Spurs Week 7

Man City Down!!!

Hopefully you’ve all seen the game. If not, it’s worth watching on-demand if you can find it.

City, as mentioned, is the best team in the BPL. Their attack is so potent–3 goals per game–that it makes their above average D a non-factor. Led by former Barca and Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola, they quickly adopted his tactics, won 9 of their first 10 games, and looked unstoppable though unpolished. Pep is the best manager in the game. He has only coached at Barca (junior team then senior team) and Bayern and in just those 400 top flight games he’s had a win percentage of 75%. That’s insane. His player proteges have basically been the core of the winning and losing teams of each of the last two world cup finals. He is a truly transformative manager who takes talent and puts a high polish on them. Strategically, he’s known for build up play and controlling the channels that are between defenders. It looks like this:
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He tries to put no more than 2 guys in any “box” and actively works to dominate the light shaded channels. He tends to put numbers forward, and leave a defensive trio plus a sweeper-keeper GK to clean up anything that squirts through the midfield. That was why Joe Hart was pushed out in favor of the less technically proficient Claudio Bravo in goal. Bravo can pass and doesn’t mind the ball at his feet. Hart loves to shank punts into the fifth row at midfield. (Just for fun, here’s Zlatan punishing Hart for not being better as an outfield player: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ck5P30zC3Z0). Guardiola’s teams line up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1, but really it operates as a W-M or W-W shape like this pass map from their 4-0 win over Bournemouth:
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Spurs had two advantages going into this game. First, Kevin De Bruyne–the best attacking player in the game–was injured. Second, City haven’t looked good on D. They give up goals, they give up chances, and their offensive pressure leaves them vulnerable to counter-attacking teams. Spurs are a team that create chances through pressing, and are scary on the counter. This was definitely an interesting match up and several notable pundits flagged it as a potential Spurs win.
Spurs were without Harry Kane and Mousa Dembele, but Sissoko, Dier, and Rose made it back from injury. Among the Spurs-fan pundits there was a lot of agitating for a more defensive lineup (Dier/Winks at the pivot with Wanyama, Erikson/Son/Lamela at AM, Janssen at striker). Instead, Poche decided to tango. Get it?! He’s Argentinian! We lined up like this:
Son
Lamela, Alli, Sissoko
Erikson, Wanyama
Rose, Vertonghen, Alderweirald, Walker
Lloris
Spurs came out like a shot and immediately put City on their heels. Son and Alli were really aggressive on the press and Son created a few quick chances in the opening minutes. Janssen has been playing the lone striker/holder role with his back to the basket, so to speak. Son, positioned himself wider, faced the goal and made very vertical runs. City’s defenders, Stones and Otamendi were not handling it well. It forced a lot of passes to Bravo that didn’t lead to much. Bravo was supposed to be City’s supplemental defender who would turn back passes into outlet passes and allow the wing backs to stay higher up the field. Because of Son’s pressure, the wing backs were dropping ever deeper making City’s passes through the midfield longer and easier to pick off.
Erikson and Wanyama were incredible. They harried the passing lanes and positioned well off of each other. I’ve been harsh on Wanyama for most of the season but his game this weekend was everything we could have hoped for. While Erikson was covering box-to-box and sideline to sideline, Wanyama was defending the “False 8” or central attacking midfielder. Without the injured De Bruyne, City played Silva in the role and he was effectively controlled the entire match through solid defending and timely fouls to stop build up. He even had a few forward runs into the box which I hadn’t previously noticed from him. With Wanyama anchoring the midfield, Erikson out-hustled and out-passed Fernando and Fernandinho. Look at his activity map, he was everywhere:
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And his passes received show how much ground he was covering. Short passes everywhere:
