It was yet another glorious spring day and north Londoners Tottenham were hosting Southampton, in a bid to secure their position for a place in the Champions League. Both teams had some key absentees and it was interesting to watch how both managers coped with them.
For Tottenham Parker was injured and on top of the Sandro’s long-term injury Villas-Boas had a choice to make on how to construct his midfield. In the last couple of weeks we have seen him switching to a 4-1-2-3 shape with Huddlestone as the deepest and two runners ahead of him (Dembele and Holtby in the second half against Man City; then Dembele and Parker last week at Wigan). Here he returned to his most used 4-2-3-1 formation with Huddlestone alongside Dembele at the base of the midfield with Bale at its tip. Lennon was fit to start the game with, once again, Dempsey starting over Sigurdsson on the left. Assou-Ekotto replaced Naughton as the left back.
On the opposite side Pochettino had Fox and Ramirez banned, following the send-offs in the last game against WBA, with Schneiderlin injured. Shaw came in on the left of the back four with surprisingly Jose Fonte replacing Yoshida. In midfield Davis was tasked to replace Schneiderlin alongside Cork. Still, the major surprise was Pochettino’s decision to field Rodriguez just off Lambert, making the shape more like 4-2-2-2 than the usual straight 4-2-3-1. On the flanks Lallana played on the left with Do Prado coming in to play on the right flank.
Given Spurs’ obvious need for a win in this game it was rather disappointing to see them lacking so much in spark , intensity off the ball, urgency on it and clear ideas on how to achieve their crucial aim. What’s more Villas-Boas’ players are now playing once per week, which means they should be properly recuperated and prepared for each of their key final matches. But here the team seemed overly ponderous and sluggish with their actions on and off the ball, appearing too slow in their reactions and several times even completely disinterested. Their body language didn’t even show much required anger or nerves given how the match panned out and the large periods Southampton completely dominated them in all aspects. It looked like the players were simply coasting around and weren’t bothered to feature properly, or at all, in the game.
It was strange to see such behaviour and not only given the game was a must win for the home team. The crowd offered constant support throughout the game, trying to lift the team every time the players actually managed to string few passes together or to make a run with the ball. On top of this, Villas-Boas was seen constantly yelling and pointing out something to his players. But even his obvious anger and disapproving of the happening down the pitch failed to spark any life into his players.
With all this in mind it is hard to discuss the home team’s tactical plan in any great detail. Not that there seemed to be any clear plan or that the players bothered followed it if there was any. Anyway, for all Spurs’ obvious tactical and motivational deficiencies it should be noted how ‘up’ for the game and exciting the Saints were. It could be easily said the visitors showed everything that the home team lacked – proper motivation to perform and impress, suitable tactics to first nullify and then outplay the opposition, all topped with the technical abilities and confidence to be able to pull all of this off. With Southampton being the team pulling the strings for the majority of the game, it’s only logical to turn the majority of the attention towards them and what, how and why they did on the pitch.
Southampton without the ball
As hinted above the most surprising decision of Pochettino was to line-up with something resembling a 4-2-2-2 shape. But as soon as the game started it was quite obvious what were his specific aims behind that decision.
Before the game it was expected, based on the missing players and what he had at his disposal for this match, to start with Bale, Lennon and Defoe in the front four. The main dilemma was in relation to who between Dempsey and Sigurdsson will completely the attacking quartet. So all in all Spurs’ actual shape and starting XI weren’t much of a surprise for fans, pundits and of course Pochettino.
The crucial thing was that the away team’s shape wasn’t a flat one – the players’ positioning was ‘tiered’ in separate lines, each of them having clear duties when the team was out of possession. This was obviously based on how Pochettino expected Villas-Boas to line up and revealed his specific plans how he intended to nullify Spurs’ strengths.
