Love him or love to berate him; Roberto Soldado is a player dividing opinion among Spurs fans at the minute.
On Saturday at Man City he got his first Premier League start of the season and was a goal away from capping an excellent all-around performance.
The centre forward position has many functions in Mauricio Pochettino’s various systems, but at the core of his role are two main functions.
The first is to come towards the ball and be a hold up man to bring others in to play that run off and past him. The second is then to move up towards and get in the box looking for a through ball or a cross.
This should lead him to not only be a goalscorer, but also a provider of assists. It is a duel role.
At Southampton, Mauricio Pochettino had Rickie Lambert to fulfil this function. The Englishman led his team in assists in the Premier League with 10; double that of lock-picker Adam Lallana. Lambert also weighed in with 13 Premier League goals, two less than wide forward Jay Rodriguez who was the actual real threat going forward. It’s not a coincidence that our leading Premier League scorer is Nacer Chadli, who has four for us this season from the Rodriguez role.
Whilst Roberto Soldado did not develop his reputation in La Liga for being an assist man, he did play this part of the role very well.
Soldado build-up play
Roberto Soldado is not big, he’s not strong in the air, but his ability to hold the ball up and bring others in to play is extremely underrated. The Spaniard is excellent when the ball is played in to his feet or chest at bringing others in to play.
Against Man City on the weekend, we saw this as early as the seventh minute, as Soldado received a long ball forward from Federico Fazio. The Spaniard took the pass and bounced it off his chest in to the path of Christian Eriksen, setting the Dane forward in to space.
The quick improvised pass from Roberto Soldado gets his three advanced midfielders in to areas between the lines where they can run off him and attack the City back four.
The ball then moved from Eriksen to Lamela and back to Soldado on the edge of the City box. We’d looked in the Tottenham tactics before the game at how Man City use the edge of their 18 yard box as a guide to play their defensive line and here they were caught square.
Soldado’s job, as it was for Lambert at Southampton, is to hit the runners off of him and here he found a cutting Ryan Mason who saw his shot saved by Joe Hart.
It was a neat passage of play of very Mauricio Pochettino –esque football.
Later in the half we saw his distribution in effect once again after Ryan Mason had stolen the ball from Fernando.
Soldado’s patience to wait for the runners either side of him to give him options was good. As was the weight of his pass in to Eriksen’s run that allowed him to strike the ball across Joe Hart first time.
The goal was very similar to our one at the Emirates. A defensive midfielder was stripped of the ball and it was moved quickly up the pitch to a runner through the inside right channel.
Soldado’s link play and passing had been very good, especially as he was being sent a lot of long balls forward, as we can see from his passes received in the game.
The Spaniard was being asked to deal with these longer passes that were often in to feet, but also in to his head. Soldado isn’t the strongest when he has to jump 1v1 against someone like Vincent Kompany, but what we were doing was putting these balls in to space. In this way, Soldado could receive the pass on the run, rather than jumping in an aerial contest.
Here we can see how the ball was sent forward from Younes Kaboul behind Martin Demichelis for Soldado to run on to and head down for Christian Eriksen. Vincent Kompany is on the cover, but can’t challenge for the header in the way he would normally do by just simply overpowering the Spaniard if they were jumping from a standing start.
These long balls to Soldado on the run in to space were a feature of his game, but so too was his own passing.
We’ve already seen above how he set up Ryan Mason for a great chance and assisted on Eriksen’s goal, but Soldado was trying to play through balls in to the box.
This is what Mauricio Pochettino wants from his centre forward, the ability to pass to the runners off of him.
Soldado in the box
Whilst the centre forward needs to be able to link the play and hit runners going past him, the second part of his role is to then get up in to the box himself.
Soldado did struggle with this, but going to the Etihad and having 38% possession, we knew chances would be at a premium.
The Spaniard missed his best opportunity in the area when he had the chance to convert a spot kick. However, he came back minutes later with a great effort from another classic passage of Pochettino play.
The ball was sent forwards towards Soldado who had come short. He laid it off to his three advanced midfielders in space between the City lines, similarly to his chest pass earlier.
This pass, as many of his layoffs were, was to Christian Eriksen, who sent the ball out to Danny Rose through Nacer Chadli. As soon as he had laid it neatly back to the Dane, Soldado turned and went for the penalty area.
Rose took a touch and sent in a low cross that found its way to Soldado who was our only player in the box.
From his time in Valencia, Soldado was always at his best when he struck the ball first time, which gives the keeper a minimal reaction period. It’s been no surprise that both of his goals so far this season, against Limassol and Nottingham Forest, have come from one touch finishes.
Here he struck the ball without hesitation as he went to ground with his left foot, but saw Joe Hart block it with his legs.
The start of something for Soldado?
His all-round play deserved some reward.
Roberto Soldado definitely ticked the box of being able to fulfil the first part of what Mauricio Pochettino requires from his centre forward. His hold up play and being able to hit the runners off him was excellent.
The second part, and what gets focussed on for a centre forward, the ability to score goals, may just need a consistent run in the side to come to the fore.