We’re a fortnight away from a trip to Old Trafford—against a powerful and wealthy side which has stiffened its spine, and then some, in the summer transfer season. Without our class goalkeeper. So far the window has (perhaps) seen some of our defensive shortcomings slammed shut and ushered a few (but not all) unwanted out the Lilywhite door. We wait to hear about a striker, or an attacking forward, hopefully accompanied by the news that Adebayor, Soldado and perhaps Lennon—some or all—have been moved away to accommodate this new, younger talent.
But are we mistaking the trees for the forest? Is the bigger need not so much a strike partner for “OOOO” (One Of Our Own) but instead a proper formation and a commitment to play winning football? The question is deceptively simple, for of course we should have both… and a manager who can deliver his players to the stream of victory and just allow them to drink. But Thursday nights on the continent and necessary but distracting lineup shuffling—at least in the past—complicate the task. But maybe it’s more simple and closer to fruition than we might realise.
Consider two Premier League clubs. One played 54 fixtures a season ago, the other 57. Both were eliminated in the first knockout stage in Europe. Both were eliminated rather early in the FA competition. Both went very, very deep in the League Cup. (AH! Now you’re wondering just where I’m heading)
One team managed its way through this crowded fixture list by playing essentially 18 outfield players in league play, with just ten receiving the vast majority of starts. 4 players started 35 or more League games; 2 each started 30-34, 25-29 and 20-24 games; the remainder mainly occupied the starting XI between 5 and 10 times.
The other team played 22 outfield players in league play, with nearly all starting or appearing in double-digit games. 2 started 30 or more games, 7 between 25-29 games, 1 started 20 games, 5 started between 10-15 times, and an additional 7 started (or appeared in) between 7-9 games.
OK—we know who these two teams are. The champions may have been fortunate in their health—only losing Diego Costa to any large extent of their principal players. But one cannot escape the conclusion that Mourinho was comfortable about who his best ten outfield players were and made sure they played nearly every game. Only the decision whether to start two attacking midfielders in addition to Hazard and Fabregas or to sit Willian or Oscar in favor of Ramires or Obi Mikel bothered Jose—and I suspect it did not bother him all that much.
By contrast Poch had to determine whether he could trust the likes of Kaboul, Chiriches and Capoue— NO was the clear answer; took more than two understandably difficult months to realize that Kane deserved the striker slot; had injury issues at Right Back; and juggled several midfield positions for months before finally settling on Mason and Bentaleb (whom we lost to Africa for a month or more) to hold; Chadli, Eriksen and Lamela to attack.
This is not a critique of the manager nor a paean to his champion counterpart, just an explanation of the different way Mourinho was able to approach his side week in and week out.
And why is it relevant? Because I believe that Pochettino could arrive at something much more Chelsea-like with Spurs—in league play, at least—this campaign.
At the back Rose, Vertonghen and Alderweireld are givens—leave it to the “ERRRRRRRs”—as in “Errr, who is the final piece of the back four?”– TrippiER, DiER, WalkER and WimmER– to determine who plays on the weekend and who plays Thursday night.
The basic five midfielders should not change from last season, nor should the striker. On occasion, due to injury, fatigue or the luck of the draw, one could see Townsend, Dembele, or even Soldado pressed into action. (or maybe none of the above will even be here, but they’re all still present) Or the new fella(s), since I absolutely believe there will be at least one attacker to supplement the top 5. Or Dell Alli or even DeAndre Yedlin (he’s a winger more than a back) to provide some youthful energy.
But the tinkering—barring significant injuries—must be a thing of the past. Find the best ten—and I think they’re all in front of us—and play them.
Which gets me to formation—and the realization that the likes of Louis Van Gal—our spurner—made an in-season adjustment that saved his side’s Champions League aspirations last year. Whether it’s a 3-2-4-1 or a 5-2-3-1 or some newer version of the old Italian “point of the lance” formations from the 1960s—what about going with three basic interior defenders—Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Dier, for example (or Trippier)—and using Rose, Walker and perhaps Yedlin to run the wings—more of a classic winger than a fullback? Or one of them on one side and a Townsend or Lamela on the other….We would by necessity have to drop a central midfielder—Mason, most likely—but presumably the strength of the Back Three and Bentaleb could more than make up for it… I am no classically trained tactician—though a well-worn copy of The Inverted Pyramid has been gracing my bedside table most of the summer—but I can see that we have speed to burn, for a change. The problem with four in the back and two of those four being Danny Rose and Kyle Walker is patently obvious—they must run forward and when they do, massive holes appear in the back when the inevitable counter occurs. If three central defenders remain back the openings for counterattacks narrow.
The one chance—and it’s probably a slim one–we have against a Top Four as ready for battle as they’ve ever been (not to mention the Merseyside Reds desperately trying to capture the magic of the prior season) is that we set an XI, and a formation—and stick to it. Through thick and thin. I sense Poch is much closer to planting his flag—regardless of whether that magical elixir of an attacker appears in the next two weeks or not.
Have something to tell us about this article?