Somehow, someway, Tottenham are currently only two points off of a Champions League position after coming back form 1-0 down to claim three points against Hull.
Both teams went 4-2-3-1 with Hull, as expected, focusing on breaking up Tottenham’s attacking rhythm and looking to counter against a Spurs side that has been vulnerable to such tactics for some time.
Gaston Ramirez’s foolish red card in the 50th minute when his team was up 1-0 sentenced his team to a defeat, as Hull’s ability to counter was greatly reduced with Jedinak up top by himself. With Hull constantly being pinned into a low block for the overwhelming majority of the second-half, reason stated that it would only be a matter of time before Tottenham were able to breakthrough, which they did, thanks to Christian Eriksen.
The introduction of Chiriches had an immediate impact on Tottenham’s attack
With Kyle Walker still injured and Kyle Naughton still suspended, the duty of right-back once again fell on the shoulders of a 19 year-old centre-back. Eric Dier would only make it until the end of the first half before being substituted.
Dier is not a bad right-back, per-se, but he offers very little in terms of an outside attacking presence which is a crucial part of Pochettino’s system. You can tell that his previous experiences of getting burned on the break have made a lasting impression, as he is even more reluctant to get forward than he was before. Again, this isn’t a criticism of the quality of player that he is, it’s just that in a system that relies heavily on the fullbacks to be an important part of the team’s attacking play, he simply does not fit in well.
Vlad Chiriches, on the other hand, has absolutely no reservations about getting forward. He seems to be an attacking midfielder imprisoned in the body of a defender who desperately tries to break out of his shell at every opportunity. His runs down the right flank, and his aggressiveness in his one-vs-one matchups instantly improved and balanced Tottenham’s attack.
It is also important to note the effect Chiriches had on Lamela before he was moved to the left-flank after the introduction of Aaron Lennon. When Lamela has been paired with Dier, and even Naughton, two players who are much more suited to defensive responsibilities, he has struggled. When Chiriches came on, he was noticeably starting off attacking moves in a wider position as he knew he had attacking support from the fullback and wasn’t going to be isolated on the outside. This has also been true in the Europa League when he has started on the left with Ben Davies; he feels more comfortable in wider positions knowing he has the support of the fullback but still has the license to come inside, making him much more difficult to mark.
Eriksen’s move to a deeper midfield position won Tottenham the game
Eriksen is a player of unique attributes. He is a traditional type of playmaker in the sense that he does not possess great physical characteristics in terms of strength or speed, but he is undoubtedly Tottenham’s most skillful technical player and his influence after moving to a deeper midfield position was probably the biggest factor that contributed to the victory.
Eriksen has struggled much of this season, whether it be just behind the striker or on the wing, but his second-half performance when he slotted in next to Mason was excellent. This is because in the modern game, the more traditional number 10’s such as Eriksen have their space taken away by opposition defensive midfielders and wide-men and strikers who now also like to operate in the space the number 10 usually occupies.
As early as the mid-90’s, Louis Van Gaal said that the space the number 10 occupies is becoming too congested for him to have a real playmaking role any longer. That responsibility, he said, would fall to players further back away from the goal and the congestion, as they are the ones with the time and space to play a true playmaking role. The truth of this was seen after Aaron Lennon was substituted for Moussa Dembele, and Eriksen moved beside Mason.
Deeper in the midfield, Eriksen was finally away from the harassment of opposition fullbacks and defensive midfielders, and was allowed to breathe and be on the ball with time and space to have an influence on the game. He looked infinitely more comfortable than when he was trying to muscle his way into space between Hull’s midfield and defensive lines, and with him starting from a deeper position, it became more difficult for a 10-man Hull to pick up his movement to the outside of the penalty area.
Eriksen’s drop into a deeper midfield position also opened up more space for the likes of Lamela, Kane and Lennon to operate, and the team looked to have a much greater balance and organisation in their attacking play, which brings me to my last point…
Switching to the 4-2-1-3 could bring out the best in Tottenham’s attack
I know, I know. Suggesting switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-1-3 sounds like perhaps the most trivial thing ever written, but allow me to explain:
The difference between the two formations is small. It is essentially just an adjustment of positioning between the attacking midfielder and the wide players, but these changes play directly to Tottenham’s strengths.
The attacking midfielder in the 4-2-1-3 plays deeper in the midfield, and is more connected to his two defensive-midfielders. This creates a more solid midfield foundation and allows the playmaker (Eriksen) to play away from the opposition’s defensive midfielders and have more time and space on the ball with the knowledge of his midfield partners close behind him.
The midfield three also reduces the reliance on the wide-men to drop deep and assist with buildup play. Instead, they play slightly more advanced and are able to receive the ball in better attacking positions with their face towards goal without being in the cluster of a congested midfield.
The setup of the 4-2-1-3 naturally helps Tottenham’s two biggest issues in attacking play: congestion in the number 10 space and the neutralisation of Eriksen by opposition defensive-midfielders. By moving Eriksen deeper, and the wide-men slightly more forward, the 4-2-1-3 provides natural spacing and balance to a team that often lacks in both.
It wasn’t breathtaking, but it was an improvement. Playing against 10 men obviously significantly improved Tottenham’s chances of winning, but even before the red card there were some signs that a breakthrough would come eventually. In a season where only one team has performed on a consistently high level, and all others look vulnerable, any and every point could prove decisive when the final whistle blows at the end of the season.