To start with, with Bale, Lennon and Defoe on the pitch – but especially with Bale as second forward, rather a left winger – it was logical to assume Spurs would be based on quick transitions and direct attacks. The aim would have been trying to exploit Southampton’s usual high defensive line and traditional under Pochettino aggressive pressing from high up the pitch. With Dempsey more of a wide forward, than a wide ball-player, and the fact Huddlestone’s style is based on quick switches of the play via long passes and not ball retention process through short passes, the home team simply lacked the XI that could execute different than this tactical plan. The front four were all ‘consumers’, the midfielders were ‘direct’ players (either in terms of passing – Huddlestone; or in terms of all-round actions – Dembele) with only the centre-backs capable to offer some sort of a ball-retention. It was hard to imagine how Villas-Boas’s players would offer sustained passing flow, geared up towards putting the opposition under sustained passing pressure as a form of main attacking approach.
To counter all of this Pochettino had his team defending with a relatively deeper defensive line, at least deeper than usual, in order to minimize the space Spurs’ ‘speedsters’ would have to try and run in behind. Then it was notable how both the centre-backs generally stood-off and were reluctant to stick tight to whomever was closer to them (generally Defoe, Bale and the in cutting Dempsey) in order not to de dragged out of position. This further limited the chances Southampton to be vulnerable with either players or balls heading in behind the centre-backs.
The other step towards nullifying Spurs’ threats was in relation to how precisely the midfield duo was instructed. Cork, as usually, performed his disciplined role in terms of both passing and positioning. Here, the fact he predominantly stayed just ahead of the back four and rarely ventured forward or down the channels, further helped completely ‘shut down’ the space between the lines for Bale to eventually pick up the ball and have room to run with it. This was helped by the discipline role played by Davis too. In a similar fashion to Cork he stayed predominantly in deeper areas, but given his natural energy he actually played in a more busy style. In the moments Cork drifted to the right flank to join in the build-up (given it was the more favoured flank by Southampton to attack, more on this later), Davis quickly dropped deeper and central to act as a sort of sweeper and ensure the space between the lines is always covered. As a result not only the chance for Bale being influential in between the lines was minimized, but the possibility of Dembele doing the same by pushing from deep was largely limited.
The next threat that Southampton had to deal with was Lennon. If you give him time and/or space to pick up the ball and run with the ball down the right, there are not many players in the world football who could live up to him. Pochettino decided to nullify him by asking Shaw to stick very tight on him and prevent him receiving the ball at all. Often this meant Southampton’s fullback is dragged out of position by being either too high up the pitch or too narrow, following Lennon. This meant there were often pockets of space that Spurs could exploit in that zone but the other players were too sluggish do so; or even unaware of that possibility at all. Walker spent too much time dwelling on the ball and trying to present himself as an out ball in deeper areas. He rarely bombed on down the flank. The first and only time he did so in the first half was in the 19th minute where Shaw simply tactically fouled him. Meanwhile both Bale and Defoe spend more time drifting to the left flank, trying exploit the fact Clyne was free to push forward, due to Dempsey’s narrow positioning, and often vacated his zone defensively.
Walker was the obvious candidate to exploit better the fact Shaw was sticking tight on Lennon also due to the fact Lallana often ventured infield and left him completely free initially. But even for that possibility Southampton seemed prepared. When Lallana was out of position to initially deal with Walker, there was always player who rushed to cover that zone. Often this was Rodriguez, as whenever Lallana cut infield to try and overload the right flank, Rodriguez tried to push forward from his deep starting position and sneak into the blind side over the left channel. But few times Davis used his energetic nature to quickly close down Walker with one of Rodriguez or Lallana, whomever was nearer, dropped in his position through the middle.
On the other side Do Prado was industrious to drop deep and wide on the right flank to prevent Assou-Ekotto having free run to push forward or having the freedom to pass the ball forward quickly.