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And this was his defensive presence in a game that was free-flowing but in an attack-and-parry way and not possession attacking. His performance was compared to Luka Modric which is the highest praise available to a creative holding midfielder.
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In the first Erikson action map, note how vertical his attacking half passes were. Absent from some of our previous matches was the threat of vertical attacks. After the CSKA match I tried to show that our passing gets really flat around the top off the opposition box. Typically we’re facing a flat back 4 holding the line and rebuffing our advances. I’m not sure if it was City’s positioning or our strategy, but we rarely controlled the ball with methodically advancing passes and the D never quite got organized to oppose us. It resulted in more vertical runs from the midfielders (Son and Alli in particular) and City never got comfortable.
As their D separated further and further from their O, it opened up space for Walker and Rose on the sidelines and in the channels. Both men exploited acres of space and Rose got lucky with a hopeful cross to the back post that Kolarov bungled in for an own goal. It was a lucky break but fit the momentum of the opening few minutes. You can see the goal here: http://cartilagefreecaptain.sbnation.com/2016/10/2/13137302/watch-aleksandar-kolarov-s-own-goal-give-spurs-lead-vs-man-city I think it’s relevant to note that Rose was further upfield than Lamela when he received the pass and Alli and Sissoko were unmarked in the box during the cross. We had numbers and pressure and they were not adequately prepared to defend against it.
The second goal was also a product of pressure and hustle and pushing numbers forward. http://cartilagefreecaptain.sbnation.com/2016/10/2/13137460/watch-dele-alli-put-spurs-two-goals-up-over-man-city Rose’s recovery tackle in the middle of the pitch slows the counter-attack down enough for Lamela to pry it away from the defender. Lamela then continues to stay on the action until the ball comes back to him. He feeds Son who feeds Alli, while Lamela continues his vertical run at the far post and pulls two defenders out of position. Alli runs into the space when he sees his intercepted pass fall to Son and Son lays off an inch-perfect assist at his feet. I love that the video is the full sequence, but I wish it had the replay from the other side of the field. You can see how Alli and Son spy the passing window opening up and how their movement happens before possession actually comes to Son. Great anticipation.
On defense we were ferocious. Normally, I think Vertonghen looks a little haphazard and Alderweirald mops up. On Sundaythey were both equal to the challenge of facing the best offense in the BPL. They stayed at home more and rarely ventured up field. Normally Toby gets up the field a little as a second central midfielder and uses over the top passes to try and soften up defenses that have packed it in. Instead, our guys were packed in. Here’s Toby’s action map. Only once did he attempt a long pass from the attacking half of the pitch. More notable is how many clearances (green circles) he made from our danger area.
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So for the first 70 minutes we pressured their back line, and bottled up their central midfielders, effectively strangling their midfield and playmaking. It was beautiful. Here was their pass map for the first 70 minutes.
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Compare that to their W-W shape from the first pass map and you can see how disruptive we were to their midfield and how pulling them out of shape and interrupting the flow out of the back prevented their attackers from doing anything. I think this heat map is even more effective. They were stuffed into the central third of the pitch while we occupied all of the open space. Our shape offers obvious passing lanes and theirs violates Pep’s channel/spacing strategy.
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Gundogan was subbed on for Fernando for the last 35 minutes of the game and around the 70 minute mark things opened up a bit for City. I think our legs were getting tired and we shifted into protecting our 2-0 lead instead of keeping on the attack. Gundogan and Iheanacho started creating chances for Aguero and there were some nervy moments. Lloris did well in the face of pressure and came up with some crucial saves. Somehow the game ended with City having 58% possession and a lot more passes than us. I guess that happened but until late in the game I felt like possession was all us. In hindsight we weren’t playing for possession but for attacking runs. It knocked our stat total down from their usual lofty tallies but the results speak for themselves.
