A nervous performance sees us play in to the Baggies’ hands with it finishing Spurs 1-1 West Brom at White Hart Lane.
“We watched them dance around us in the first half” said Tony Pulis at the final whistle as it finished Spurs 1-1 West Brom. In the second half, Pulis ensured that the game was played to a much different tune. A tenacious change of tactics from the Baggies saw the match played to a different rhythm, one that we couldn’t come to terms with the beat.
Reactive West Brom
The game opened as many suspected. West Brom came to sit deep, defend and counter attack. Tony Pulis once more went with his four centre halves across the back line. Jonny Evans and Craig Dawson in the full back roles alongside Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley.
The central two – Olsson and McAuley – had been pulled apart in previous away trips to the Eithad and the Emirates. So here, Pulis squashed his back four tight together and had midfielders Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean play as full backs. Without the ball they would drop in and make a back six, effectively tracking Danny Rose and Kyle Walker.
In front of this back six, Pulis had a central trio designed to congest and stifle our plethora of players that drift in to the middle. Claudio Yacob was doing a man-marking job on Dele Alli – that got a bit chippy – whilst Darren Fletcher and Craig Gardner floated around in a destructive triangle.
The Baggies set up was hindering us for a couple of reasons.
It first of all stopped the long diagonals that Toby Alderweireld likes to play towards Danny Rose. Secondly, it prevented us from going through the centre, as we were frequently met with a tight wall of red shirts.
Spurs in the inside channels
We looked at the holes between the centre backs in the Baggies’ recent away matches in the Spurs vs West Brom match preview. Mauricio Pochettino and his coaches must have looked at this fallibility, as everything was set up and designed to go through the inside channels between their centre backs.
It almost paid off after just six minutes. The play started from a free kick earned for a foul by Claudio Yacob on Dele Alli. The ball was worked forward and a nice interchange between Alli and Harry Kane saw the striker’s shot pushed on to the inside of the post. The route through was highly congested, but the slick passing found the seam and Kane was in.
His shot was a little too close to the keeper and this allowed Boaz Myhill to get the faintest of fingers to it and push it towards the post. An early goal would’ve really put the Baggies on the back foot.
After this early chance, it seemed as if more would follow. However, West Brom’s set up was causing us problems that stopped us getting in through the inside channels. Some rare moments of success included Harry Kane taking the ball from Mousa Dembele through the inside left channel, but seeing his low drive towards the near post pushed around for a corner. Kane also rumbled through this channel on to a through ball, but couldn’t get to the pass quickly enough before being challenged inside the penalty area.
After the interval and the inside channels were again our focus of attack. Erik Lamela saw his shot come back off the post after great one touch passing between Rose, Alli and Eriksen found the Argentine in the inside left channel.
Christian Eriksen then went straight through the centre, but put his shot wide of the post when he could’ve attacked Jonas Olsson in space.
Later and the Dane went through the middle again, but couldn’t latch on to Alli’s through ball before goalkeeper Myhill could rush from his area and head clear.
Our plan was to attack what was supposedly the porous centre of the West Brom defence. However, having seen that they had set up to be tough to break down through here, we should’ve switched our focus out wide to stretch them.
Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were being left 1v1 against James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon. Both of these players aren’t particularly adept defenders and we should’ve tried to isolate our full backs against them. What was noticeable is that Tony Pulis switched the sides of McClean and Sessegnon. The Beninese international is the weaker defender and he was moved off Danny Rose with our left back getting space beyond him. The clumsy foul by Sessegnon on Rose at the edge of the box that led to Eriksen’s free kick skimming the bar saw Pulis change their flanks.
This still didn’t matter as Rose was getting in to some good attack positions from out to in runs against both McClean and Sessegnon. Rose was left 1v1 and could cut in to look for the lob pass from the centre. This one form Erik Lamela was unsuccessful, but it should’ve showed the way forward. The pass beat the central congestion and almost found Rose at the back post.
