Date: 5th December 2018 at 8:42am
Written by:

My thanks to Forensic Onions for this debut piece

Starting Selections

I’ve seen a lot of apoplectic blood letting post match, with Pochettino’s selections copping a lot of the post match vitriol, but realistically he only made one change from Chelsea, Vertonghen for Alderweireld. Baring in mind the (slightly over-generous) praise of Foyth lately, and his performance against Chelsea, and the quality of Vertonghen, hardly seems like a controversial change to me.

I said before the game that I’d liked to have seen the more metronomic Winks instead of the human battering ram that is Sissoko. But Poch does like his units, and Sissoko’s had played well against Cheslea, so I get why Poch went with him.

Starting Structure

Here is where the issues definitely start. Poch started with the 4312 that he deployed so successfully against Cheslea a week ago. Thing is, Woolwich are tactically an extremely different beast to Cheslea. They play in a different structure and with a much different tactical application. Where Chelsea play a 433 and everything goes narrow and hubs centrally through Jorginho, Woolwich play a 343, use a more lateral approach. To think the narrow 4312 diamond would work as effectively against Woolwich as it did against Cheslea – where Alli was deployed to sit on Cheslea’s playmaker, was optimistic at best, down right daft at worst.

Tactical Application

This is where the minor selection and major structural issues start to really accumulate into the perfect storm for Poch. Going with 4312 meant Woolwich always have a spare CB, meaning they can play out easier and they can also cope with our two forwards easier, invariably having a covering defender. Meanwhile, because they have an overload in attacking areas, especially wide, they were continually getting on behind our FB’s, particularly Aurier. They could also press us high up better, and because we’d got Dier and Sissoko in two of the three midfield positions, neither of whom cope with being pressed, Dier because he’s not very dextrous and Sissoko because he has the technique of pre-pubescent rhino, we struggled to play out from their press. This is where having Winks and Eriksen either side of Dier may have been prudent.

How it unfolded

My post match on Wednesday focused very much on how we steadily relinquished control of the game against Inter. And it would be easy to say this game just elongated that deterioration of control, but in truth, it’s much worse than that, and has been going on a whole lot longer hasn’t it.

I’ve now lost count of how many games this season we’ve lost “control” of games at various stages, from the very first game away at Newcastle, it has been a prevalent issue in just about every game we’ve played, league and Champions League. In the league, we’ve rode it, because mostly we have played teams with inferior components, players or managers, but in the Champions League and against our higher calibre piers in the Premier League, where we no longer enjoy this clear component advantage we have not always been able to tip the luck our way, and today was yet another one of those occasions.

This was probably a nadir though, as unlike some of those other games, this one we rarely managed to get a foothold of any kind for any meaningful phase.

Of the four closest rivals we have played, we have now lost to three of them. Two of them at home, and three very different tactical approaches from the opposition teams.

I highlighted on Wednesday how we gradually just lost control of the ball, ending up getting out-passed by a team who’d come with the intention of merely containing, our midfield contribution dwindling into ever decreasing circles. And this has been a theme of our whole season, and further back. We nearly pissed away a three goal lead at Wolves recently, pissed away leads in two of our Champions League games, took about an hour to get any kind of control against Barcelona, and these control issues are to blame for our likely exit from the Champions League.

I provided the stats from the Inter game that backed up what I saw. And it’s in the passing and possession stats that again the story of the game is most evident, today’s were even more damning than Wednesdays, I’ll start with the simple ones; They made nearly double the passes we did, in both halves of the game. They also completed a higher percentage. So they made double and still passed more accurately. This suggests not only were they outplaying us with the ball, but without too. The top seven most prolific passers in this game were all Woolwich players. The eighth being Eriksen with 31/39. What that translated to was them having way more possession, and creating way more chances. They made 94 successful passes in our third, we made 38 in theirs. They made 13 in our penalty box, we made 2 in theirs. Yes 2.

The Chelsea game is the only game we’ve really controlled from start to finish. But it was an apparition, an outlier, a tactical tour de force in what has otherwise resembled a season of tactical Whacky Races with our midfield starring Anthill Mob, Dick Dastardly & Mutley, Penelope Pitstop, Professor Pat Pending, The Slag brothers and the Gruesome Twosome on different occasions.

I know the defenders and goalkeeper will all receive criticism for their performances against Woolwich, with varying degrees of justification, but to me, this really isn’t about them, this issue started festering a year or two ago, with the steady degradation of our midfield and is now approaching a gangrenous state.

Dembele has been disintegrating steadily since we bought him and his condition has reached critical, then we lost Wanyama, who was probably the second best busy BLEEP in the league after Kante in 16/17, and his role has proved even harder to replace than Dembele’s.

We all know Dier can do a job, but it’s an incredibly limited job and that is evident all too often. The band-aid that is Sissoko has done what bandaids do, lasted a game or two, gone limp and is starting to peel off. He’s never been a CM really, he lacks the technique, composure and wit. Winks is too frequently ignored, as has been the option of drafting in a genuine footballing busy fakir like Skipp from the academy.

The result is an ever changing midfield, made up of compromises, that frequently struggles for rhythm, stability and to exert control.

Until Poch addresses this gaping wound, we will continue to have control issues. We need a proper midfield structure. We need a platform to play from, an engine room that drives us and sets tempo, not coughs and splutters every time it’s driven hard. We need a midfield that can exert and recover control. Not one that specialises in relinquish only. It effects everything facet of our play, backwards, forwards and sideways as our marauding full backs are frequently exposed.

A defensive midfielder, who is dynamic but who can also play at least bit of football and doesn’t crumble at the first sign of pressure is a must. And we need a proper 6/8 hybrid to either partner him in a CM2 or play in the CM3.

