Mauricio Pochettino needs to look at our attitude to pressing in greater depth.
Tactically Mauricio Pochettino had an up and down first season in charge. He made strides with getting the team to play inline with his vision and philosophy, but plenty of issues went unresolved.
In a series of posts I’m going to look at each one of these issues in turn, analyse what’s been done and what is required to resolve it. We’re going to start with pressing.
Pressing under Pochettino
Pressing and quickly winning the ball back was Mauricio Pochettino’s calling card at Southampton. It would be the first thing that commentators and analysts would mention when talking about his team.
However, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t relentless pressure from the front such as Barcelona employ, but it was frequent enough when set off by certain triggers. For example, the ball going out short in to the full back area from the goalkeeper or when an opposition player was caught deep in his half with the ball facing his own goal.
In the early weeks of last season, we rarely saw this tactic employed, as Mauricio Pochettino indicated that the players were not in the physical condition required to play this way.
There were glimpses of a pressing game being taught, such as on Nacer Chadli’s goal in Arsenal 1 Spurs 1 at the Emirates. Matthew Flamini was pounced upon as he pondered on the ball and Chadli stole in-behind to profit.
Another glimpse came a couple of matches later, at the Etihad. Ryan Mason robbed Fernando in a similar manner with Christian Eriksen then going on to lash the ball home.
Both performances saw these glimpses of a pressing game, but in each match we were for the most part playing on the counter. We did, however, pounce in a similar way. In each case, a defensive midfielder with the ball facing his own goal.
Since these early games in Pochettino’s reign, the team’s fitness improved and it became a big feature in some of our matches, but in others we backed off. It was a real tactical inconsistency.
When deployed, our pressing was arguably at it’s most successful with the inclusion of Mousa Dembele and Erik Lamela. As a number ten, Mousa Dembele proved to be a real destructive force closing down the opposition higher up the pitch. With his strength and sizeable frame, he was able to shrug opponents off the ball and win it back in key areas. Lamela has only shown flashes of potential with the ball, but his tiger-like hunting of it when possession had been lost was extremely under-rated.
During a stretch of the season, the pair were both becoming regulars in the line-up and contributing to hem opponents in to their own half. Our trip to West Brom saw both of them as big contributors in a team pressing to overhaul what became a pesky Baggies side under Tony Pulis.
At home to Arsenal, the pressing was a joy to watch. The Gunners had just 42% of the ball and at times couldn’t get out of their half of the field such was the intensity of our ball recovery.
After the Arsenal game, an errant first half by the team at home to West Ham saw both Dembele and Lamela dropped to the bench. Lamela was restored towards the end of the season, but the intensity of our pressing fell. This had a knock-on effect, as it put extra pressure on our frail defence.
Not long after the West Ham game, up at Manchester United, we had a taste of our own medicine as the Red Devils hounded us throughout the first 45 and we barely made it across the halfway line. Pochettino had been using Dembele and Lamela to push up behind Harry Kane as we sought to close the opposition down. At Old Trafford, Pochettino didn’t include either of them from the off and we didn’t bring any pressure, as we simply let Man Utd play the ball out.
Against a team that had struggled with its centre backs turning the ball over and defensive errors gifting the opposition chances, the lack of any kind of pressing from us was a poor tactic.
Pochettino could argue that it was Manchester United away, but the inconsistency in whether we’ve tried a pressing game had been going on all season. We had been hounding the likes of West Brom away and Arsenal at home, but then backed off at home to Swansea and away to QPR before traveling to Old Trafford.
After the Manchester United game, we continued to back off the next weekend at home to Leicester City. The Foxes struggled last season against high pressing teams, but even in getting embroiled in a shootout, we didn’t seek to recover the ball often enough in their half.
The impetus seemed to have been lost with the switch in personnel. Mauricio Pochettino tried to upgrade our attack at the expense of our ability to close down.
Our head coach had brought players in to the starting eleven that could get forward much quicker either with or without the ball in Nacer Chadli and Andros Townsend. However, this was at the expense of those that are much better in recovering the ball through pressing or getting in to defensive shape in Dembele and Lamela.
Mousa Dembele has the potential to offer more on the ball, but his dribble drives and short, often sideways passing, can slow our attacks down. Erik Lamela frequently makes bad decisions in respect to his timing of passes, over-dribbles and lacks a consistent end product at this stage of his very young career.
Tactical issues Mauricio Pochettino must address
Last season, it’s almost as if Mauricio Pochettino went one way with his calling card of pressing the opposition and then flip-flopped in favour of going the other. He got more speed and the ability to get the ball forward quicker in to the team, but that came at the expense of his patented pressing game.
The knock-on effect of this was on the defensive end. We weren’t solid at the back all season, but we were even frailer when Pochettino tried to bring more attacking, speedier players back in to the team.
A further problem is that Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason have been left even more exposed by this switch. With Mousa Dembele in front of them they had much more of a screen to protect them. Without the Belgian in the line-up there was not much resistance from Christian Eriksen, along with Nacer Chadli or Andros Townsend flanking the Dane.
Mauricio Pochettino has some serious thinking to do with regards to his pressing game this season. It is an important part of his mantra, central to his philosophy, but he ended up neglecting it for the sake of trying to add impetus to our attack.
We wait to see if pre-season brings any pointers as to how we will play this season. The players we have so far brought in have all been defenders that can get the ball forward quickly, not attackers that are able to close down from the front. I don’t expect us to press and hound every team; away at Manchester City or Chelsea this could be suicide. But, I do expect us to have an identity this season as to whether we are a proactive or reactive side, as last term it was difficult to tell.