A long trip to Russia saw us gather another three points to sit atop Group K, as it finished Anzhi 0 Spurs 2 in our Europa League clash.
The pitch didn’t lend itself to fluid passing football. In fact there were more bobbles than your average FA Cup tie away to non-league opposition. However, Tottenham played the surface well enough to hold on to possession and open the hosts up through injections of incisive vertical passing.
Spurs set up and tactics
Andre Villas-Boas went 4-3-3, but his choice in midfield to use three players who have worked with each other since last season allowed to us to dominate possession. The key was in their rotation.
Sandro and Moussa Dembele were an awesome unit when paired together last term before the Brazilian’s injury. Their experience of playing together saw them combine excellently, knowing who was to drop back and who should go forward.
Sandro was often the deepest, screening the back four in the defensive phase. Then when we were in possession, he would drop in between the centre backs and move the ball forwards or square it when under pressure.
Moussa Dembele was frequently just a level in front of him, but he would also drop to take the ball from the centre backs, throwing off any kind of Anzhi press. At this point, Sandro would move forward to keep the midfield triangle in tact, whilst Lewis Holtby was also rotating to switch with both players.
As a result, Sandro found himself in some early advanced positions. He fired a bobbling shot for our first effort on target. Later, he also created an opportunity for Jermain Defoe when again high up the field.
The result of this rotation, was control of the possession, limiting Anzhi to just 36% of the ball, whilst Sandro and Dembele had the most touches of any Spurs players.
If these two were allowing Spurs to control the game, the star of the show was Lewis Holtby.
The German finally looks settled this term after arriving in the middle of the last campaign. Whilst Christian Eriksen offers more of a direct dribbling and shooting number ten that can also pass, Holtby seems to have a better feel for playing incisive vertical balls. His assist against Tromso and his lofted chip pass to Defoe in our Capital One Cup mauling of Aston Villa being just two examples of how he moves the ball quickly and on a vertical line up the pitch.
Here, his two incisive passes to move possession quickly to a runner cutting in-behind the Anzhi defence opened up the Russians and decided the game.
Lewis Holtby goes vertical
After getting a hold on the match through Sandro and Moussa Dembele, Lewis Holtby carved Anzhi up with two exquisite passes in five excellent minutes.
The first arrived after our midfield trio all made space for themselves by executing quick passing around their midfield triangle.
It started with Sandro feeding the ball to Moussa Dembele. With time to turn, the Belgian played a neat pass in to Lewis Holtby in acres of space.
Seeing the ball arrive at the German’s feet, Jermain Defoe slipped off his marker, looking to run in-behind. Holtby delivered him the pass with pinpoint accuracy, as he split the defenders with a direct vertical ball.
As many of our chances have arrived this season, this was once again an excellent piece of play to hit a runner who cuts through the opposition defence to receive the ball in-behind. He can then either shoot if through the central channels, or deliver a short cross from inside the box or square the ball when in wider areas.
With Defoe scoring by way of the former method – a ball through the inside channels which allows a first time shot – the second arrived by the latter. Again Lewis Holtby provided the pass to hit the runner in-behind with another vertical ball.
This time he found Kyle Walker streaking in to the vacant space after Erik Lamela had pulled the Anzhi left back in-field.
With time to move inside the box unopposed, Walker was able to deliver a short squared pass to Nacer Chadli, who rolled the ball in to the corner of the net.
It was another move from a vertical pass that delivered an injection of pace in to the game to get a runner in-behind the Anzhi defence.
Anzhi respond by going large
Anzhi had offered little in the first half. They had set up to defend extremely deep, only bringing pressure on the ball as it crossed the halfway line or as our first pass entered midfield.
If they were able to create a turnover, which often came from an error in possession as the result of the dubious pitch, then they were looking to ping long diagonal passes over our defence. Pavel Solomatin was often the target, but they rarely troubled us prior to the interval.
After going two down, Anzhi brought on Lacina Traore to play upfront in the second half and he created trouble through his sheer size, strength and brute force.
He announced himself by shrugging off Sandro whilst bursting forward with the ball, then he created a chance for fellow substitute Andrey Eshchenko. Whilst offering very little in the first 45, Anzhi suddenly had a presence for their long balls forward.
Whereas previously our midfield and back four had time on the ball, Anzhi then brought more pressure to try and force bad first touches. The result was creating some chances, but nothing that Hugo Lloris couldn’t comfortably deal with.
Anzhi 0 Spurs 2 conclusions
We controlled the first half through possession, whilst the rotation in our midfield made it difficult for Anzhi to pick up their markers. The results of this movement manifested themselves on the first goal, whilst Lewis Holtby’s excellent passing once again opened them up for our second.
After the interval Anzhi were much better after the introduction of Lacina Traore. Andre Villas-Boas commented afterwards that “In the second half we lost control of possession a little, Anzhi came out stronger and could have surprised us.”
Had the hosts actually scored, then they may have come in to the game more and got the crowd involved. As it was, barring the occasional attack, Hugo Lloris was rarely troubled.
It was a solid performance on a difficult pitch that puts us in control of Group K and potentially a very quick qualification for the next round of the Europa League.
Final score: Anzhi 0 Spurs 2.