defensive phase. When Clichy realised he was trapped on the wing, he played it back to Demichelis who passed in between Eriksen and Soldado, right into Tottenham’s trap. Ryan Mason instantly closed down Fernando who, thinking Tottenham would continue in the pattern of not pressing high up the pitch, hesitated on the ball and allowed Mason the time to close him down and knock the ball forward to Soldado who played a perfectly weighted pass to Eriksen for the goal.
Above, we can see Tottenham set up in their 4-4-2 pressing trap, with the blur (Mason) closing down on Fernando to spring the counterattack.
This pressing trap is becoming a common factor for Tottenham. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s part of the growing pains when introducing a new pressing system. The encouraging thing is that this team is now pulling off these pressing traps and quick transitions with more consistency and confidence, showing progression in Pochettino’s philosophy.
Soldado did enough to earn another start
Soldado is an interesting problem. On the one hand, he links up play and works with the attacking three behind him better than Adebayor or Kane, and consistently puts his teammates in good positions to score. On the other hand, he’s not producing goals, which, as a striker, is kind of a big deal. If Soldado were bought to play as a no. 10, this wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, if he were bought as a playmaker, you would look at his displays and be very happy with the player you bought. The problem, of course, is that Tottenham already has a playmaker, what they need is a goalscorer.
Soldado created three clear goalscoring chances against City, and should have had at least two assists as Mason should have finished off his absolutely brilliant pass at the beginning of the game. His movement and one-touch passing around the box was superb, and Tottenham’s attack looked more fluid than it has been all season going forward (excluding the QPR training dummies).
It’s unfortunate many will only remember the penalty miss that could have sent the game in a different direction, as, overall, he played extremely well. It’s clear that he fits with the three behind him much more than Adebayor does (it will be interesting to see if Kane gets a chance to show what he can do given a chance to play with Chadli, Eriksen, Lamela), as his touch and ability to keep attacks moving with his passing are far superior to Adebayor’s. His performance was worthy enough of earning him another start in the league, especially against a weaker side where Spurs will have more of the ball.
Transitions go both ways
In my last post-match recap, I said that quick transitions from defence to attack were the way forward for Tottenham. Saturday showed yet again that this team is most dangerous when it is countering at speed, but also revealed one of its biggest weaknesses and something not often talked about: the transition from attack to defence.
In both cases, speed is important. Just as it is imperative for a counterattacking team to exploit the defence before they have a chance to settle, it is equally as important for the attacking team to be able to quickly organise and unsettle the opposition before they can build up an attack. Too many times on Sunday, City exploited Tottenham’s hesitance in quickly getting back on the defensive, allowing the defending champions plenty of open space in the visitor’s half.
Part of this may be on Pochettino, as the wings were constantly exposed with Rose and Dier pushing up to provide width in attack. Against City, a team who loves to attack down the wings, this was always going to be a problem. The centre-backs needed protection from City’s wing play on counterattacks, and too often their fullbacks were caught upfield, trying to provide width to a very narrow attack. The defensive midfielders and centre-backs can only cover so much space against a team with the attacking ability of City.
Above, we can see how much City attacked down the wings, especially on Rose’s side, as he was the most advanced of the two fullbacks.
If you watch any strong defensive team, you can see how hard they work as soon as they lose the ball to organise and prevent any sucker punches from the opposition. This is what separates teams in terms of their defensive quality, and it is something in which Tottenham still have a long way to go.
Fazio and Vertonghen, please.
I may be in the minority in this, I’m not sure, but I’ve been very happy with Fazio since his arrival. He reads the game very well and his passing out of the back, especially against City, is very good. Notice I said pass, not dribble thirty yards up the pitch, lose the ball, and have a gigantic gaping hole in defence as Vlad and Kaboul both seem to be so strangely fond of.
When Fazio hasn’t looked very good, it is often because his centre-back partner, either Vlad or Kaboul, have made a mistake. Both are good for at least three-to-five incomprehensible decisions during a match, putting their partner in an almost unwinnable situation in terms of covering for them. The two most intelligent defenders on this team are clearly Fazio and Vertongen, and the sooner they start playing together, the more stable this defence will be.
All in all, it was a disappointing result with a not-so-disappointing performance. Capoue had probably his worst performance of the season which affected the entire team, while Kaboul returned to his old-self (not in a good way) and Rose and Lamela both had sub-par performances compared to the rest of the season. Mason, Eriksen and Soldado all impressed however, and it looks like we may finally have a settled defensive-mid pairing that provides both strength and finesse. The biggest take away is that the high-press produced another goal, and the attack is looking more coherent and incisive than it has in some time.