I don’t think Poch made huge selection or tactical errors, but I think he made a few small ones that could have made a big difference. Why go with the same 4312/442 diamond against a totally different tactical set up than Chelsea? Woolwich play a 343 and for me a 433 with Winks in CM/R would have given us more midfield control and ability to play through a press (with Eriksen and Winks either side of Dier). And would’ve occupied their three CB’s, preventing them from playing through our press so easily and meaning we could press them better, win ball higher up, exposing their frailties, whilst preventing them building rhythm. We could have then had the option of both Sissoko and Moura on the bench to come on and run at tired legs later on.

It always puzzles me that whenever a team comes at us early like this it seems to catch us by surprise (see Woolwich/ Juve/ Liverpool away last year as recent examples).

I read a lot of “they wanted it more” but that’s just a football cliche. The truth is, they were just tactically superior, as we were last week against Chelsea, they did to us what we did to Chelsea, they had our number, came out and pressed us, and players like Dier and Sissoko cannot play under pressure, they panic, hide and do lots of pointing, therefore we couldn’t play out from the back, therefore we continually turned over possession.

In game, Emery re-jigged to continually maintain a tactical edge, making two changes at HT, despite mostly dominating that first half, whilst Poch took until the hour mark to change anything tactically, dropping Dier back into a CB3, but then Emry switched to what we should have used against his 343, to a kind of 433 and that’s when they scored their 3rd and fourth.

Yes, fatigue will have not helped, we’ve had three big games in 8 days. But they’ve had three games too. And we did rest 4 of our outfield 10. The bottom line is, we just got outplayed, with and without the ball, out tactic’d and out worse out worked. They were better in every department.


Lloris – I’m not sure whether he could have done better for any of the goals, bit like Chelsea’s keeper last week, a couple looked a bit soft, but maybe he was wrong footed.

Aurier – I lost count of the times Woolwich got behind him first half. Not all his fault, we were getting mauled, but I just know what certain factions would be saying if that was Trippier. Not good today but not helped by the team ahead of him.

Foyth – Mistake that lead to a goal, but was otherwise reasonably OK in what was a tough examination.

Vertonghen – Stupid hand ball, but again I didn’t think he was terrible on what was a day made hard by a shambolic team performance, then was a bit unlucky when he wins the ball but his momentum carries him into Lacazette.

Davies – Meh.

Sissoko – There was a moment in that second half when the ball drops to him out of the air and for one of the few times in the game he’s actually in a little bit of space, he controls it perfectly on his chest and then, having weighed up the merits of maybe passing to a team mate, setting us on a path of transitional righteousness, thinks nah, flip it, and proceeds to launch the “have it” the ball to oblivion, via a very high altitude. “It’s who a am Gayle” (Carlito Brigante voice needed). Out of his depth today.

Dier – As we see so often, when the press is on, he’s off. Then he was moved back to defence second half and was very flimsy in two of their goals; why he’s so timid with the Lacazette shot I have no idea, and then he’s poorly positioned and sells himself horribly for the killer fourth. Not good at all.

Eriksen – He’s not going to grab the midfield by the balls, and with no platform for him to guild, he was pretty ineffective.

Son – Had a couple of “moments” but was a very peripheral figure otherwise, and when we are struggling as a team, he’s not exactly a “roll your sleeves up and muck in type”.

Alli – Followed up one of his best Spurs performances last weekend with one of his worse today. Touched the ball 39 times, made ten passes. Part of the problem was Poch sticking him that no mans land of congestion at the tip of his diamond.

Kane – Rarely seen to good effect in this set up, and with them having a spare CB for much of the first 60-70 minutes, and us having no possession, he was up against it today. Not great, but no service and outnumbered.

  • Aside from cerebrospinal fluid, what's on your mind?

  • San Diego Spurs December 5, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    This was a great post. Just getting to it now. For me, the key passage is here: “The result is an ever changing midfield, made up of compromises, that frequently struggles for rhythm, stability and to exert control.”

    Beyond that, I agree with the “meh” rating for Davies. I must ask, has he had a memorable game this season? I feel that while we may be losing games due to conditions or decisions in numerous areas of the pitch, and while I agree 100% that both Dembele and Wanyama are in all likelihood done as elite players, I can’t help but feel that the FB positions–especially on the left–simply lack the quality needed for what we are trying to do.

    Feel that we are in the position where the realization of my hopes for the season–either the league or FA Cup and keeping two of either Chelsea, Arsenal and United out of the top 4, are now contingent on what other teams do. Not the best place to be.

  • Daveyboi December 5, 2018 at 10:39 am

    Remember when Tim Sherwood was dubbed the PE teacher?
    Well Pochettino is the head of PE , gets everyone running and jumping just can’t do anything else beyond hoping the big lump up top scores at the end.

  • chrism December 5, 2018 at 9:41 am

    Pretty much spot on I think Harry, i also basically think he out-tactic’ed Poch. He changed it at Half Time, and even though we started the second half OK, once their new shape kicked in it was pretty much all over. I dont know what you think, but one thing that i feel is that during the phases of the game that we are on top we fail to put teams away. If we had scored another when we had the momentum it may have been different. We seem to go for the Jugular against Chelsea, but it’s been rare this season. The successful teams are always more clinical, as witnessed with man City scoring 5’s and 6’s in games this season..

    • Ronan December 5, 2018 at 11:58 am

      Yep, poor finishing has been this team’s achilles heel. It’s what has cost us in the CL this season, as it did against Juve and in the FAC SF last season. Even against Chelsea last week only about a quarter of the good chances were converted.

      But it’s when our best defender is left out, as he was in the defining games last season and on Sunday, that poor finishing usually ends up costing us.