Here is our passing map:
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Normally we see more possession passing (bigger circles, thicker connecting lines as noted in the CSKA and Middlesbrough passing maps below). I think this reflects a wholesale tactical change from a very familiar 4-2-3-1 configuration. That’s awesome to see and a great development from last season when we were one-dimensional, and if that wasn’t working our only option was to hope that a sub would shake things up. The new tactics also made our attacking shape much more balanced. I’d like to see more from Sissoko on the wing–he doesn’t seem to send many passes back into his teammates–but at the least he represents a more muscular, but slower version of Son which still fits our bully lineup.
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Going forward we have two sets of tactics from the same configuration, and each one slightly favors a different set of personnel. Based on last year’s success, I would describe them as:
Kane
Erikson, Alli, Lamela
Dier, Dembele
Rose, Vertonghen, Alderweirald, Walker
Lloris
Son
Lamela, Alli, Sissoko
Erikson, Wanyama
Rose, Vertonghen, Alderweirald, Walker
Lloris
It will be interesting to see how N’Koudou, Winks, and Janssen figure into these plans. Hopefully Poche can figure out modifications that play to their strengths in addition to straight swaps. Both of our 4-2-3-1 can functionally play as 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 lineups and have resembled them for stretches (Kane dropping deeper than Alli; Son and Alli simultaneously pressing; starting Kane, Son, Lamela, Alli, and Erikson in attack; etc). That tactical flexibility will be necessary for taking on the other good clubs and whatever else awaits us in the CL. We should be destroying the shit BPL teams with whatever lineup finds the field.
Player ratings (-5 to +5)
Son (+4) – High energy press, no lack of confidence in take-ons and shots, so happy he’s on our team
Alli (+4) – An excellent game with some excellent runs. Still trying to make too many clever passes and youtube highlight shots. Maybe that audacity is what makes him so good. Drew the PK with a really smart run through the middle.
Lamela (+1) – Hustle was key to the AM level press. Terrible, terrible miss on the PK that would have put us up 3-0 and ended the game 20 minutes early. Not his best passing or shooting game.
Sissoko (+0) – Some nifty solo runs up the wing but at no point did I feel like he was actually creating anything. Had some good tackles but spent too much time rolling around on the ground not getting a call and not getting the ball.
Erikson (+5) – Omniscient and omnipotent. Fantastic game. Took Fernando and Fernandinho out of the game simultaneously. Man of the match.
Wanyama (+5) – Heavy and punishing in his tackles. Took Silva out of the game. Brings an interesting variation on Dier’s game. Would hate to be a small guy playing against them.
Rose (+3) – Lucky to force the Kolarov own goal. Created some good chances. Neutralized the always dangerous Raheem Sterling. Sterling was lucky not to get a second yellow card.
Vertonghen (+4) – Impenetrable at the back despite facing the best offense in the league
Alderweirald (+4) – See Vertonghen
Walker (+4) – Is looking better going forward every week. I was listening to a soccer podcast today and they put him forward as the best right back in the world. No one could come up with a better alternative based on current run of play.
Lloris (+3) – Some great reaction saves and kept a clean sheet against the best offense in the league.
Dier (+3) – Came on for the last 20 minutes when legs were getting tired. His hammy looks fine. Was a good box-to-box defender
NKoudou (+1) – Late sub for Lamela. Brought tons of energy and pace but spent his possessions trying to do it all himself. It looked like it annoyed City more than worried them.
Janssen (+0) – Very late sub. Didn’t do anything except body slam a few guys. Fun to watch but didn’t contribute anything.
Next up is a runaway hype train and the international break. Most of our guys will be playing for their national teams in WC qualifying. Our next real match is October 15th away to West Brom and we follow up with matches every 4 days until the end of November. Hopefully the guys can find some rest and Dembele and Kane’s recoveries come along on schedule.

