“It is my job and my responsibility to find the solution,” remarked a disappointed Mauricio Pochettino after our dour performance against Stoke.
Since then, our new coach has had the international break with which to consider just how he takes the team forward. He has a number of tactical problems to consider and how he can resolve them, which fall in to five main areas.
This was Mauricio Pochettino’s calling card at Southampton.
It wasn’t relentless pressure from the front such as Barcelona employ, but it was frequent and set off by certain triggers. For example, the ball going out short in to the full back area from the keeper or a player being caught with the ball facing his own goal so he could not turn.
He tried to deploy this briefly at the start of the season, with our trip to Sunderland being the prime example.
At the Stadium of Light, we showed two zones of ball recover. An initial press from our front four players with the rest dropping off to defend and win possession back deeper in our half.
It was successful not only in terms of directly winning the ball back through tackling, but also forced Sunderland’s defenders and keeper to have to clear downfield. The pressure and closing down created ball recovery from clearances too.
Since then we’ve seen us gradually drop off deeper and the level of pressure we’ve applied has declined.
If we look at where we recovered the ball against Aston Villa two games ago, we can see how we barely won it back in their half.
In our last match with Stoke, we can see a similar trend with the ball only being won back in their half through tackling in wide areas.
This is the result of a tactical change to try and lure the opposition out, allowing us to counter attack.
Whether this was done because the Sunderland match was very frenetic and end-to-end? Or he feels that he just doesn’t have the personnel with the stamina to carry a presing game out? We do not know. The problem is that dropping off has not really worked, as the performances against both Stoke and Aston Villa testify.
Mauricio Pochettino needs to re-visit this issue and decide what he wants us to be. Is he going to coach an active team that closes down from the front or a reactive team that counter attacks?
Mauricio Pochettino’s other calling card from his successful Saints team was a fluid attack. Players switched positions and essentially filled roles to keep the balance of the team.
We saw this at the start of the season as Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli tore up QPR 4-0.
Lamela starting from the right and drifting to the left to set up Nacer Chadli, who had switched in the opposite direction, was the highlight of this fluid system.
Since then, this switching of positions has all but disappeared. Inverted wide forwards just drift in to the middle and this is made even more rigid when we opt for a second striker as a number ten. With Paulinho, Kane or Soldado filing this position off another centre forward, we have no changing of roles and the formation from a fluidity standpoint is quite stagnant.
Mauricio Pochettino can get away without being fluid if he introduces some width in to the line-up. The obsession with inverted wide forwards who come inside means that without fluidity, everyone ploughs back in to the centre and we become predictable and easy to stop. If he wants to play this way, then players filling each other’s position and knowing what’s required of them when they are there needs to return.
3. Transition times
With Mauricio Pochettino’s patented pressing, this cut down on transition times from defence to attack.
The problem that we’ve had is that our play has become very slow with a lot of sideways passing since we have become less aggressive in our pressing. This has meant that opposition teams can get back in their defensive shape and get set before we can hurt them.
We have seen fleeting examples of quick transitions this season. Our 4-0 win against QPR was full of them. Nabil Bentaleb winning the ball back and then breaking quickly forward to pass it to Emmanuel Adebayor to set up Nacer Chadli’s opener was one.
Regaining possession and Rose’s swift break to tee up the Togolese striker for the fourth was another.
We also notched our first goal against Sunderland after a quick transition. Mousa Dembele won the ball back and moved it quickly to Adebayor. His shot was saved, but Nacer Chadli pounced on the rebound.
The best example was of course at the Emirates. A series of players closing down started by Younes Kaboul saw Mathieu Flamini stripped of the ball and Nacer Chadli score.
The quick transitions have been few and far between and this is something that needs to be worked on with the players on the training field. They can be from counter attacks or pressing high up, but the speed has gone out of our game and it needs to return.
We’ve seen a number of different formations under Mauricio Pochettino so far. He started out with a 4-2-3-1, briefly used a 4-4-2 and has now moved to a 4-3-3 set up.
None of these formations are wrong, but they don’t always take advantage of the personnel we currently have at our disposal.
Mauricio Pochettino relies greatly on his full backs for width. Whereas he could regularly call on Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne at Southampton, here he has struggled to find a suitably athletic right back without the injured Kyle Walker.
Kyle Naughton has looked cautious and adequate when he has filled in, Eric Dier looks like a centre back being asked to do a full back’s job.
What’s more, Federico Fazio has had a baptism of fire in the Premier League. The giant of a centre back has struggled to play the high-ish line we’ve deployed, as he is susceptible to pace.
The most disturbing issue is seeing him play on the left of the centre back pairing, which is where his troubles have come. He hasn’t formed any kind of understanding with Younes Kaboul and the pair are on completely different wavelengths.
Mauricio Pochettino needs to look at his formation and tailor it to the personnel he has available.
In the current situation without a suitable right back, maybe a back three with a right wing back such as Aaron Lennon could get the best out of what we have? That would also allow him to get better use out of Eric Dier and protect Fazio against pace. He also has options of whether to go 3-4-3 or 3-5-2.
5. Mauricio Pochettino Substitutions
The best-laid plans don’t always come off or the tempo and flow of game needs to be changed and so personnel are switched.
Every manager has substitutions, but Mauricio Pochettino doesn’t seem to make very good use of his.
Take our last performance against Stoke. A dire first half saw us 2-0 down and so changes being made sooner rather than later was commendable.
Erik Lamela for Andros Townsend was a like-for-like change, where he upgraded the player on the right, but didn’t really tactically alter anything. Both are inverted wide players that will cut inside on to their left foot.
At the same time, he took off Christian Eriksen and replaced him with Mousa Dembele. The Dane wasn’t having the best of games, but to introduce another slow player alongside Etienne Capoue did nothing for the balance or speed with which the team was playing.
The third change was a standard one we’ve seen from Mauricio Pochettino when chasing matches. Haul off the defensive midfielder and put on a striker. This is the standard TV commentator’s change to just lob on another centre forward without thinking of the congestion it causes against a team that is sat back.
Mauricio Pochettino needs to be more tactical with his changes. Introduce some width. Bring on a player to gain control in midfield that allows you to keep the pressure on. Introduce an extra creative passer in to the game against teams that are sat back. Sometimes it seems that chasing a game can cloud Pochettino’s judgement.
Mauricio Pochettino has plenty to solve over this international break and his search for answers may be a while in coming.