Christen Eriksen strikes at the death yet again to send us to Wembley, as it finishes Sheffield United 2-2 Spurs (agg 2-3) in our Capital One Cup Semi-Final.
What a game, with some amazing goals and incredible drama! There was so much going on in this match as it flowed back and forth in what turned out to be a classic cup-tie with an epic theatrical twist in the dying seconds.
It all centred on a number of themes. Pressing, getting players between the lines, exposing our left back and the play of Stambouli, Eriksen and Dembele.
Press for success
Right from the off there was good pace and tempo to the match as we tried to pressure Sheffield United early through our front players. The Blades were content to sit back and looked to hit on the counter, but they were often hemmed in as we tried to close them down or force them to clear long.
With Mousa Dembele put in at the number ten position, we had a player who is very strong when engaged 1v1 against an opponent and has the ability to recover the ball. Backed up by Benjamin Stambouli, we had two levels of press to contain Sheffield United from getting out.
I’m not a massive fan of average position diagrams, but our one from the game showed how aggressive our front six were in their half, but also how they were swarming in central areas.
An early opportunity saw Dembele track down and strip the ball at the halfway line. He surged forward and fed in Harry Kane for a shot.
This pressing was catching Sheffield United trying to move up the pitch and allowing us to then get men between the lines and run in-behind. Kane had several opportunities to latch on to through balls as he was fed in, finding his shots saved, go just wide or skim the outside of the post.
Countless times Dembele and Stambouli won the ball back, with both immense in the first half for us to control possession. Alongside them, Ryan Mason was also feature hoovering up stray Sheffield United passes and long balls. Mason had 6 interceptions, with a vital one on our first goal, which I’ll get to in a second.
Between the lines
The result of our pressing and Sheffield United trying to get out saw us then get men between the lines from the resulting turnovers. The Blades were forced to come and play a bit more than the first leg being the home team, but don’t underestimate the size of the pitch involved in this also. Sheffield United have a much bigger surface than the Lane and the increased playing area allowed us to use the space.
There were countless examples of getting loose between the lines in transition, especially on Eriksen’s winner, but the key man was often Erik Lamela. The Argentinean was presumably put in the side to have another run in-behind threat without Nacer Chadli and he was often open.
An early example saw the excellent Dembele move the ball out to him quickly from defence, allowing Lamela to release Harry Kane to run in-behind again.
Later Lamela got loose between the lines again to free Kane once more, as the striker pinged the ball off the outside of the post.
Just one more example, from the many, saw him in this space to release Ryan Mason, who was denied a glorious opportunity by a tremendous goal-saving tackle by Jose Baxter.
Free kick frenzy
The pressing and resulting ball recovery, followed by quick movement of possession forward saw us win a number of free kicks in dangerous positions around the penalty area. No more so than on our opener.
Quick closing down saw Sheffield United having to clear long out from the back and Ryan Mason was first to the ball to intercept it. He played it to Benjamin Stambouli, who was free between the lines, allowing the Frenchman to surge forward at the Blades’ defence. This forced a late challenge and foul from Michael Doyle.
Eriksen’s resulting free kick was simply sublime. The man is a master of dead ball situations. The trajectory, curl and pace on the ball meant it was un-saveable, but the placement of Eric Dier on the other end of the wall as a decoy was also a masterstroke.
Dier put himself on the opposite side of the Blades’ wall and as Eriksen ran up he ducked to fake as if it was going over his head. This meant that Mark Howard took a step to this side, leaving a window for Eriksen to aim at. The strike was so precise that even without Dier’s decoy movement it would have gone in, but the whole routine looked fresh from the training ground and was so pleasing to see.
Going one for one, we had a further three free kicks around the edge of the Sheffield United penalty area, all resulting from runners surging forward and being fouled. Eriksen put his next two in to the wall and Kane saw his Ronaldo-esque side foot ‘knuckleball’ effort saved.
Subs change the game
We were a goal up and in control of the game, but substitutions changed the flow of the match.
Nigel Clough made two as he sought to get extra attacking power to go for it. Mauricio Pochettino brought off Mousa Dembele, which changed the tide entirely.
Dembele had been fouled surging forward on one of his many driving runs minutes before and it was difficult to tell if he was injured or not. He seemed to be moving freely enough, but on a yellow card, Mauricio Pochettino replaced him with Paulinho.
Dembele’s strength, dribbling, ball recovery and even quick forward passing had seen him as a pivotal figure in the match. His removal saw us loose control in hemming Sheffield United in with a power player at the number ten position. Suddenly the Blades were able to get out much easier and they were doing it with longer balls forward and quick switches in play from side to side.
