Sunderland and Tottenahm came into this Monday night match with just two wins between them across both teams’ last five league fixtures. The poor run of form left Sunderland bottom of the Premier League and Spurs sitting just outside a Europa League spot in seventh position, one point behind Manchester United. Tottenham still had an ever so slight chance of catching both Everton and Arsenal to grab a Champions League spot this season but needed this home match to go their way to stop Everton leaving them for dead in the race for fourth spot.
The away side set out in a three center-back, two striker system,with wing-backs employed to control the flanks. Tottenham countered with an incredibly loose 4-4-2 formation that was more a 4-4-1-1 in possession. In reality it is almost pointless to try and affix numbers to Tottenham’s possession based formation, as their movement looked to be completely unhindered to anything resembling a carefully laid plan for going at Sunderland with the ball. And with Tim Sherwood’s reputation what it is, there probably was no plan. The approach worked against a weak side as the creative abilities of Christian Eriksen were on full display in a brilliant performance.
Initially looking at Sunderland’s 3-1-4-2/5-3-2 against Tottenham’s 4-4-2, it looked as if Gus Poyet had countered Sherwood’s system perfectly. Three center-backs against two strikers creates a favorable 3 vs 2 at the back in both defending against the strikers and playing the ball around them in possession. Additionally, the two strikers could cause Spurs’ back four any number of problems with runs in behind, movement in the channels and of course the now done-to-death routine of catching Spurs’ fullbacks up the pitch and getting in behind their high line with ease.
What happened, however, was quite different from what the formation-battle looked like on the team sheets. Firstly, Adebayor did not play as an out and out striker or a second striker or a number ten or a winger, in possession he had complete freedom of White Hart Lane and took up positions just about everywhere by the end of the match. He received a pass 71 times, at times dropping off the back-line, coming even deeper and taking possession off Tottenham’s center-back pairing, drifting wide out left and right to create overloads against Sunderland’s wing-backs and also managed to get in and around the area as well, scoring a pair of goals from six attempts and providing four chances as well, all the while completing 62 of 69 attempted passes (90%). His movement defied Sunderland the ability to have an even or man advantage in just about any area of the pitch.
Sunderland also failed to exploit the potential for 2 vs 2 situations, with their strike duo against Spurs’ center-back pairing. They had only 40% of the possession and did not pass particularly well when they did, completing only 72% of their passes. Adam Johnson partnered with Fabio Borini up top for Sunderland and both struggled to influence the match. Johnson was the poorer of the two as he mustered only one shot and received the ball just once in Spurs’ area. Borini fared a bit better offering up three shots, two on target, but all from outside the area. Too often they were outlets to move possession up field but didn’t get the support from midfield to sustain possession or create chances on their own.
Tottenham also did a good job holding their defensive line, as they caught Sunderland offside four times, and all four passes originated from inside Spurs’ half. They weren’t burned with balls over the top and Borini and Johnson caused Vlad Chiriches and Younes Kaboul little trouble. That pairing of Kaboul and Chiriches has not been common this season as both have missed time due to injury for long stretches, especially Kaboul. They are, however, the quickest center-back pairing Tottenham can field and they did an excellent job tracking runs, stepping out from the line for a tackle, covering one another and showing Sunderland players away from goal. It is only Sunderland but it makes one wonder how that pairing may have fared against some of the teams that have exposed Spurs’ lack of a holding mid, high line and bold runs from their full-backs so often this season.
The most glaring and easily recognised potential issue with a 3-5-2/5-3-2 system is for the wing-backs being unable to control the flanks by themselves as they must act like both a fullback and midfielder. The problem from asking one player to play two roles is that there is only one of them and if they get overloaded on their flank they’re left making decisions that will always give the opponents a way forward or a way to keep possession. Tottenham exploited this over and over again in this match and eventually Poyet was forced to change the system.
In the opening fifteen minutes Tottenham Hotspur created crossing opportunities from both flanks as Naughton put in a cross to essentially no one, Rose crossed from the opposite side and nearly found Adebayor in the area and Eriksen had a cross from the right that nearly turned into a goal and forced Mannone to tip over for a corner. At least initially though Bardsley, the right wing-back, handled Rose well enough as he stayed just far enough away from him to not invite him to make a run for the byline and leave him room to cross, which Rose is not particularly good at.