However, one of the key aspects of Southampton’s out of possession play was the roles executed by Lambert and Rodriguez – the split centre-forwards. With Pochettino’s aim to have his defensive line and midfield duo deeper to squeeze the space, it was more or less impossible for the team to press as fiercely and as high up the pitch as usual. Instead the centre-forwards were asked to position themselves between Spurs’ centre-backs and midfielders, cutting off the easy path of the ball between these players. With Southampton being compact and geared up towards flooding the midfield area it was that zone where the players pressed actively. Only sporadically one of Lambert but often Rodriguez gone on to close down the centre-backs and force them into rushed passes which often end up misplaced or out of play. It seemed for Southampton was more important to cut the link between the centre-backs and the midfielders in order to slow down the play and further nullify Spurs’ threats, as without the ball they wouldn’t be in position provide any danger, than press the home team’s back four in order to limit the time they had on the ball.
It was due to that slowing down process Lallana and Clyne had enough time to drop back in position and form that tiered 4-2-2-2 formation without the ball which perfectly mirrored and occupied Spurs’ 4-2-3-1 (which was more like 4-2-4 with the front four staying higher up and Bale acting as a second forward, not third midfielder).
Southampton in possession
Pochettino’s specific game plan covered his team’s behaviour when in possession too. Although the Southampton showed the usual level of intensity and urgency when transitioning between the phases, coupled with the reliable ball-retention process and intelligence to know when to switch the play and up the tempo, all backed up with the required technical expertise, the team showed some designed specifically for this match attacking patterns of play.
To start with the passing platform and how the midfield duo acted. With Schneiderlin missing it was expected Davis to fulfil his role like-for-like and offer sudden bursts forward off the ball. But as mentioned above, he was tasked with more defensive responsibilities. Hence, instead of playing as a runner to provide diversity through the middle he performed the role of another passer to allow for even better and more reliable passing platform to keep the ball away at Spurs.
Both Cork and Davis’ passing was predominantly from deeper areas, illustrating their willingness to always stay deeper, channelling the team’s attacks but letting the play ahead of them. They rarely attempted penetrative or longer passes, showing the team’s general emphasis on short and dynamic passes to keep up the ball-retention transitioning smoothly from bottom to top.
With less diversity through the middle, either in terms of range of passes or by sheer movement on and off the ball, there was the risk that Southampton might look like a broken team with no natural connection between the separate lines, especially in midfield and attack. This could have been magnified by the fact it was Rodriguez (natural forward), and not some proper midfielder (for example Lallana) playing just off Lambert. But the players’ specific roles and overall game plan prevented this to happen.
With Lambert and Rodriguez deeper as per their without the ball role, both were always in position to join the build-up as soon the team regained the ball. It could be said that two natural Numbers 9s actually played initially as two natural Number 10s – dropping deep, joining the build-up play and looking to feed their teammates.
A case could be made that with both forwards so deep, Southampton looked strikerless and lacking direct attacking presence in the last third. Which, given the above chalkboards illustrating where both forward received the ball, would be true. But in the meantime this will overlook the actual attacking strategy showed by Southampton.
With Spurs as usually playing with a high defensive line it was clear to see Southampton was geared up to have their main attacking emphasis on exploiting it. The forward duo was split vertically with Rodriguez playing off Lambert with the duo levelling only when Lambert dropped deeper when out of possession to help cut off the link between Spurs’ centre-backs and midfielders. When in possession the duo, as part of the overall front quartet, was much more fluid. Both players started in deeper, hence their ability to join up the build-up play and link the team through the middle. But once the play was transitioned higher up and near Spurs defensive third, the whole attacking unit started to roam all over the place, interchanging and having one simple aim – to exploit Spurs’ high defensive line.
A usual pattern of play was to see Lambert dropping deep and to the right, allowing Rodriguez to then sneak forward from deep. Meanwhile it was interesting to see Lallana, from his wide left position, moving across the whole pitch to end up towards the right channel. In that movement he very much resembled David Silva’s movement for the Man City team. The similarities between the usual Man City attacking pattern of play and what Southampton displayed here don’t end up here though. At City (especially when the team is playing with Milner on the right and the Tevez-Aguero duo in attack) Silva is moving across to the right flank to allow the initially deeper Tevez (see Rodriguez) to sneak in behind with Milner (see Do Prado) to start move infield from his deeper on the right flank position.