Champions League

CKSA

Just watched the CSKA match.

The CKSA crowd was really loud. I was imagining 30,000 very drunk Russians working themselves into a near-anarchic lather. I can see why it might be unnerving to play there. Well, not so much play, as leave safely after the game. Check your tea for Polonium.
I watched the game looking for to see if we have a striker problem and I agree that we may have a blind spot there. Janssen worked hard, but he frequently backs into one of the CBs and tries to box them out in an attempt to hold and dish,or turn and strike. So far he’s better at the hold up but other than that one dish off to Son against Middlesbrough he hasn’t created much. And he hasn’t been good enough at turning opportunities into shots on target. Time will tell if he figures out our system, or the BPL, or just finds a hot streak. Perhaps he’ll just be the guy who gets minutes when we need a front line defender to spell Kane when we’re holding onto a 2 goal lead in the 75th minute.
I was looking at our pass trackers over the past few games and there’s a pattern.
4-0 win over Stoke:
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1-0 win over Sunderland:
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2-1 win over Middlesbrough:
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1-0 win over CSKA:
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In all four of those matches we’re controlling the whole field except hit a wall about 22 yards from goal. It makes sense in that’s where the center backs stand, but it also aligns with our playing style of lateral/outside-in runs. With all of our attacking midfielders pushing so far up the field, we need vertical runs from deeper to break the defensive line.  The other options are passes from the wing backs into the near post or over the top passes. All three of those are in our repertoire. We haven’t had an awesome shred-them-to-ribbons game yet where those dinky Alli-Lamela-Erikson 1-2 passes turn into open shots, but it happened a bunch when we peaked Feb-March last year so we have it in us.
For comparison, here are the pass trackers for Man City’s 2-1 win over Swansea and 4-0 win over Bournemouth:
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They’ve scored 80% more goals than us with about the same number of passes and shots. I think they’re getting a little closer to goal than we are with their passes. I checked their shot locations and they look pretty similar to ours. Perhaps they’re 2-4 yards closer and that makes a big conversion rate difference. I’m not sure. On the other hand, it’s only been 6 games. If you strip out the 3 PKs they’ve scored (compared to our 0) they’re getting a free 0.5 goals per game awarded to them that we’re not. Or, maybe they’re just better at finishing? You’d hope so given the value of their players is double ours.
Back to the game. I thought we were pretty blah in the first half. In particular, Alli was mediocre. His passes were sloppy, his shots were wasteful, he couldn’t dribble and his timing was weird. Hitting the crossbar early made him look more productive than he was. And his first half giveaway after he dribbled back deep into our half should have put us behind 1-0. Lamela and Son weren’t very impactful either. CSKA was also very well organized in defense and played their offsides trap really well. They nailed Janssen and Son several times and Son’s goal could have been called either way (although I think he was onsides and it was legit). Traore up top was a handful. It’s not often Vertonghen and Alderweirald are at a loss for size, strength, and speed. And he worked hard. There’s your striker target man, E.
In the second half we picked it up. Son was much better, and Davies, Vertonghen, and Alderweirald were excellent, but my man of the match was Erikson. He was the conductor, moving the pieces, linking passes, and opening up opportunities. He was too eager to shoot from distance early in the game, but after the first half hour he was really good. His 50 yard knee high laser to a streaking Alli at the far post was brilliant and would have been a tournament highlight had Alli turned it goalward. Janssen didn’t quite make it happen, but I like that he beat the keeper with a flick during one of his offsides calls. They were both going for it and Janssen won even if it doesn’t make it onto the scoresheet. NKoudou looked dangerous as a sub. I’m liking this guy and he’s very different from the other guys he’d be replacing. Poche likes having utilitarian cogs to swap out across his positions but having another speed merchant/dribbler is pretty exciting (besides Son). We definitely lacked that last season. Now we need to see NKoudou shoot.
Player Ratings (-5 to +5)
Janssen (+0) Decent hold up play, hustle as usual, couldn’t find enough good shots or passes from that lead role.
Son (+2) Better second half than first. Can’t fault the lone goal scorer though.
Lamela (+1) Better second half than first. Thought he was going to get booked for petulance in the first half. Good to see that he still owns the gloves. And the guyliner.
Erikson (+3) My man of the match
Alli (-1) Wasteful. Bad giveaways. Goes to ground looking for a foul too easily. Everyone and their mother is looking for his soft penalty dives.
Wanyama (+1) A few poor giveaways but owned the central defensive midfield. Was always available for an outlet/restart pass
Davies (+3) Good bounce back game following that shitshow against ‘brough. Was quick going forward, made smart passes, didn’t leave a gaping hole in defense, and stuck some good tackles
Vertonghen (+2) Was getting pushed around by Traore but never let it turn into a card-worthy foul. Did his job.
Alderweirald. (+3) I always rate him higher than Vertonghen because I suspect Vertonghen is a dick. Also, Toby offers a lot more going forward. Sometime soon I’m going to write about his awesome long ball game. He’s like a sniper for over the top passes. And he gets his head on the ball a lot on corner kicks.
Trippier (+1) Got down the field well to create width in the attacking third. Tracked back well most of the time, but got beat around the corner at least twice.
Lloris (0) I want to rate him higher because I like him but he didn’t look very good claiming crosses. Toby and Jan made his job a lot easier today.
NKoudou (+3) That was fun.  Hope to see more of that soon.
Winks (+1) Not a lot of time on the ball, but looked good when he was in the play.
Here’s the Korean commentary during the Son goal. Tight pass by Toby to get it started. Nice assist for Lamela.

