It is not often we speak of “must-win games” in October, but after a bumpy start to the new season both domestically and in the Europa League, Sunday’s match against Southampton felt like a much-needed three points.
A mostly impressive first-half performance gave way to a more pedestrian second-half, but in the end the team earned a good victory over an in-form Southampton, and showed some promising signs along the way.
Let’s dive right in to three lessons we learned from the weekend.
Transitions, not possession, is the way forward for Tottenham
Possession was the dominant force in football for several years, but now teams like Atlético Madrid, Chelsea, and Bayer Leverkusen are showing that the transition from defence to attack, the time when the opposition is most vulnerable to goal-scoring opportunities, is just as effective at controlling and winning games.
When Pochettino arrived at Tottenham, it was assumed that the same possession-based philosophy that worked at Southampton (where his team lead the league in possession last season) would be implemented at his new club. This hasn’t exactly been the case, and early in the season it is clear to see why.
As we saw for much of last season and now at the beginning of the new campaign, Tottenham struggle when the onus is put on them to dominate possession and break teams down. The problem is that a large amount of possession often leads Tottenham to complacency and sleepwalking more than it does the creation of goal-scoring opportunities, and it seems as though Pochettino has realised this and adjusted his tactics accordingly.
Sunday against Southampton saw Spurs continue in the trend of having less possession and instead looking to hurt Southampton through situational pressing and quick transitions from defending to attacking. Indeed, Tottenham’s best moments in attack came from these transitions, where, if more clinical, could have provided a much more comfortable win. What these transitions do is force Tottenham to pass and move quickly, so that they don’t fall into the trap of slow and predictable possession play where they overthink passes and become cautious.
Focusing on these transitions and having less possession is also helping Spurs when defending. An unfortunate characteristic of Tottenham’s play last season was that they never looked more likely to concede then when they were dominating possession deep in the opponent’s half, as the counter-pressing was consistently so poor that teams could easily break through the midfield and attack the centre-backs. By focusing on keeping the team organised in defence, Pochettino is providing more protection to a back-four which is still prone to mistakes, while allowing his attacking players the freedom of space to run and attack, where they are much more comfortable than when trying to break down a team playing a low block.
Pochettino will get the best out of those with something to prove
If at the beginning of the season you had said that Danny Rose and Nacer Chadli would be two of the team’s best performers seven league games into the season, “optimistic” probably would have been the kindest word used to describe you. Yet, here we are, seven league games into the season, and Rose and Chadli have been two of the most consistently strong performers on the team.
Their development early in this season, along with the strong, consistent performances from the likes of Harry Kane, Ryan Mason, Etienne Capoue and Nabil Bentaleb, show one of Pochettino’s most important characteristics as a manager: the ability to turn unpolished players with something to prove into players of quality and high work-rate. This was evident in his time at Southampton, and it is becoming clear to see at Tottenham, as well.
Capoue has been one of the best defensive midfielders in the league so far, and his performance on Sunday only solidified that title. His passing, reading of the game, and movement to get open for passes have all improved this season, and it is clear that Pochettino has made him one of his most important projects on the team.
Chadli and Rose yet again put in solid performances, and Ben Davies now seems miles away from knocking Rose out of the first-choice left-back spot, a testament to Rose’s hard work this season. Chadli seems to have shed some weight, and looks quicker (though still not very fast) and lighter on his feet than last season.
Ryan Mason put in another solid display, and probably possesses better passing ability than any other player that will play in the double-pivot. Neither Kane nor Bentaleb started, but you have to wonder how much longer it will be before Kane is given a chance as the first-choice striker, considering he seems the only striker with confidence to score at the moment.
Pochettino has not been shy talking about not caring about names or pedigrees, and the message, hopefully, is finally getting across. The last two league performances have not been works of art, but they are at the very least showing the team working as a unit and displaying some of the practices of Pochettino’s philosophy, albeit inconsistently.
Without Kyle Walker, Spurs lack any real attacking threat down the right-hand side
This isn’t a criticism of Lamela, Naughton, or Dier. The fact is, neither Naughton nor Dier offer any real threat to opposition wingers or forwards going forward, which puts Lamela in a difficult situation of not having a fullback to really play with like Chadli has with Rose on the other side. This means Lamela is usually isolated on the right-hand side, where he can be easily contained by opposition defenders as Naughton (who looks to be out long term) and Dier are not exactly known for making marauding overlapping runs.
The absence of Walker has meant that Tottenham’s formation is fairly lopsided in possession. With Dier understandably being more of a defensive right-back and therefore more conservative with his positioning, the onus is on Rose to get down the other flank and provide some semblance of width in attack. What this has done is create a consistent pattern in the double-pivot of Tottenham’s midfield, where Capoue stays central and Mason or Bentaleb shift towards the left-hand side to cover the space vacated by Rose. This naturally means that a majority of Tottenham’s attacks will go down the left-hand side, as was the case against Southampton on Sunday when the first goal was made from the left flank.
The problem is that this can make Tottenham’s attacking play predictable, and leave Lamela with little assistance on the right-hand side, which has likely contributed to why has been losing possession so often in attack – he doesn’t have anyone behind him who is really going to provide width or help drag away defenders.
This begs the question as to whether DeAndre Yedlin will be brought to the club early in January, especially if Kyle Naughton is now out for the long term. Yedlin may not have experience in any European league, but he has a knack for raising his performances when the stage is bigger. He is by no means a finished product, but he is the perfect replacement for Walker’s marauding runs up and down the right flank. It is difficult to see Pochettino accepting this imbalance for the long term.
Name - Ian Walker
Twitter - @TheNewLibero