Southampton was clearly geared up to overload Spurs’ left flank in the same way Man City are usually doing. With Lallana coming to the play he was just another body who could join in the sharp exchanges of short passes there and allow for runners to spring in behind and try to breach Spurs’ high line. All of this was further helped by Clyne’s bravery to constantly bomb down the flank and exploit the fact Dempsey was either in narrow position or too sluggish to track him back. It wasn’t a surprise the game’s best chance came following that general pattern of play.
In the 11th minute Lambert dropped deep to the right with Lallana coming over there from the left too. Clyne was bursting forward from his deep position, with Do Prado starting to do the same and taking away Assou-Ekotto’s attention. Meanwhile Rodriguez slightly central and already on his run forward, was occupying the centre-backs attention. It took a simple chip over the top from Lambert to feed the onrushing Clyne down the right channel to head in a good one-on-one situation, only for his shoot to gone agonizingly off target. In the 25th minute something similar happen with Lambert again deep and to the right, exchanging quick passes with Do Prado to send him in behind Assou-Ekotto to cross the ball for the onrushing from deep Rodriguez. This time Dawson managed to clear the ball before Southampton’s runner (Rodriguez) to reach it. Throughout the game there were several mini-situations similar to these two, with Southampton successfully retaining the ball, giving time for the players to overload the right side of the pitch before sending an off ball runner threatening to exploit Spurs’ high defensive line.
The first main problem the home team encountered was how to work around the effective job done by Southampton’s forward duo to prevent easy passes coming out of the back four. With Rodriguez and Lambert cutting off the link between the centre-backs and the midfielders, both Dembele and Huddlestone didn’t see much of the ball. As a result Spurs’ vital link that was expected to pick up the ball and feed the front quartet was largely missing. Statistically, Dembele (9) and Huddlestone (12) in combine (21) received the ball less than Assoue-Ekotto (27) or Walker (24) alone during the period a change in the overall setup of Spurs occurred (ie before Dembele to go off injured). What’s more is the majority of the passes the midfielders received were around the central line. This could be attributed to the high defensive line the team played with, but given how Southampton’s forward were effective in their ‘suffocating’ job it was to be expected one of the midfielders to offer increased roaming movement to try and present themselves as ‘open’ passing angles.
Only a couple of times Huddles tone tried to drop deep towards the centre-backs to collect the ball of them in order to work around Southampton’s marking patterns. Not a surprise that this coincident with Huddlestone receiving the ball in space to quickly switch the play towards the front quartet.
The general route of the home team, given how well the midfielders were occupied and how poor they managed to deal with it, to bring the ball out was to feed the fullbacks. The problem was that it came on the back of dwelling on the ball from the centre-backs or only after a few passes exchanged between Vertonghen and Dawson. Logically, by the time the fullbacks got the ball Southampton’s wingers were already in their intended positions within the 4-2-2-2 shape and the Spurs’ midfielders and front players were largely occupied and denied any space. As a result even as receiving the ball most often than anyone else, Essou-Ekotto (received the ball 56 times) and Walker (received the ball 45 times) simply passed the ball sideways or backwards.
As a result there was no picked up intensity, no increase in the tempo with the ball spending too much time within the back four and without being able to reach the midfielders, let alone the front quartet.
The other problem main problem wasn’t in relation to how well Southampton’s nullifying tactics were working. It was to do with the nature of the home team’s attacking players. The four of Dempsey, Bale, Lennon and Defoe are all players who are generally unwilling to join the build-up phase by going into sequences of passing combinations geared up towards moving the ball higher up the pitch smoothly with the team moving as a unit. All of them are players who are principally waiting the ball to reach them in order to run with it (Bale, Lennon) or as quickly as possible finish the whole team move (Dempsey, Defoe). With the team having so much difficulties bringing the ball out of the back four into a meaningful way it was to be expected the front players to start drop deep, coming towards the play and offer themselves as a passing angles. But neither of them did so and it was even harder for the home team to work around both the marking patterns and the solid positioning displayed by Southampton.