BPL Power Rankings

This season’s first edition!

To borrow a bit from the Men in Blazers, we’re now 5/38ths of the way through the season and that’s an unreduceable fraction. While it’s to draw many conclusions, we can check our expectations and the foolish narratives against what’s actually happening. In a few more weeks the European matches, FA Cup matches and League Cup matches will really start piling up and teams will have played different numbers of games. It’s also approximately 13% of the way through the season and that’s deserving of a power ranking.

I’m going to do this in two ways. First, a snapshot ranking that reflects where that team is right now. Second, a future ranking band that shows the range of positions where that team might finish the season.
  1. Man City – King of the hill. Pep’s strategy isn’t fully formed but he’s still playing 5 attackers at a time, among them Ginger King Kevin DeBryune. The only knock against them is that they are susceptible to counter attacks and never quite seem to put the game completely away. If I had to guess, they’ll figure it out and be quite untouchable this season.
  2. Liverpool – They play like Klopp’s personality–electric and frenetic. All three of their big signings this off season are really productive and they have the depth to change their strategy to match the game. Unfortunately for their opponents, they’re so strong in their preferred style that they won’t need to change much. Loss against Burnley was a statistical fluke, but they have conceded more than 1.5 goals a game.
  3. Spurs – Homer Pick! Actually, I have reason to put them here. 3 easy match ups, but 2 difficult ones. Draws in the difficult ones–and didn’t look great, but weren’t playing at full strength (Dembele, Lloris). A clicking Spurs side is a five-headed snake with a tail that stings. At our current level we still have the stingiest D in the league.
  4. Everton – Undefeated and second in points. They drew at home against Spurs but otherwise have faced only bottom half teams. That said, they have mostly destroyed their opposition. They lack depth but their best 7 guys are solid and in their primes.
  5. Arsenal – They would be higher on this list if they were managed by anyone other than Wenger. The man was a genius 20 years ago but you have to wonder if he’s out-thinking himself with some of his decisions. His starting lineups are confusing–sometimes missing strikers, sometimes missing central midfielders. They can be oh so good and shockingly bad in the space of 10 minutes. They’ve played the toughest schedule so far and are sitting in 4th (loss at home to Liverpool, draw away with Leicester, win away at Watford, win at home to Southampton, win away at Hull). Hard to predict how this team fares by coaching and by injuries.
  6. Chelsea – Hazard is back, Conte is scary, and Costa is an evil monster with 5 goals already this season. But their entire D is a significant step down from their attacking players and they don’t have much depth. Either new blood will come in and replace them or Chelsea’s ceiling is limited. Lackluster in their loss to Liverpool and flat in their draw against Swansea.
  7. Man United – Back to back league losses. Mourinho already blaming his players. Rashford, De Gea, and Pogba not good enough to hold up Rooney and Mata. Ibrahimovic is still dangerous but he spends a lot of time walking during the game. I think the biggest sign of Man U’s weakness is that their go-to substitution is Fellaini and the strategy change of targeting him in the box and hoping he can knock down a header for someone to toe-poke in. That’s not much of a strategy. It’s hardly better than hitting it at Peter Crouch and hoping for the same. The difference is that Fellaini plays in the center of the pitch and its a total liability on defense. At least Crouch hides as a forward. Another Mourinho meltdown would be fun to see.
  8. Watford – Outside of the top spots, Watford is the best of the rest. I don’t see them sitting this high for long, but they got a nice win against Man U, got beat by Arsenal and Chelsea, drew with Southampton, and came from 0-2 down to smoke West Ham. They’re scoring and conceding with regularity so it will be interesting to see what changes.
