With opponents continually clogging the centre of the pitch, is it time for Mauricio Pochettino to play with some natural width?
One tactic that has emerged as being successful against us during Mauricio Pochettino’s time in charge has been to clog the centre of the pitch. Our new coach likes us to move the ball forward through the middle with our inverted wide players, but opponents are easily stopping it.
Our best performance by far in the Premier League this season coincidentally came against a team not playing with a proper defensive midfielder. Without this man, space naturally appeared between the lines and we thrived.
On our opening goal, Nabil Bentaleb was able to drive into this space with the ball, as several QPR players were caught up field.
Later, Erik Lamela drifted in to this very roomy area that kept appearing without a QPR defensive midfielder, as he took the ball to drive forward and set up Nacer Chadli to score.
Getting players who can run with the ball centrally in this zone behind the opposition midfield is all part of Mauricio Pochettino’s plan. Our take-ons from the game show how effective we were at moving with the ball through the middle of the pitch.
In a 4-0 thumping what may have been overlooked was the number of failed take-on attempts in the wide areas. This was especially prevalent out on the left, where Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen and Emmanuel Adebayor went a combined 3 for 10 in dribble attempts. None of these are natural wing players who can get beyond the opposite full back to deliver an accurate cross.
Due to this lack of width, when we actually do put the ball in to the box, it often comes from a full back. Danny Rose has attempted 42 crosses this season, the most of any Spurs player, the next highest is stand-in right back Eric Dier with 19. This problem has been compunded by the fact that the balls in to the box have not been that accurate.
Our crossing attempts in the QPR game saw us complete just 3 of 21. The real figure was a slightly worse 2 of 17 from open play, as we were 1 of 4 from corners.
We dominated the match, but maybe in doing so, masked our real problems.
Liverpool laden the centre
In very buoyant mood from mauling QPR, we next hosted Liverpool. The Reds have been the trendsetters for the now vogue diamond formation, which is catching on throughout the Premier League.
Liverpool have been well coached in the system and are highly effective at playing it. Just as we can see here, as the four narrow midfielders take away the space that Lamela, Chadli and Eriksen were enjoying centrally between the lines.
This has the effect of forcing us out in to the wide areas where Liverpool’s defence could then use the sideline to narrow the pitch.
We weren’t helping ourselves by not moving the ball quickly enough. This was allowing the Reds to make tackles (crosses), interceptions (diamonds) and clearances (circles) in the wide areas. They only fouled (black triangles) in the middle of the pitch, showing how they wanted to keep us out of there.
Our attempted take-ons, that were more effective through the centre of the pitch against QPR, are now forced out in to the wide areas where we struggled.
It’s easier to beat an opposing player when you have space on both sides through the middle of the pitch, than when you have one or two men to beat with the sideline constricting you.
As a result, the number of crosses we put in was low, as were the number completed from open play. We made 6 of 23 balls in to the box in total, but 2 of 6 were from corners, so just 4 of 17 were completed in open play.
We’ve seen a number of matches since the loss to Liverpool, but the problem has continued.
West Brom came to the Lane and played Chris Brunt extremely narrow from the left side, as they too tried to get four men in to the middle of the pitch to take away our space.
Besiktas secured a 1-1 draw at the Lane in the Europa League where they clogged the middle and gave us space out wide. We were not able to take advantage of this, often trying to go through the centre and in to trouble.
Newcastle left White Hart Lane with all three Premier League points by adopting a similar centrally constricting tactic.
In our last Premier League match, a disastrous performance against Stoke, we also fell victim to an opponent playing the same way
Kyle Naughton was the free man here, but Younes Kaboul tried to find Nacer Chadli who was outnumbered in the middle.
Time for Mauricio Pochettino to add some width?
Opponents have long figured out how to stop us playing. They get bodies in to the central area to stop us getting between the lines, forcing us wide where we are not very good at beating opponents or at putting in quality crosses.
We are not set up to be a crossing side, neither are we used to fashioning chances in this way. Crossing the ball is a secondary option as we are playing with inverted wide men who like to drift inside on to their stronger foot and take opponents on in the open field.
The problem for Mauricio Pochettino is does he now include a winger playing on his natural side to counter teams crowding us in the middle to stretch them out? This would also provide someone who can deliver an accurate ball in to the box.
Crosses don’t always have to be high in the air. If a player can beat his man, something we’ve not been doing often enough in wide areas, then he can deliver a pull back, cut back or low-driven cross. This is often made from inside the penalty area and improves completion rates as the ball is delivered closer to its target.
Mauricio Pochettino does have a conundrum on his hands. It’s well known that to stop us opponents just need to clog the centre of the pitch. We need to find a way to improve in wide areas in order to counter this.