Lennon, as mentioned above, was simply marked out by Shaw, apart a couple of times when he beat him for pace but was then quickly crowded out by other players coming into help (something that the Saints were able to offer due to their compact nature). Meanwhile Dempsey tried to receive the ball in the zone Clyne vacated initially, but by being either too sloppy or sluggish with his passing he was unable to offer more of a threat.
Cork and Davis completely squeezed the space for Bale between the lines. At least the Welsh winger showed some intelligence to start and drift wider, generally towards the left flank as there where the generally free zone (due to Clyne being so active pushing forward). Few times Bale and Dempsey found themselves in that zone only to don’t know what exactly to do and how to proceed in exploiting the sudden free space they were into. Defoe was trying to work the channels and although he received few good balls from deep, as soon as he controlled the ball he found himself crowded out and no one near enough him in order to exchange some passes and found a continuance of the attacking move.
All of this made the first half being completely controlled by Southampton. Although statistically both teams attempted and completed identical numbers of passes, the visitors were having the organization and clear ideas how to act in any given situation. In defence they were effective in nullifying the opposition’s strengths, while in attack they had the suitable tactics to threat by having the passing flow that would be morphed into meaningful attacking moves. Spurs were completely suffocated in the truest sense of the word. They couldn’t work around the way Southampton’s marked them, nor they were able to find a way to involve their dangerous players. As it could be seen from the below chalkboard, the home team spend the majority of their passing in deep areas, while the visitors had their fair share higher up, constantly trying to allow their attacking intensity leading to dangerous team moves.
A case could be made that Villas-Boas should have done something to re-arrange and refresh his team seeing the complete dominance and controlling of the game by Southampton. Arguably the Portuguese manager could have switched to 4-1-2-3 in order to have Huddlestone permanently closer to the centre-backs and the fullbacks pushed up higher up the pitch. This would have enable way for Spurs to find a spare man to work the ball around Southampton’s forwards and feed the fullbacks in positions when they would be able to receive the ball and run with it. Additionally swapping Bale and Dempsey would have lead to Bale and Lennon both stretching the play, latching on the potential diagonal passes from Huddlestone. It was evident that Bale was anyway drifting to the wide, so positioning him there would have led to him being constantly in the free zone left by Clyne. With Dempsey central, Tottenham would have two midfielders who would, similarly to the wide pairs, receive the ball and rush forward. All of this could have led to Spurs creating one-on-one battles down the flanks and through the middle for their players’ mobility and dribbling skills to shine through.
As it turns out, Dembele got injured in the 36th minute with Holtby replacing him. Additionally Villas-Boas swapped Bale and Dempsey but without any improvement in the way the back four were prevented playing the ball out that particular change had little positive effect.
Start of the second half
The first fifteen minutes of the second half continued the pattern of the first half. The difference was that Southampton appeared even more cautious and carefully acting on and off the ball. Their pressing from higher up the pitch dropped with now the team focused even more on limiting the space between their lines and down the channels. With Bale now on the left, Clyne had to hold his position and watch out for him.
Still, when in possession the Saints executed the same patterns of play as in the first half with the constant interchanging and roaming of the front quartet enough to create decent attacking moves. There were a couple of situation presented for Lallana, with the first one in particular once again as a result of that fluid movement on and off the ball.
Crucially, the visitors continue to have their forwards with the same discipline occupying the path between Spurs’ centre-backs and midfielders. So Spurs remained to have the same problems as in the whole first half, simply being unable to play the ball out of the deep zones.
Villas-Boas second change came in the 60th minute – Adebayor replaced Lennon with Dempsey now down the right flank.
Tactically the change didn’t provide anything new. But somehow it provided some much needed spark for both crowd and players. Not that Adebayor is the most inspiring player, simply that this change signalled Spurs’ attention to boost their attacking potency and start pushing for a goal. With Spurs now more of a 4-2-2-2 too, Southampton were matched man for man all over the pitch.
