We were the creators of our own downfall in a highly winnable tie, as it finishes Fiorentina 2-0 Spurs to send us crashing out of the Europa League.
‘God save Joaquin’ read a banner inside Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi and Spurs made a right royal mess of this Europa League tie in both legs. Individual errors were once more responsible for costing us another match, but there were other tactical factors at work too, with it ending Fiorentina 2-0 Spurs.
Narrow state of mind
It’s the book on playing Tottenham and has been for a while, but especially since Mauricio Pochettino took over. Defend narrow and congest the centre of the pitch; then play on the counter attack to get in-behind and you will always have a chance.
Fiorentina didn’t really adhere to these rules until the second half at the Lane, which is why the first leg almost got out of hand before the interval. Here they were much more functional in their set up. If they had numbers forward from a break then they would try and press us in to a turnover. If we retained the ball then they would simply drop to halfway and would concede possession until it reached there. La Viola had just 36% of the ball, but were much more clinical with it, feeding in Mohammad Salah and Mario Gomez to run in-behind.
Their switch to a back four and go with a 4-3-3 formation was designed to do just this. Their three forwards looked to regain the ball early off our back four. If they didn’t, then the midfield trio would congest the centre as they dropped in.
With Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli often drifting in to the middle, we had space on the flanks for Ben Davies and Vlad Chiriches. The ball was moved to them, but not nearly enough, as it all too often came back in to the centre. Davies struggled with his crossing when he had the chances to put a ball in. Chiriches put in some nice deliveries, but without a real target man to aim at, they often were cleared for corners.
All too often we were faced with a purple wall, which either forced long-range efforts or constant recycling of play, as Fiorentina crowded us out of this central zone.
La Viola full backs, Micah Richards and Marcos Alonso, were playing tight to their centre backs, content to concede ground in the wide areas. We just didn’t use or get Ben Davies and Vlad Chiriches forward often enough.
High line hijinks
Fiorentina were narrow by design, we were naturally narrow with our inverted wingers not helping the cause. Coupled with this was both teams using a high line, but us particularly so, as we attempted to condense the playing area when Fiorentina had the ball.
With Federico Fazio and Jan Vertonghen at the back, the pair were exposed on several occasions. Fiorentina were looking early for the runs of Mohammad Salah and Mario Gomez in-behind our back line with through balls. Salah’s pace was troublesome all game, but even the much slower Gomez was able to amble through and had two good chances before his goal.
Although Fiorentina were playing a more counter attacking game, they too were trying to push their back four up. The problem for us was that we were not timing our runs correctly, as Roberto Soldado was twice caught offside before his horrendous passing error.
It’s been a pattern in recent matches, ever since the Spurs 2-1 Arsenal at the Lane. Our match with Liverpool at Anfield was littered with passing errors, gifting them chances, as was last weekend’s 2-2 draw with West Ham.
Maybe we are suffering from mental fatigue as the number of games we have played is catching up with us? Or maybe we have our eyes too fixed on the Capital One Cup Final? Whatever the reason is, sloppy play cost us and once again we were punished.
Unlike in recent matches, the most glaring error was not a defensive one, but Roberto Soldado’s hash of a pass to Nacer Chadli. The pair were bearing down on the Fiorentina keeper, as we broke from their corner. After failing to time runs to get in-behind their defence, this time Soldado was perfectly on cue and a goal seemed the only outcome.
Soldado’s finishing has been inept, but his passing has been the one bright light in his play as we search for the man who lit up the Mestalla in his days at Valencia. Only he will know what was going through his mind when he broke clear, but it clearly lacked confidence and conviction.
As he ran through the middle he had the chance to slot the ball past the keeper, but in choosing to pass he was both too close and under hit the ball at a crazy angle for Nacer Chadli.
If the pass was always Soldado’s choice, then he should have taken a couple of steps to his right and played it back to increase the distance between himself and Chadli. The keeper was always going to play the pass, as this was the higher percentage scoring option with two men running at him. By being so close together and under hitting it, Soldado gave Neto every chance to make a save.