After Spurs went behind from a horrible square pass from Naughton to what appeared to be no one in a Tottenham shirt, Eriksen found himself in 1 v 1 wide on Spurs’ left in the 28th minute and he was more than capable of taking advantage of the space afforded to him as his cross found Adebayor at the back post and Spurs were level. Eriksen created the space after Harry Kane drifted wide left and laid off to Eriksen, Kane then moved into the area and took a Sunderland defender with him, allowing Eriksen to manoeuvre himself into a position to put in a cross.
Eriksen then began to utilize the left flank more, as shortly after the goal he moved wide and this time Rose drifted centrally, Eriksen found him with a pass and Rose got a shot away that narrowly missed the target. Late on in the first half Eriksen popped up again on the right side and crossed towards Adebayor, this time making a run from the left in which he managed to get inside of Bardsley and Tottenham nearly took the lead.
The movement from Spurs’ players was as free as you will find, it was not just Eriksen and Adebayor, at times Paulinho was the furthest man forward, as the fullbacks were coming centrally, Lennon was wide or in the middle, their possession play truly defied any formation, aside from the centre-backs sitting back watching the show. It was anything but dull to watch and the type of free play Tottenham can employ with the talent they have when playing against relegation-bound opposition.
In the second half, shortly before Spurs’ second goal, Naughton received a pass situated on the right of midfield and was picked up by Alonso, Sunderland’s left wing-back, this left a massive gap for Lennon to run into, Naughton slipped him a pass and Lennon raced down the pitch, crossed and nearly found Eriksen for a goal. It was just two minutes later when Eriksen once again crossed from wide on Sunderland’s right side and found Kane to touch one in right in front of Mannone and give Spurs the lead. Eriksen threaded a fantastic through ball to Lennon, as he had moved back over to Sunderland’s left and only a mistimed pass from Lennon denied Kane another shot from point blank range.
Poyet had seen enough and brought on two changes, Ignacio Scocco on for Cattermole and Craig Gardner on for Carlos Cuellar. Now Sunderland would move to 4-3-3 and deployed Borini centre, Johnson right and Scocco left as the front three. In the six minutes between the switch and Eriksen’s goal to kill the game, Sunderland created a few threatening chances. Borini headed down a long ball that found Scocco for a shot that forced a save from Hugo Lloris a minute after the change. Then Alonso hit Johnson with a long cross field pass from Sunderland’s left, over to their right and Johnson won a free kick against Danny Rose in a 1 v 1 just outside the area.
That extra spark in attack gave Sunderland hope but that hope was ended when Nacer Chadli found Eriksen free at the top of Sunderland’s area and he fired in a low shot at the near post to beat Mannone, put Tottenham 3-1 up and seal the victory. That Eriksen was now able to find space in a central position from which to shoot is not a surprise considering Sunderland had controlled that space well for most of the game with three midfielders and three centre-backs but they didn’t adjust to their new responsibilities quick enough now being one man lighter in a key area and Eriksen capitalised.
Tottenham would go on to score two more goals, notably only in that the fourth saw Kane and Adebayor partner together like a more traditional striker partnership, as a long pass looking for Adebayor was headed down by a Sunderland defender to Kane who’s shot forced a save from Mannone – that he could not handle – and the ball was rolling slowly into the net and may have made it across the line but Adebayor tapped it in to make sure and bagged his second goal. The fifth goal in stoppage time allowed Tottenham to drag their goal difference back to zero. This is the third time this season in which Spurs have taken a hammering to see their goal difference drop below zero only to slowly get it back to even.
The result moves Tottenham Hotspur back ahead of Manchester United in the battle for sixth spot and a Europa League campaign and keeps them on the fringe of either grabbing fourth spot or catching their red-shirted co-occupants of North London or both. For Sunderland, they remain bottom of the Premier League and are seemingly at a loss for a finding a way out.