That spark resulted in increased urgency on the ball of all players. Now the back four players didn’t dwell so much on the ball with all of them passing the ball quicker. The fullbacks even started to run more with it, trying to carry the ball forward and into the midfielders and attackers feet. All of this resulted in drastically increased tempo and new-found intensity among the Spurs’ players. Now, the fact Assou-Ekotto and Walker were the most fed players started to bear fruits with both of them much more positive in their all-round actions.
It was also in that period, when the home team managed to create their best attacking combination. In the 68th minute Huddlestone lofted the ball from deep towards Adebayor in the penalty area who intelligently laid it off for the onrushing from wide Dempsey. Unfortunately for the home team the American failed to connect properly with the ball and his show went wayward. But it was that increased intensity and urgency on and off the ball that resulted in Tottenham finally finding a way to pose a threat to Southampton.
That period could be easily labelled as the time Spurs laid the platform for a sustained and massive late push, given how drastically improved they looked. But the way the next twenty minutes panned out shows this wasn’t the case at all. Quickly Tottenham’s initial impulse faded away with Southampton adjusted to the new surroundings. The visitors simply dropped even deeper, focusing on even more resilient defending and reliable passing when in possession.
It was in the 72nd minute when Villas-Boas made his third change that eventually would have proved the most important. Dempsey was replaced by Sigurdsson with him and Bale now inverted down the flanks. The change didn’t provide anything different as the home team continue to lack any ideas or abilities to penetrate the visitors. What’s more, even with by a minimal margin, Southampton out passed Tottenham and were the more positive on the ball team in the last twenty minutes.
That is why it could be said that the fact that Spurs had gone to score the winning goal was rather unfortunate on Southampton. But the goal came on the back of pattern that was evident following Villas-Boas changes and the way his team at least improved compared to the first half showing. A crucial role played the decreased efficiency of what Southampton have been doing up to this moment.
In the 86th minute Southampton were attacking, again trying to overload the right flank with Puncheon, now playing on the left as he replaced Lallana in the 80th minute, coming narrow as Lallana was doing too. But as soon as Tottenham regained the ball both he and Mayuka, who now played as the second forward with Rodriguez switched to the right flank, were too sluggish to track back and offer the same defending pattern. With Puncheon narrow it was expected for Mayuka, now in the role of Rodriguez, to drift wider and cover the flank as Walker was fed on the outside and were in position to bomb on and overload Shaw. Alternatively, with Mayuka obviously remaining central it was Davis’ job to go to the left and provide support for Shaw against both Walker and Bale. As it turned out Walker was left free to push forward and pass to Bale who quickly cut infield before he curled the ball back into the net. Shaw could be faulted by not putting enough pressure on Ball, but by initially being overloaded from Bale and Walker the fullback could be excused by delaying his exact reaction and allowing Bale to speed up, which ultimately made his late challenge to put Bale off the ball redundant as Bale was already bursting past him.
As soon the goal came in it was obvious for everyone it was a game over. Southampton tried some attacking moves, but they did it half-heartedly and without any sign of their previous assertiveness.
Post Match Thoughts
Surely the main talking points would be in relation to Southampton’s overall behaviour throughout the whole match. The way they nullified the opposition and in turn attacked should be credit for the in-depth preparation from the manager and the dedication in the execution of the master plan shown by the players. Meanwhile Tottenham were overly off colour throughout the game. The home team needed a couple of in-game changes and lapses in the concentration (following the re-arranged that Pochettino of his team later on) to nick a goal. Villas-Boas perhaps should be criticized for his team largely inadequate behaviour in this game. But in the meantime most probably deserves praises for the in-game changes that although didn’t provide massive difference allowed certain sequences of events to ‘click’ and his best match-winning player to have the platform to once again shine.
Still, the game should be remembered for Pochettino’s first attempt to provide some different strategical scenarios and emphasis on nullifying the opposition by some subtle tactical decisions alongside his usual way of having his team attacking with urgency and fluidity. A game was lost, but something much more valuable for the long-term might have been gained for Southampton under Pochettino.