So, the first game of the season is done and dusted and Spurs left Brentford exactly how we left the same fixture last season. The same scoreline and bizarrely similar statistics too. But, for anyone that watched the game, it was not the same at all.
Last season saw a pitiful first half of lethargic play, followed by a desperate last half an hour as we tried to salvage a point in the last half an hour. It was a pattern that we were to see countless times last season. Yes, we dominated possession, but it was at the back – going nowhere – side to side, forward and back.
This performance was different. Barring, one small period in the first half, we dominated possession – high up the pitch. Constantly, we were looking to get the ball forward and create chances. The side managed eighteen shots in all by the final whistle – but, had it not been for excellent defensive organisation on Brentford’s behalf – it could have been far more.
One of the significant changes between last season’s performance and this was in terms of the full-backs and their contribution to the game.
Change of system means change of positioning
Under Conte, Tottenham employed a 3-4-3 system, which required an awful lot of the wide players. On that occasion, Perisic and Doherty – and yes, I was surprised to see his name too – were expected to get wide, stay wide, and join the attack, whilst also dropping back to support the defence in creating a back five.
Whereas today, as you can see from the heat maps below, the role of the full-back was to play far narrower – inverting to support Bissouma in the centre of the midfield and to occupy the half space to try and create room on the outside for the likes of Son and Kulusevski.
Before the start of the season, it seemed to be a toss-up which full-back pairing would be preferred: would it be Destiny and Royal? Or Davies and Porro? With these duos, you would have one more predominantly attacking player paired with another who was more defensive-minded.
However, based on this performance, for the time being at least, Udogie and Royal have the shirts (which will be a blessing to all journalists who want to use their names in ridiculous subheadings):
Udogie’s Destiny to Finally Replace Rose?
Since peak Danny Rose, the club has struggled to find an adequate replacement on the left-hand side of defence. Sergio Reguilon always appeared unable to deal with the physical demands of the Premier League; Ryan Sessegnon never fully looked like he believed he was good enough to be playing and Ivan Perisic was suspect defensively.
In ninety minutes today, I saw more from Destiny Udogie, than I had from the others. It is early days I know and it is important not to get carried away, but there is a lot there to like.
Defensively, his reading of the game seems sound and physically he demonstrated strength and pace against a physical team. Importantly, he showed a level head and calmness in key situations.
In one instance in the second half, he engaged in a duel with Bryan Mbeumo, in the corner and under pressure he managed to get goal side legally and hold off his man to win a free kick.
How many times have we seen the fullback in this position lose their head, push the man, and give away possession? Far too many. This was one moment admittedly, but it encapsulated his display perfectly.
Arguably, it was his end product today which was somewhat lacking. On several occasions I expected him to pull the trigger on a cross or an effort at goal but he did not let fly.
However, he is going from playing as a wide wing-back to an inverted full-back playing far more centrally, thus his angles of attack are going to be significantly different.
It is incredible to think that Destiny is only twenty years old and the optimist in me wants to say that he has got a long and successful career in front of him in the white of Spurs.
Emerson’s Royal Contribution
On the other flank was a character who has been polarising at times throughout his time at Tottenham. Emerson has received plenty of abuse and derision, even coming off social media at one point. Yet, by the end of last season, he was developing a bit of a cult status with the club and was winning the supporters over.
However, even when he was not performing as people would have liked in the wing-back system under Conte, he still demonstrated two admirable traits.
Firstly, positionally he has always been really astute and clever – especially in an attacking sense. We only knew how poor his crossing was, because he got into so many good crossing positions to begin with!
Secondly, he has never been afraid to get on the ball. These two attributes were clear in abundance at Brentford yesterday where the Brazilian had the second most touches in the game (134) and second most successful passes – 96/106 at 91% accuracy – (SofaScore). Of course with Emerson, we did have the occasional lapse in concentration, but you can’t have everything in life.
It was this self-confidence that made him take on the long-range strike that equalised for Tottenham in first-half stoppage time. A fine, guided half volley.
We have to also acknowledge that the second Brentford goal and a missed opportunity from Bryan Mbeumo both originated from Royal losing Rico Henry and allowing him to get in crosses.
Long term, I am not sure that Royal is the answer to this position – someone with a little more finesse in the pass would make a real difference. However, for now, the Brazilian is a more than able player to fulfil the role.
What about Sess and the rest?
Which leaves the question – what about the other players who could ostensibly play those roles?
I think it is clear that Perisic, if he stays – which looks likely, will be utilised as a winger. Ben Davies will serve as a double understudy to Van de Ven and Udogie, and can be relied upon to do a role. I suspect, Sessegnon, probably for his own good, will find another club in the January window once he is fit.
This leaves Pedro Porro. Hopefully, he will work on his defending and be able to play the inverted full-back role as a backup to Royal. Alternatively, as many people have suggested, he could be used as one of the front three – and there is definitely merit in this as well. But maybe his future is another article in itself!
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