Welcome back everyone! Just to reiterate, the Spurs are a really fun club to follow. Aesthetically pleasing hi-tempo style; young, likable and slightly villainous players; smart and passionate coach; and a shrewd team president who is half way through implementing a 10 year plan to make them one of the big money clubs in England. They’re quite a bit below Arsenal and Liverpool in spending but way above the next tier of teams like Everton, Leicester, and West Ham who have no real shot at securing consistent European qualification. And Spurs are in the Champions League!
On to the game review. 2-1 away win to Middlesbrough. Our third win in a row and an easy result. The English media is trying to spin a narrative that the Spurs were given a run for their money late in the game, but this game was over after 20 minutes. What they should have been talking about was that Middlesbrough’s uniforms are from the early 2000s–baggy, long shorts, 1990s shoulder stripes, Italian-esque body stripes, and just shitty looking. I don’t know if this was some sort of secret throwback alternative kit or if the team is just afraid that their disgustingly fat fans might buy a form-fitting kit and try to wear it in public but it might have made anyone cry if he watched the game.
Anyway, we opened up with a half-strength lineup and played a variation on our typical 4-2-3-1 with Alli and Wanyama at the CM pivot instead of Dembele and Dier; Son, Erikson, and Sissoko playing left to right in AM; Janssen in the striker slot; and Davies at left back. It looked something like this:
Possibly due to stylistic differences, we played quite differently than normal. Sissoko stayed way out wide forcing Walker to pinch in from right back. Wanyama sat very deep while Alli and Erikson rotated playing the pivot. Janssen made almost no Harry Kane-type steep runs and operated almost exclusively like a center in basketball acting as a distributor from the high post. It was a forward-pushing, but very flat formation that almost looked like a 4-1-1-4 with Walker and the pivot keeping control of the midfield. I’ve diagrammed it thusly:
As you can guess by my doodles, I did not rate Sissoko or Davies highly this game. That’s because they were garbage. Here’s a map of Sissoko’s contributions. Blue are good, red are bad, a prize to the person who can figure out which goal he was trying to score on:
Sissoko went out injured in the 70th minute–a knock to the head–and was replaced by Lamela. Here’s what Lamela contributed in 1/5th the time from the same position. Almost every single ball is in the attacking direction.
I don’t know what Sissoko is trying to do on the pitch but he’s nowhere near the same page as the rest of the team. His positioning was detrimental to Walker, Alli and Erikson, and when he would get the ball it was rarely given back in a more advanced position. Sometimes he takes on defenders but they always drive him to the corner flag where the best case scenario is never more than hopeful cross getting deflected out for a corner kick. Maybe it’s because he’s only been with the club for 4 weeks, but he does not fit what we’re doing.
Davies, on the other hand, has no excuses. He’s been on the team for years so he knows the tactics but his passing was terrible, the timing on his forward runs were confusing and left gaping holes in the D, and he was consistently beat by his man to crosses at the far post. Middlesbrough had exactly 4 crosses from their left to right and all four found Davies’ man or went over Davies’ head to the man he should have been marking. Danny Rose is weak against aerial crosses but he makes up for it by staying goal-side and not letting his man find space behind him. Here are all 6 of Middlesbrough’s shots. The two gray ones were blocked in plays that I can’t remember. The other four are headed balls following crosses by the man running at the far post. That’s it. That’s the entirety of Middlesbrough’s attack. Davies misplaying all 4 of his opportunities to defend crosses:
So here’s what was good. Our offensive rotation was fluid and potent. Our attackers were coordinated and creative and looked to set each other up. We consistently created scoring chances and harried the ‘brough defense into turning the ball back over in their own half. We had long stretches of possession that strangled the life out of them while not slowing the game down. When the ball does get sent out, Alderweirald is our Belgian falcon swooping around the field picking off passes and through balls with the foresight of a clairvoyant.
Games like today prove that we can roll out a diminished line up against the lesser teams and not really miss out on much. Our fatal flaw last season was that any lineup that didn’t include our top 11 was significantly worse. Late season fatigue ended our chances to really push for the title. Last week against shitty Sunderland with a top line up this was our expected goals (xG) map:
And this week we took our foot off the pedal at halftime and still put up 1.7xG:
Son will get the plaudits for this game and that’s reasonable. He came into the match having put 2 screamers past Stoke and looking to take advantage of another starting spot. In August, he requested a transfer back to the Bundesliga following his underwhelming first year in the BPL. Pochettino talked him out of it and looks like the genius that he is. Here are the match highlights, including Son’s two goals:
The first goal is remarkable for two reasons. First, Janssen’s hold up play is par excellence. He could have held onto that for 30 more seconds if he wanted. Second, note that Son is coming from the right and Sissoko is manning the far post on the left. Erikson provides the starter pass to Janssen. All 3 AMs are out of “position” which shows the flexibility and fluidity in Poche’s system. Pep Guardiola of Man City literally drew a chalk mark on the pitch for Raheem Sterling to stand on like a fucking robot. Poche just gets guys who can play, outlines a strategy, and unleashes them.
