Both teams tried to outmanoeuvre each other with tactical adjustments out wide as it finished KAA Gent 1-0 Spurs in our Europa League clash.
Underwhelming and eventually overhauled by a single goal, we once more succumbed to another team that pressed high up the pitch. The formation was changed, but it couldn’t stop this being a battle out wide. Each team had the upper hand at points, but Jeremy Perbet’s goal made it KAA Gent 1-0 Spurs at the Ghelamco Arena.
KAA Gent were relentless in their pressing. They set up in a 3-4-2-1 formation and went about it in a man-to-man fashion. Each player detailed on whom to mark.
Their press wasn’t as ferocious as what we saw up at Liverpool, but it was a nuisance. The reason for this was that they detailed their wingbacks to mark our full backs. Often our full backs can get free against the press. However, being marked man-to-man and playing from a back four meant that our centre backs often didn’t have them as an out ball. As a result, it meant that we either had to go long or try and play out through our trio of central midfielders.
Mauricio Pochettino’s choice to go with a 4-3-3 was a curious one. Against three centre backs it’s a good system. It can be used to play in to the wide areas behind the wingbacks, to pull the centre backs out from the middle. However, with narrow moving and thinking wide players in Dele Alli and Moussa Sissoko it seemed strange to adopt the system.
Dele drifted towards the middle much more often than Sissoko, but the latter’s lack of dribbling success meant that we lacked any real bite coming forward.
Davies down the left flank
As a result of our system, Gent were creating chances down our left. Dele Alli was moving inside and this left Ben Davies without much cover. Moses Simon and Wingback Thomas Foket just simply ganged up on him. The pair combined to create crossing opportunities, but very little to test Hugo Lloris in the first half.
Going forward, Dele’s inside drifting movement dragged defenders with him and created space for Ben Davies on the overlap.
Our left back got forward in to some useful positions and put in several dangerous crosses. The best of these saw Moussa Sissoko cushion down a header for Dele to fire over.
Spurs formation switch
The game was developing in to a battle out wide. Without the ball Gent were doing a good job of pressing and covering our full backs to stop us getting out. With the ball they were attacking Ben Davies and the space around him afforded by Dele Alli’s lack of help.
Seeing this, Mauricio Pochettino opted to move to a back three. This gave us one more player at the back for Gent to deal with in their press. We could then move the ball around much easier to navigate the pressure.
Ben Davies was that player and on the left of the three he looked extremely assured, much more at home than at full back. He even surprisingly adopted the Jan Vertonghen role. Making bursts forward in to the inside left channel in unexpectedly high areas of the pitch, Davies made a nuisance of himself to the Gent defence.
The move also freed up our full backs. They were now higher up the pitch, forcing Gent back in wide areas. Dele Alli was restored to the central position that he craves and became much more involved in the match. Harry Winks was moved higher where his passing could better penetrate the Gent lines. Mousa Dembele’s twisting dribbles could now be executed further forward, as they were being bogged down in front of our back four by the Gent press. The only issue in the switch was Moussa Sissoko at left wing back, where he looked like a fish out of water.
Kyle Walker down the right flank
In the first half, Kyle Walker had struggled with the attention he was receiving from Kenny Saief. The Gent man was tracking him relentlessly trying to stop any out ball so that Walker couldn’t gallop in to the space behind him.
The formation switch to a back three got Walker higher up the pitch and now in to areas where he could attack whether Saief was there or not. Within minutes of the restart and Walker was in several times to create chances. Mousa Dembele had a shot from one and Harry Kane pinged the outside of the post from another.
Walker was suddenly becoming a real factor going forward. However, his move to wing back also caused problems defensively. Walker lost Danijel Milicevic from a throw. The attacking midfielder looped a shot just wide of the goal. Minutes later and Walker was in the book for an ill-advised lunge on halfway. Then Walker would be attacked in transition as Gent took the lead.
Gent score from the left flank
Gent had put together some good attacks down our left flank during the first half where Ben Davies had been left without cover. Our formation switch to a back three knocked Gent, but then they started to get beyond our wingbacks with their own wide players.
Kenny Saief had caused Walker problems by his tracking in the first half, but then started to get free in the second. Saief was getting in to the space Walker had left by going forward. This was pulling Eric Dier out from his position on the right of our three centre backs.
We’d been given a warning with Milicevic’s looping shot past the post. Gent then took the lead as Saief and Milicevic combined again to set up Jeremy Perbet.
Saief brought down a long pass, as he kept his width out on the flank. Walker managed to get back and recover, but Saief was able to lay the ball back to Nana Asare who had joined from left centre back.
As the pair attacked Kyle Walker, Danijel Milicevic rushed over, pulling Eric Dier out from his position in the middle. Dier was drawn in, but for some reason left Milicevic and tried to stand Asare up.
Whether Dier expected Kyle Walker to take Milicevic’s run was unsure. Suddenly Asare had put him in and our defence was now in panic mode.
Milicevic headed for the by-line. Toby Alderweireld was drawn towards him. Ben Davies also raced over to try and block Perbet’s shot as he received the cut back. Davies got a foot to the initial effort, but he was already on his backside as Perbet rolled home the second chance to make it KAA Gent 1-0 Spurs and break the deadlock.
Having gained several attacking chances and a foothold from attacking down our right flank, we were now a goal behind from being struck this side.
Substitutes fail to make an impact
The goal set about both managers making changes. Mauricio Pochettino introduced Son Heung-Min for Mousa Dembele. This got a more attacking goal threat on the pitch, but moved Dele Alli back in the formation. Dele then became less of a factor having to operate from deeper.
Moussa Sissoko then gave way to Georges-Kevin Nkoudou. Sissoko had looked anything but a wingback. He was seemingly even clumsier when moved to this role, especially on the left. However, Nkoudou also failed to provide any zip, verve or the ability to beat a man, which we required from our wingbacks.
Pochettino’s final change introduced Christian Eriksen for Harry Winks. The switch replaced a passer for a passer, but Eriksen has more of an attacking mind in the final third. His ability to get forward saw him fire over and try to play more penetrating through balls. However, the change was really too late to seriously affect the game.
On the other side, Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s changes saw his side get stronger. The most influential was Kalifa Coulibaly, a tower of strength and power. Coulibaly was involved in what could turn out to be the pivotal moment of this Europa League tie. Steaming through Toby Alderweireld’s soft challenge after Victor Wanyama had given the ball away saw him play in Milicevic. Fortunately, Hugo Lloris was there to get down low to his left and push the shot on to the post, keeping the score at KAA Gent 1-0 Spurs. Two-nil would’ve given us a real mountain to climb.
KKA Gent 1-0 Spurs overall
Another defeat to a team that tries to press us high up the pitch is more cause for concern. We haven’t figured out how to deal with these sides yet and it’s becoming a worry. Gent weren’t relentless like Man City or Liverpool have been against us, but they were co-ordinated and a real nuisance.
The switch to a back three did help and we looked much better in this formation. The issue was with the personnel that were within it. Moussa Sissoko is not a wingback. The midfield trio of Victor Wanyama, Mousa Dembele and Harry Winks was unbalanced. Too much strength and power and not enough penetrating runs or passes in to the final third. Dembele requires players that will move past him so that he can find them after his mazy dribbles to bring the ball out. Winks, although an exceptional possession passer, and Wanyama simply don’t provide this.
There is plenty to do at Wembley, but it is not insurmountable.
Final score: KAA Gent 1-0 Spurs.
MOTM: Kenny Saief.