Tottenham may currently sit a point outside the Champions League places and are still within touching distance of the early league leaders, but it’s been a fairly underwhelming start to the season, even in matches where Mauricio Pochettino's men have managed to claim all three points. Spurs have so far largely stumbled over the line against lesser opposition or let themselves down with flat performances against the likes of Watford, Liverpool and, most recently, Inter Milan.
Something is not quite clicking so far this year for Spurs.
A large share of the disappointment for fans will be centred on the tempo of the play when in possession (as well as an alarming issue with seeing out games) and this suggests a problem with the players' mentalities. The squad doesn’t currently seem to possess that same level of excitement and intensity on the attack and nor does it show that defensive concentration and resilience that Premier League fans have come to expect of Spurs in recent years. No amount of laying out cones on the training ground or moving markers around on a tactics board will fix these issues. It runs much deeper than that. However, there are still some things Pochettino may look to address from a tactical and personnel point of view as well.
Looking back over September’s fixtures, Spurs have really struggled to play in the final third and show creativity in dangerous areas. The last few seasons had seen countless examples of fantastic link-ups between the likes of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Christian Eriksen, with Dele making late third man runs from deep, but this intricate play on the edge of the opposition’s penalty area seems to have vanished this season. A combination of poor distribution from Eric Dier and the deeper positioning of players like Mousa Dembele, Eriksen and Kane, means Spurs are failing to get their most creative players receiving the ball in advanced positions.
The recent defeat at home to Liverpool was a prime example of this. Too often was a lofted ball hopefully sent forward for Kane and Lucas Moura to chase, with Liverpool's Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk able to enjoy 90 minutes of heading practice, seeing out the game with relative ease. As Moura played alongside Kane at Wembley, this left Eriksen as the only attacking midfielder in what looked like a midfield diamond that seriously struggled to play through the thirds.
The required change that day looked obvious and was one that Pochettino thankfully made. Erik Lemala was brought on and, after a bright display from the bench, the Argentine deservedly grabbed a goal that nearly allowed the north Londoners to snatch a point.
And, it’s been a clear pattern. It is no surprise that Lamela has contributed to a goal as often as once every 20 minutes on pitch this season because he is offering something that no other player is currently doing in the side. He works in the space between the opponent’s midfield and defensive lines brilliantly and is adept at laying the ball off first time to an on-rushing team mate who is facing the opponent’s goal. His movement and ability to find pockets of space in areas that can truly hurt teams has made him a strong contender to be the first name on the team sheet over the next few weeks.
Lamela’s goal against Brighton at the weekend showed he is more than just a tidy player with his back to goal. The number 11 perfectly received the ball on the half turn and, after allowing the ball to run across his well-positioned body, drove forward with real intent and finished neatly from Danny Rose's driven cross.
He will though need someone to consistently find him in these areas and there is unlikely to be a Spurs fan out there who thinks Dier is the man to do so. The Englishman's continued inclusion in the starting line-up is baffling after a string of sub-par performances and with Harry Winks returning to fitness, it seems logical to give him a starting place instead. He has the composure and passing range to pick out someone like Lamela and his tempo on the ball and desire to play penetrative passes will benefit what can only be described as a dreary Spurs side at the moment.
Winks' earlier introduction from the bench against a buoyant Watford side would also have worked wonders earlier this month. With the momentum quickly switching in the Hornets' favour, bringing on the team’s best ball playing midfielder would have helped keep possession and stunt Watford's progress. Unfortunately though, the changes came too late in the game with the first substitution taking place in the 80th minute and Winks not entering the field until minute 86 – both after Spurs had already surrendered the lead.
It wasn’t just Winks who could have made an impact from the bench that day. Victor Wanyama's physicality and defensive nature would have helped combat a strong and aggressive Watford attack, but these substitutions serve a greater purpose than just altering personnel and adjusting to what is happening on the pitch. When a side is gathering momentum, a simple substitution or a conveniently timed injury that requires treatment can help put the brakes on an overwhelming flood of attacks. Making these changes earlier would have allowed players to slowly make their way off the pitch, frustrating Watford's forwards in the process and potentially altering the outcome of the game.
That is what Spurs' season currently comes down to: that lack of ‘street smarts’ that are so heavily associated with the mark of champions. In order to be considered a serious force both domestically and in Europe, Tottenham could do with an Italian ‘get the job done’ level of grit – that very same know-how that has contributed to Spurs’ last two Champions League failings, both at the hands of Serie A sides. Potential changes in squad selection and shape are one thing, but the right tactical nous, attitude and application get teams a very long way in football.
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