At this point, both teams had failed to take advantage of their opportunities to run in-behind. Whilst Fiorentina had several lower percentage chances, we had missed the best opportunity in the most glaring fashion. Man Utd, Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool had tried and failed to score in the Stadio Artemio Franchi before us and maybe the curse of the English club side in Florence was striking again.
Fiorentina had been a threat to get in-behind our high back line and had caused a couple of scares. Whilst we had missed our glorious chance, they made no mistake with their opportunity, as Federico Fazio gifted the ball to Mario Gomez.
The German raced away in one of the slowest foot races you will see, as Fazio tried to atone for his error. The pitch, which wasn’t the greatest and quite bobbly in places, didn’t help, but Gomez opted to smash the ball past Hugo Lloris rather than going for placement.
Fiorentina were ahead, but it didn’t change our job. An away goal had been required all evening and now one would just take us in to extra time. Down a goal, Mauricio Pochettino was looking to change it. As Harry Kane and Andros Townsend stood on the touchline, they watched another sloppy error almost gift-wrap Fiorentina the tie.
The is time it was Erik Lamela who turned the ball over to Joaquin, allowing the former Spanish international to quickly counter forward. His pass released the much quicker Mohammad Salah to blaze in-behind. The Egyptian again had to deal with the ball on the uneven surface, but couldn’t settle it down enough to slide it past the rapidly rushing out Hugo Lloris. Our French stopper has saved us many times this season and the speed with which he was out at Salah’s feet was once more testament to his quickness off his line.
Lamela’s blushes had been saved, but the warning was there. We didn’t heed it, as another error handed Fiorentina the tie. This time it wasn’t from a long ball in-behind, but from a pass out from the congested midfield battle. The ball changed hands a couple of times, as both teams had it and then lost it. Mario Gomez emerged with it behind our midfield and passed it out to Salah.
Gomez went for the return pass and as he back-heeled it for Salah to run on to, Jan Vertonghen stepped across to intercept and looked in total control of the situation. For some reason, he dawdled on the ball, allowing the Egyptian to steal in and seal the tie. Two highly avoidable situations had been clinically punished.
Before the game, Mauricio Pochettino had commented on his selection dilemma and how his line-ups would be scrutinised, especially if we lost. The team he went with here wasn’t a bad one, but once more it was his in-game changes that were questionable. Maybe they were made with one eye on Sunday, but they seemed a bit pre-determined and didn’t tackle the issues we faced in the game, the most pressing of which was width.
With us a goal down, he opted to unleash Harry Kane. Ideally Pochettino would’ve wanted to save him for Sunday, but our needs required him here and it was the right change to make. The issue was with him coming on and playing with Roberto Soldado, when it should have been instead of the Spaniard.
Against West Ham we’d seen the coach go to a 4-2-3-1 second striker number ten approach and it was the same here. Soldado wasn’t having the best game though and putting Kane up top alone would’ve been the better choice rather than have him playing off the Spaniard.
However, the real issue was introducing Andros Townsend on the right. Width, which had only come previously come from the full backs, was required. Townsend came on and played as an inverted winger and even though Lamela is left footed, he is by no means a winger and looks like a fish out of water on his natural side. The switch should’ve seen Townsend come on and play on the left, as he can naturally go by opponents and cross, whilst Lamela is more dangerous from the right.
It wasn’t until the introduction of Kyle Walker that we at least addressed the width issue. He came on and combined well with Townsend, as Pochettino sought to retain his inverted wide man, overlapping full back philosophy. By this time though it was too late with the game already being over.
Fiorentina 2-0 Spurs overall
Just like the first leg, this was another match in which we were in control, but allowed the game to slip from a position of dominance. Individual errors were once again the overriding problem, but they did mask some tactical issues too, especially width.
Maybe the players have always had one eye on the Capital One Cup Final at Wembley or maybe we are starting to see some fatigue from playing so many games? Whatever the issue is, we cannot be so narrow or make the same kind of horrendous individual errors against Chelsea.
Final score Fiorentina 2-0 Spurs.