Tottenham put on their most comprehensive performance of the season on Sunday against Everton, coming back from 0-1 down to win 2-1 and give the team a much-needed victory at home.
For the first time this season, Pochettino set Tottenham up in a straight 4-4-2 with Kane playing a more advanced role next to Soldado instead of playing just behind him in the 4-2-3-1. The change meant that Tottenham would be looking to play through quick transitions and getting the ball over the top of Everton’s high-line for Soldado and Kane to run onto, a plan that, combined with a much-improved work-ethic and intelligence defensively, proved the perfect method to disrupt Everton’s attack and put them on the back-foot whenever Tottenham won possession.
In a game full of positives for Pochettino, here are three important tactical points from Tottenham’s display against Everton:
Bentaleb and Mason improve Tottenham defensively
At first glance, Bentaleb and Mason seem an unlikely duo to put in the double-pivot. They are young, not particularly experienced, and don’t have the physical presence usually associated with midfielders who play in this role. Despite this, they put on the best midfield display of the season for Spurs.
Bentaleb and Mason controlled the central midfield not through pure physical strength or bullying but through intelligent positioning and a very high work-rate. The space between the lines of midfield and defence has been a major problem this season, with opposition players consistently finding space to attack Tottenham’s centre-backs who have been left exposed far too often. On Sunday, Bentaleb and Mason closed this space between the midfield and defence with a tremendous display of work-ethic and acting together as midfield partners instead of individuals.
By being narrow and moving as a unit, Bentaleb and Mason neutralized Eto’o from the number 10 position and forced Everton to try and attack down the wings, which would play to the aerial dominance of Fazio and Vertonghen, even against a player with the physical qualities of Lukaku. After Mirallas’ exceptional piece of individual skill to give Everton the lead, the visitors struggled to create goalscoring opportunities, with the positioning and mobility of Bentaleb and Mason being a major contributing factor.
Tottenham’s hidden 4-3-3
Tottenham took up a very lopsided formation in attack, with an obvious emphasis on attacking down Everton’s left-flank.
Bentaleb would move centrally and become the holding midfielder, with Mason pushing up on the right and Eriksen drifting in from the left to create a three-man midfield with Davies being responsible for the left-flank. Kane would often drift towards the right with Lennon, making a very lopsided 4-3-3 that would look to overwhelm Baines, Distin and a reluctant defender in Barkley.
Why focus an overwhelming amount of attacks down Everton’s left? As previously mentioned, Barkley is naturally not going to want to do a large amount of tracking back to defend, meaning Pochettino probably thought that by putting Lennon on the right, having Kane drift wide and Chriciches and Mason there to support, that they would be able to overwhelm that side of Everton’s defence and make it easier to stop their transitions by forcing them into a corner of the pitch.
Although there was a large amount of space for Everton to exploit on Tottenham’s left-hand side, they simply were not able to get the ball into this space as they were pinned on the opposite flank and usually had no outlet to play into this open space as Coleman was pushed back by Davies and the Everton attackers were naturally drawn toward to the opposite side of the pitch.
This focus on attacking down the right also helped Eriksen, who was able to drift into the midfield from the left and enjoy time and space on the ball as Coleman could not track him inside and the Everton midfielders were shifted towards the opposite side to try and contain Tottenham’s overload.
The midfield three of Bentaleb-Mason-Eriksen showed their technical ability in attack, using the ball intelligently and breaking open the Everton defence with a combination of side-to-side and vertical movement of the ball to consistently put Everton under pressure.
Verticalidad, or, how Tottenham improved their attack
Verticalidad, or, ‘verticality’, is one of the basic tenants of the Bielsa philosophy. It involves moving the ball into attacking positions as quickly and efficiently as possible, and always providing the man on the ball with at least three forward passing options. On Sunday, we saw Pochettino’s version of this attack.
When Tottenham won the ball, whether it be deep in their own half or deep in Everton’s, they instantly looked to break quickly and throw numbers forward at Everton’s defence before they could reset. They accomplished this through a mixture of one-touch passing combinations and long-balls over the top, constantly forcing the Everton defenders to run at their own goal and pushing players into Everton’s penalty area at pace to overwhelm the defence. At no point in the match was this better demonstrated than Tottenha’s second goal.
Above, we can see the end of the transition. Tottenham have pressed Everton deep in their own half and Kane has won the ball. Instead of the very controlled transitions we saw earlier in the season with only three or possibly four players going forward, five Tottenham players flood toward the penalty area and overwhelm the defence, with Soldado completing the move with a very nice finish. It was a typical Bielsa goal: Press, win the ball, throw more players forward into the attack than the opponent can handle, and score.
Does this game mark a turning point for Tottenham? It’s difficult to say. We won’t know whether this was a turning point or a blip likely until Saturday evening after the three-game week is completed. What Pochettino can take confidence in is that for the first time, all 11 players seemed to be buying into his philosophy. It wasn’t just the improved passing combinations or positional play; it was the intensity and work-rate that the players approached the game with that will have given him the most comfort. The aggressiveness displayed was in sharp contrast to the usual apathetic and lax body-language seen in recent times, and it will be interesting to see whether this newfound intensity will remain in the trip to Stamford Bridge, or if old problems will soon reappear.