The second goal is laudable for the hustle that Son shows winning the ball back. Not exactly quality D by ‘brough but the shot was inch perfect. Valdez the GK didn’t even try to save it.
In the ‘brough chances on goal, look for Ben Davies (33) not defending anyone or getting goal-side of his man. Terrible.
With our comfortable 23rd minute 2-0 lead the ref put the whistle in his pocket and we played a gentleman’s game. Not a lot of fouls and Dele Alli actually checked on an injured Smoggie instead of just giving them the hairy eyeball. Not shown on that xG map is the two very reasonable penalty calls that were waved off for no discernible reason in the first half. Alli got inside his man twice and was tripped from behind on the first one (no ball contact at all) and the defender knocked the ball out of the air with his arm on the second one. In the second half, Son was denied a penalty after getting tripped in the box (no ball contact on that one either) so at least the ref was consistent.
‘Brough seemed happy with the 2-0 loss too. The only players in red who took exception were the GK Valdez who nearly attacked his own defender for not tracking back and had to be restrained by another defender, and the left winger who pushed the ball into dangerous areas only to find that there were zero teammates following or making runs.
As the second half opened up, we relaxed. Erikson and Alli were completely in control of the midfield in what was probably the most complete game by the two of them all season. They should have had an assist-goal combo after Erikson stole the ball from a dawdling ‘brough defender and slipped it to Alli who lifted it over the keeper and bar from 8 yards out. It was a silly miss but didn’t feel like anything at the time given our total control of the game.
Around the 65th minute ‘brough made a double switch and one of the new guys made a mazey run up the middle of the pitch. It was an exciting play that didn’t really turn into anything but the announcers got excited and decided that Middlesbrough was back in the game and that was going to be the narrative. They scored off a silly Wanyama foul free kicktwo minutes later when our man Davies whiffed on the header and Wanyama’s man climbed over his back to finish it. Poor defending by both men, but very much against the run of play.
This wasn’t Spurs best game of the season but the guys who played well, Janssen, Alli, Erikson, Son, Walker, Alderweirald, and Vertonghen were very good and might have won the game by more if the other guys weren’t on the pitch. Bill Simmons jokes about the Milton Berle game (pulling out just enough to win) and this was very much an example of that. It was easy even if the score line doesn’t reflect it.
Player ratings (-5 to +5)
Janssen (2) – strong in his hold up play, got the assist on Son’s first, and could have gotten more assists with better finishing.
Son (3) – aggressive, 2 smartly taken goals, hustled all game
Alli (3) – would have scored higher had he converted the easy chance that he put over the bar
Erikson (3) – Man of the match. Controlled the middle of the pitch
Sissoko (-2) – I’m sure he’ll score a goal or three this season but given the way he’s playing it’ll be a fluke play not by intention
Wanyama (-1) – Knows how to do the dirty work in the CM spot to slow down an attack but switches off too easily and was beat for Middlesbrough’s goal
Davies (-4) – Awful. Was lucky that we weren’t facing an actual offense that could have really exploited him
Vertonghen (1) – Tough to rate. I think most of his action was trying to cover for Davies.
Alderweirald (3) – Never a wrong step. Is a great source of pin-point forward crosses when our O is having trouble stretching their D.
Walker (3) – Adapted well to Sissoko being shitty and taking advantage of the space available to him
Lloris (-1) – Not a very good game for our keeper. Not responsible for the goal, but was poor in distribution in his few chances. No real saves to speak of.
Lamela (2) – creative and aggressive in his 15 minutes of sub time.
Winks (0) – I want to rate him higher. Only had a few minutes of sub time but looked smooth and comfortable in the midfield. Hope we see more of him in blow out games or against weaker competition.
N’Koudou (0) – pacy and youthful. Only had a few minutes of sub time but was really aggressive in his defensive press and pushed hard to create a shot in his only opportunity. Good effort at the least.
Our next match is Tuesday against CSKA Moscow in our second Champions League match. We travel there. English soccer teams traveling to Moscow–a 3.5 hour flight–complain like people in the LA’s South Bay going East of the 405. It’s not that big a deal and at least the team is doing it in September and not December. I’ll do some research on CKSA tomorrow. The game is being shown on Fox Sports 2 at 11:30am PST Tuesday.