  9. Leicester – Losing Kante to Chelsea has somehow made both teams worse. The stoutness of Leicester’s D is gone–they’re league average in goals conceded. Their offense is still 2-speed: either Marhez creates something, or Vardy wins a footrace and knocks in a long ball. Their upcoming matches are Chelsea, Man U, and Southampton so we’ll know a lot more about this team by the first weekend of October.
  10. Southampton – 14th in the table but they’re a lot better than their results show. They lost their coach and a bunch of their best players and have reloaded and changed their style. Will be a top half club but not threaten the European spots. On to the rest of the teams that don’t really matter…
  11. Middlesborough – One of the promoted clubs, and started the season playing well. Draw with Stoke, win over Sunderland, and a draw with West Brom don’t look nearly as impressive now.
  12.  Hull – Shock opening weekend win over Leicester, a follow up win against Swansea, then a narrow loss to Man U. Those are great results for the team that was universally picked to be the worst in the BPL and possibly the worst of all time. At 5 points from 5 games, they may have gotten 25% of all the points they’re going to collect for the rest of the season, but for now they’re riding higher than the tire fires below them.
  13. West Brom – Some early season management chaos as their foreign owner was seriously ill and trying to sell the club to some Chinese guy. Sale finally went through and they celebrated by thrashing West Ham 4-2. They have a couple of former Spurs players including their leading scorer Nacer Chadli and former Spurs player of the year defender Michael Dawson.
  14. Crystal Palace – They looked awesome today while spanking Stoke. Andros “Nutmeg” Townsend was a monster. Two wins on the trot hides how bad they were the first 3 games of the season. In a season with more parity they might be in relegation trouble. With the obvious division between the haves and have-nots they’ll hover safely mid table.
  15. Swansea – Shit they’ve been bad. An unlucky draw against Chelsea was against their run of play. They have some talented players and a smooth offensive style but have been terrible in execution. I expect them to move up the table but discontent seems to fomenting.
  16. Bournemouth – Scoring 0.5 goals per game and giving up 2 is not a recipe for winning. That exaggerates the impact of their blowout loss to Man City this weekend. If not for that, they’d only be conceding 1 goal a game. So, now they’re boring and bad instead of just being bad.
  17. Burnley – Filthy cunts. 3 goals for, 8 goals against. That includes a shocking 2-0 win against Liverpool when ‘pool had 80% possession for the game. That’s the record for a team that lost. Without that win Burnley has 1 goal for and 8 goals against. Look away.
  18. West Ham – They’re getting downgraded to West Spam. They’ve lost their last 3 by a combined score of 11-5. They crashed out of Europa and things aren’t looking any better in the league. They can’t even claim to have played a tough schedule as their last two losses have been 4-2 against West Brom and Watford each. I’m not even sure how they’re going to play their way out of it as this is their full strength squad.
  19. Stoke – They’re about thiiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to getting Mark Hughes fired. Opening weekend draw and since then they’ve been smoked. 14 goals conceded is the worst in the league and 3 goals scored is tied for worst. That’s scoring less than a goal a game and conceding nearly 3. For a squad with this much talent, that’s clearly a motivation/tactical issue.
  20. Sunderland – They parked the bus against Spurs and only lost 1-0 because their GK stood on his head all game. They lack quality and depth and are racking up injuries and cards. They’re going to have to be the king of 0-0 draws if they want to have any chance of surviving.