Newcastle United (H) 26/10/14 - Post-Match Tactical Analysis

As the final seconds ticked towards the end of Tottenham’s 5-1 win over Asteras Tripolis, Mauricio Pochettino looked miserable. Now we know why.

Tottenham’s 2-1 loss to Newcastle, their first away victory since March, had all the markers of what is now becoming a typical Tottenham match: individual errors leading to goals, a lack of sharpness and intensity in attack, Kaboul charging 15 yards out of position multiple times to make a stupid challenge and Adebayor breaking up attacks with his poor first touch.

I could go on, but you get the point. Pochettino looked miserable on Thursday because he could see how far this team has to go before it resembles anything close to how he envisions his teams playing. He is not exempt from blame, of course, but it is a long and difficult challenge to completely change the mindset of an entire team. As seen on Sunday, he still has his work cut out for him, both tactically and psychologically. 

Lamela needs to adjust his starting position 

Modern football is compact, but even by modern standards Tottenham is exceptionally narrow when attacking. Many will point to Pochettino’s penchant for inverted wingers and say to simply switch them, but it goes beyond that. 

In the image above, you can see Eriksen’s, Chadli’s, and Lamela’s average positions throughout the game on Sunday. If you look at the previous eight league matches, you will see something very similar: they’re all occupying the space the number #10 plays in. Chadli’s position isn’t an issue, as Pochettino is using him in a similar role to Jay Rodriguez last season, when he essentially acted as a second-striker drifting in off of the left to support Rickie Lambert. The main issue is Lamela. 

As I wrote in my post-match review after the Southampton game, Lamela is going to struggle on the right until Kyle Walker returns. While Dier has been serviceable at right-back, he’s not going to link up with Lamela and drag defenders away from him with overlapping runs, meaning often times Lamela is confronted with two defenders when he receives the ball. 

However, Lamela is actively contributing to his own struggles with his positioning. In the build-up play, he should start off hugging the touchline and then start to drift inwards when he receives the ball. As we can see below, his starting position is usually in the midfield. 

By doing this, he is essentially defending himself by not giving himself any space to work. If you watch an intelligent inverted winger such as Arjen Robben, you will see that he constantly starts off hugging the touchline, or at least the space between the penalty box and touchline, and then works his way in. Inverted wingers do this for two reasons: it provides them with a large amount of space to receive the ball and run at defenders and if the fullback isn’t disciplined, he can drift out towards the winger and therefore stretch the defence to create gaps for his teammates

Currently, Lamela is doing neither. He is picking the ball up in congested areas and leaving the right flank to Dier, who isn’t capable of fulfilling the task. When Kyle Walker returns, Lamela may be able to get away with staying so narrow, but even then, it would be more beneficial for him to adjust his starting position further wide.  

Tottenham needs to make better use of half-spaces 

One of the most frustrating parts of the game on Sunday was the number of times Tottenham players were in a position to make dangerous runs that would have put Newcastle’s defence in danger, and simply didn’t make them. 

This was especially true with Tottenham’s almost complete non-use of the areas of the 18 yard-box known as the half-spaces, which are illustrated in the image below. 

Whether it be 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, or any other formation variant, the most effective attacking teams in the world know how to utilise and exploit these spaces. There were several times on Sunday that a Tottenham player would have a wide open run into this space, and simply stand still and call for the ball instead of making a run that could have created a goal. This issue is directly related to the spacing issue I spoke about above, as to create the openings for these spaces, the players have to maintain width to spread the defence. This is a player intelligence issue as much as a coaching one, and if Spurs hope to increase the dismal scoring record so far this season, it’s something that must be improved. 

Adebayor’s role needs to change, or he needs to sit

The more you watch Adebayor, the more you realise he doesn’t fit in this system. He is constantly dropping deep into the midfield or drifting out wide, where he is completely ineffective because a) his first touch is almost always poor, which means it ruins the rhythm of the attack, and b) his passing isn’t good enough to really threaten the defence. 

After Roberto Soldado did such a good job linking up with the attacking-three behind him versus Manchester City, it was natural to assume he would be given another start in the league. After all, Tottenham registered 19 shots that day, seven of which were on target, and the attack looked very fluid and sharp. Inexplicably, Pochettino went back to Adebayor, and the attack lost the quick, crisp passing around the 18 yard-box that looked so encouraging against City. By the time Soldado did come on, the team already looked like it had accepted its fate. 

Soldado is a much more natural fit to Pochettino’s system based on rotational movement amongst the attacking players and quick one-two’s around the box that can open up a packed defence. If Pochettino is going to persist with Adebayor, he needs to be playing a more traditional striker role. 

Conclusion 

All the progression that was seen in the performance against Manchester City was undone in 45 minutes against Newcastle. Pochettino is partly to blame for the use of Adebayor and substitutions that came too late, but the players’ response to Newcastle’s challenge in the second-half was discouraging. 

Somehow, Pochettino has to turn this group of sad-eyed Labradors into Pitbulls while introducing a new tactical philosophy and competing on several fronts. At times this seems near impossible, but with a student of Marcelo Bielsa at the helm, impossible is part of the appeal.

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