Tottenham’s recent game against Liverpool was a jaw dropping moment in terms of performance, rather than result. Was it one of our worst performances in the last two years? Nearly, but if anything, it was the Tottenham of old that really stung to people’s heads. This happened towards the latter end of last season as well when we saw glimpses of this Pochettino-esque side disappear and shift back to a spineless, impassionate performance against a big team which never gave hope but then again, we have seen us change, like we did in the second half, and in the game against Manchester City. Those are signs of progression. Tottenham of the old would’ve collapsed even further, but we stayed resilient and kept it fairly respectable to something that wouldn’t have been otherwise. But looking into a similar game that happened on Tuesday night, PSG v Barcelona, I couldn’t help but notice several parallels between both the home teams, Liverpool and PSG, and the away teams, Tottenham and Barcelona.
By looking broadly at the way the teams set up, both home teams came out with similar formation and array of players who could be fluid throughout the front half. The away teams on the other had stuck to their standard style of producing from the back and utilizing the talents of their front men, yet, as the games panned out, both away teams were highly pressurised into making errors at key areas of their play, the middle and the back.
To add to that, for both games the passing and possession was fairly evenly distributed, yet, the home teams took advantage every time the away teams were dispossessed. And both away teams saw heavy attacking threat from one side (PSG v Barcelona above followed by Liverpool v Tottenham.
But mainly the neutralising of the creative outlets of both the away teams never really helped them produce anything from the back, where they are so reliant on. It didn’t help them have a flow in the final third and ultimately reduced the creation of their chances up front. Both teams had key attacking players without a single shot throughout the match.
The only significant difference between the two away teams was that Tottenham (3) had more errors than Barcelona (0), giving Liverpool more clear cut opportunities, but our defensive strengths and second half display limited the score line from being staggering.
So what can be some of the lessons from these two games when teams like Tottenham and Barcelona who like to grow into the game come across teams like Liverpool who like to be on the front foot from the give go?
Well for starters, it is crucial to realize that while many people like to pinpoint that sitting back and inviting pressure would be the “ideal” thing to do, many fail to acknowledge that teams like ours prefer playing high up since we are poor in and around our defensive box. One of my major concerns, even before Pochettino took in charge of Spurs, has been that we just can’t defend inside the box. We’ve seen it when other teams get set pieces with half a decent chance (e.g. Against West Brom) and we panic and stumble around there. Also, we are quite an error prone team, and have been this season as well. Adding further pressure than what would’ve already been would simply cause individual errors, something that these kind of teams crave for.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the way we approached the first half was the way we should’ve initially approached the game. Break of play usually never lets such sides stay in tempo or remain consistent throughout the 90 minutes. The best example I can think of is our game against Arsenal, March 2013. We won 2-1 under an AVB team but that was a very mature and clever performance to watch, especially in the second half. We consistently broke their play and never really allowed them the breathing space to let their fluidity take into action. Instead, our individual performances took charge and we saw the game through. Without the likes of Mascherano, it was difficult for Barcelona to do the same. A performance like that would’ve possibly given us a better result as we would be in charge and playing to our strengths.
Lastly, like Barcelona, other than Neymar (Son in our case), there was no real attacking threat. Our main strikers as well as theirs were unable to get a shot on target making it difficult to stretch their defenses out of their comfort zone. What we attempted to do a little too late was the right decision, bringing on Winks. He reduced the workload of our other midfielders who were losing simple battles and keep the ball moving into dangerous areas, limiting the opposition to bring more players forward.
As Pochettino said earlier this week, “If you look at history, and compare it with the last six seasons, you can maybe see that the last two years we’ve improved a lot competing against the top five or six in the Premier League” , which is true if you look at the first season Pochettino came into the club. We lost away to Chelsea, Liverpool, City and United with an aggregate score of 13 against and 3 for. Last season we lost only to United between those four teams and had an aggregate score of 5 (A) and 5 (F). This season though, we have been unconvincing, we defeats against all except City, and an aggregate score of 7 (A) and 3 (F). While in isolation it may seem signs of regression, last season we were fairly lucky through lack of injuries during these big games. We’ve only had our full strength eleven for 90 minutes against United. Plus, our home form against these teams has balanced the situation for us. Excuses aside, we are in the right path as atleast half of our away performances have shown again the big sides, but it’s definitely a mentality issue.
Looking back two seasons ago, the year Pochettino arrived, we were a poorer away side. The rapid growth and escalation in the table has led to unbearable expectations from fans, which are not to blame, but perhaps the team “clicked” too soon. Anywhere in the top four will be an idea finish for us as we wouldn’t be overachieving, which is a really good sign for such a young, developing team. It’s also important to remember that we have a fairly young manager who is still yet to win a trophy. He will therefore use strengths to its maximum, i.e. home games and first eleven, while try to work around an ideal way to approach other things. The team just has to find a way to remind themselves that they’ve crossed that barrier, stink in the pressure and can go on to perform better in these game in the near future, especially with the home advantage out of the picture for next season.
*credits to WhoScored and @Caley_graphics on twitter for the data
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