A lively pitch and an equally active crowd see our opening Europa League group game end in a stalemate, as it finishes Partizan Belgrade 0 Spurs 0 in Serbia.
The surface played a large part in this game, but so too did each team’s tactics. Spurs were aggressive prior to the interval, bossing the game with 70% possession. After the break, Partizan came out of their shell and forced us back, as we played on the counter, just as the hosts had done in the first 45.
Partizan’s stifling midfield
The key to the game was Partizan’s use of their midfield. Coach Marko Nikolic said before the game that his side had ’nothing to lose,’ but they opened like a team playing to steal a goal on the counter.
Nikolic packed his midfield with five bodies and had them sink extremely tight to their back four, leaving very little space. They got plenty of men in to the central area as we can see here.
Playing so deep meant there was no space in-behind for the vertical balls that Mauricio Pochettino likes us to play. These are intended to either hit the central striker or those running off him.
A rare moment of opportunity came from Nabil Bentaleb’s searching long pass over the top of this congestion looking for the run of Aaron Lennon.
With Partizan playing this way, the space should have been in the wide areas. However, the extremely lively pitch meant that one touch passing and moving the ball quickly was difficult. Players also had to take an extra touch to get the ball under control. This meant that the speed of our attacks were slowed down, even more so as the pitch cut up.
This made it easier for the Partizan midfield to slide across when the ball went out to our wide players. Andros Townsend especially, but also Aaron Lennon, were confronted with at least two Partizan players, and sometimes three, whenever they got the ball.
Townsend and Lennon playing as inverted widemen didn’t help either, as they frequently ran back inside in to traffic looking to get on their stronger foot.
This meant that a lot of balls were played sideways as Partizan were able to keep us in front of them, allowing for very few penetrating passes.
Our three advanced midfielders and strikers are supposed to come short and then hit the runners off them. If we look at the passes played by Townsend, Lennon, Paulinho and Kane, we can see just how many were sideways or backwards. Any forward ones looking to penetrate towards the area were cut out or unsuccessful.
The pitch didn’t aid our penetrative passing, but our narrow set up did not help us out either.
Spurs narrow set up
Mauricio Pochettino reverted back to the formation and set up that he had utilised in the home Europa League tie with Limassol. This was to go with Paulinho as a second striker in the number ten position, which meant that our trio of advanced midfielders held their lanes rather than switching.
With Andros Townsend and Aaron Lennon playing as inverted wingers, who held their sides, our set up was extremely narrow. The pair frequently ran back inside on their stronger feet, which took them back towards the congestion.
As a result, we created very little penetrative passing and our best chances came from set pieces. Harry Kane rattled the bar in the opening minute. He later fired a shot over from a miscued clearance from another Ben Davies corner.
With the lack of width, it was no surprise that Mauricio Pochettino switched Lennon and Townsend 5 minutes prior to the interval. He kept the pair there after the break, but the Partizan midfield continued to stifle them, especially Townsend. They must have identified him as a dribbling threat as he continued to attract attention.
Press then counter
Partizan were set up very much to counter attack in the first half. They dropped off and only started to engage only once the ball was passed in to midfield.
After the interval, they pushed further up and played more like a team ‘with nothing to lose’ as coach Nikolic had said they would.
The Belgrade outfit were doing a good job of closing down, then working the ball wide to Petar Grbic. The winger was getting beyond full back Ben Davies and delivering a string of crosses.
Most of these deliveries were dealt with, but two found their targets. Danko Lazovic put his header over the bar and Danilo Pantic fluffed his lines with a tame shot at Hugo Lloris.
On the flip side, we were pressing high in the first half, especialy trapping hard in the wide areas out towards the sideline. This is a trait of Mauricio Pochettino’s system that we looked at in pre-season. We were regaining and then retaining possession with 70% of the ball.
We were then forced back in the second as Partizan came out of their shell, but this allowed us to counter attack.
We were able to get out on the break a couple of times, but were hindered by our lack of width. Mauricio Pochettino had introduced Erik Lamela for Andros Townsend, but had returned to his inverted wingers.
Lamela set up from the right; Lennon was moved back to the left. Paulinho was also withdrawn for the introduction of Roberto Soldado. This moved Harry Kane back in to the second striker number ten role, so the wider midfielders held their sides more often than we’ve seen compared to the fluid three of Eriksen, Lamela and Chadli.
Nabil Bentaleb got on the ball here in a good fast break situation, but we were far too narrow to exploit it.
Later, Erik Lamela arrowed a pass out to Roberto Soldado who was calling for the ball out wide.
The Spaniard ran down the line and put a curling ball in to the box that Harry Kane failed to judge and subsequently connect with. Soldado is a good crosser of the ball, but we really needed him and Kane to be in the box on the end of the supply line rather than providing it.
With us having zero shots on target and Partizan just two, it summed the match up. Both teams carried a threat, but were not able to work the ball in to high scoring chance areas, with each side creating their best opportunities from set pieces.
Spurs are second favourites to win the Europa League with MyTopSportsbooks.com and we’ll have to improve to justify this backing with the bookmakers. More trips to play on equally dubious pitches are a given in this competition, as we know all too well from our trips to face sides like Dnipro last year.
Partizan Belgrade 0 Spurs 0 conclusions
A point away from home is never a bad thing in the Europa League, especially on a very dubious pitch in a hostile atmosphere.
A goalless stalemate was probably the correct result with each side moving the ball forward, but failing to create good scoring chances.
Both teams flip-flopped in their use of pressing and counter attack. We dominated the first half; Partizan came back in to it as they pushed forward in the second.
Paulinho in the hole as a second striker number ten worked against Limassol, here it didn’t pay dividends by having inverted wingers and Partizan packing the midfield.
Benjamin Stambouli impressed on his first start, winning the ball back, but also spinning away from trouble when under pressure. Federico Fazio also did well if you forgive him getting under a header that led to Petar Grbic’s shot being blocked from close range.
Final score: Partizan Belgrade 0 Spurs 0.