Blades in the left back zone
The removal of Dembele saw our midfield swarm become little more than a buzz as Sheffield United took advantage of our left side. Christian Eriksen was drifting infield from this flank and this was leaving Ben Davies exposed.
We’d had a real scare very early in the match, as Jamal Campbell-Ryce got in-behind Davies to cross the ball. Michel Vorm lost it under challenge from Stefan Scougall, but our keeper racing back cleared the resulting loose ball off the line.
Sheffield United had been able to get in-behind as our full backs had obviously been instructed to get up tight and jam their wingers. In the first leg at the Lane, we’d sagged off them and Campbell-Ryce used his pace to light up Ben Davies on several occasions. Here he was able to turn quickly and leave Davies behind, but Kyle Walker was also playing tight to his man and picked up a booking from being caught wrong side.
The early scare apart, the ploy to jam their wingers worked for much of the match. This was until the removal of Dembele, coupled with Stambouli starting to tire and Eriksen being caught centrally, all combining to allow Davies to be picked on.
Their equaliser arrived as the ball was quickly switched across the field to Ryan Flynn. With Eriksen caught centrally, this left two Sheffield United players running at Davies’ left back zone.
Despite sprinting, Eriksen was unable to get back goal side, causing Davies to hesitate about whom to pick up. This allowed Flynn to get forward in to a crossing position from where he delivered a wicked ball that skimmed through the six-yard box. Che Adams was loitering at the back stick and his calm first-time finish back across Vorm levelled the scores.
Two minutes later and Sheffield United were ahead in the game and level on aggregate. The ball was sent long once again, as it was fired in to Jamie Murphy who was matched up on Davies. Ben forced him out and back up the line, but this left him forward and out of position.
Eriksen was covering in-behind him, but on seeing Davies go forward, he also got attracted up the pitch towards the ball.
One pass took both players out and allowed Murphy to run in-behind, pulling Jan Vertonghen out from his centre back position.
Vertonghen should’ve stayed on his feet, but went to ground, allowing the cross to come in. Adams took a touch and saw his shot deflect wickedly off Eric Dier, but in to the back of the net, making it Sheffield United 2-2 Spurs on aggregate.
As if to add insult to injury, Sheffield United almost went 3-1 up on the night. Again the switch in play of the ball to the Sheffield United right back caught Eriksen centrally. With no cover in front to help him, Davies was once more pulled out, allowing a runner in-behind to be found with a through ball. Fortunately Louis Reed could only fire his effort over the bar.
Even if a little late, Mauricio Pochettino bringing Danny Rose on to put infront of Davies at the end signalled that our coach wasn’t going to let us be exposed here again.
With the scores tied on aggregate and Sheffield United on a wave of momentum, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking that it was all about to go Spursy. It sort of did, but in a way that we’ve become accustomed to this season, as Christian Eriksen time rolled around.
The Dane has struck four goals late in games to pull us through this season and with extra time looming, he stepped up to save the day once again.
It was a goal that combined much of what we did well on the evening. Pressing to win the ball back in midfield, shifting it to a player between the lines and then hitting a runner in-behind.
Kyle Walker pushed up to recover the ball in midfield and moved it forward to Benjamin Stambouli who found Harry Kane free between the Sheffield United lines of defence and midfield.
Kane, who had so often been the man on the move in-behind the Blades’ defence, picked out an exquisitely weighted through ball for Eriksen this time.
The Dane was as a calm and collected as an assassin, letting the ball run across his body before guiding it back towards the far corner, leaving the keeper with no chance. It was a fitting way to even the game up at Sheffield United 2-2 Spurs and send us to Wembley with our clutch man coming through for us once again.
Sheffield United 2-2 Spurs overall
“In football, you need to kill and score when you have the possibility and if you don’t, it’s a difficult game,” said Mauricio Pochettino after the match. We failed to press home our advantage in the first half when we were in control, but once more the determination to play to the end shone through.
Winning the tie away from home with the opposition on the crest of a wave of momentum was another impressive show of determination. To also do it in the manner that Pochettino wants us to play with pressing and vertical passing was equally commendable.
We’re off to Wembley! It feels so good to say that again. We’ll face a tough team in Chelsea who will want revenge for the mauling they received on New Year’s Day. Christian Eriksen said that “we are not afraid” and with his late game goal scoring heroics, Jose Mourinho’s men will have plenty to worry about.
Final score: Sheffield United 2-2 Spurs (agg 2-3).