Later in the half and Rose was almost in again. The pass came from Lamela once more, but Rose was bundled over by Craig Gardner in the box. No penalty was forthcoming from referee Mike Jones though.
In the second half and Rose had another opportunity. This time he slipped at the vital moment and the ball squirted off his foot and safely through in to the waiting hands of Boaz Myhill.
The clues were there, but we didn’t figure them out. We didn’t move the ball from side-to-side quickly enough nor switch play often enough. Rose and Walker were a factor in this game, but I would’ve liked to have seen them trying to dribble past their opponent to get them to commit and force other defenders to have to help. This creates space and stretches the narrow defence out. For all of their talents, and these are numerous and beneficial in Pochettino’s system, neither of our full backs are particularly adept at 1v1 dribbling and going past their opponent.
Inside channel free kicks
With us going predominantly through the inside channels, we earned a number of free kicks. The inside left channel was proving particularly key. Christian Eriksen saw his free kick after a few minutes beat the wall, but not Boaz Myhill’s left hand, as the keeper flew across his goal to push it around the post.
Five minutes later and another free kick in almost exactly the same position saw Eriksen skim the top of the bar with Myhill wrong-footed and rooted.
In between those, we had the free kick, this time from the inside right channel, that sprung Kane to see his shot ring off the post.
The game saw us gain a number of free kicks through the inside channels in the West Brom half.
It was one such free kick that saw us take the lead. Craig Gardner fouled Erik Lamela midway in to the West Brom half, again in the inside right channel. Christian Eriksen swung in another dipping and curling delivery. Craig Dawson and Jan Vertonghen both went for the ball. Somehow it got caught under Dawson’s sliding body as it bounced and squirmed loose, through Myhill’s legs and in to the back of the net. White Hart Lane errupted, tension eased, , 1-0.
It was a scrappy goal, but the damage had been done in the prelude to the kick being taken. We had five players lined up in offside positions between the West Brom defensive line and the goal. As Jonas Olsson panicked to get goal side of Harry Kane, this allowed Vertonghen to steal a march and caused Dawson to have to come round to try and get goal side. In doing so he got in a bad position and lunging for the ball saw it deflect in.
West Brom change of tactics
With the goal going in, West Brom changed their tactics. Whether Tony Pulis had told his side that if they conceded to “run around and give it a go,” as he eloquently stated in a Redknapp-esque manner after the game, we don’t know. The Baggies immediately played a much higher pressing game, whereas previously they had retreated to their own half.
Craig Gardner was pushed up to press alongside Salomon Rondon in the defensive phase. Sessegnon and McClean were relieved of their dropping in to make a back six duties. The back four then pushed up behind the central trio of midfielders to hoover up any long clearances or to use their strength to win the ball back.
This saw us start to struggle a bit more to bring the ball out as we were being set upon in our own half now. A ponderous situation between Hugo Lloris and Toby Alderweireld almost saw us turn the ball over in our penalty area as the new setup nearly paid dividends before half time.
After the interval and the ploy continued. Going through the middle should’ve been easier due to this, but the work rate of the Baggies’ central trio saw them harass and hound the ball carrier.
With the slow movement of the ball in our possession, it was only on the brief occasions that we moved it quickly that we created good chances. The Lamela shot off the post and Eriksen’s driving run straight through the centre. On both occasions we left the slower Claudio Jacob and Darren Fletcher trailing.
West Brom set pieces
West Brom were proving increasingly pesky, but they rarely created from open play. Their main avenue was through crossing situations. Salomon Rondon heading dangerously close was the nearest they came, but Craig Gardner also ballooned a fizzed-in cross from the right over the bar.
As with any Tony Pulis coached side, set pieces were the main threat, especially with their four centre backs on the field. Everyone knew it and there was a real sense of nervousness inside White Hart Lane any time the Baggies had a corner or free kick they could put in to the box.
There were some scares, but in general we dealt well, if nervously, with the aerial threat. But as the game wore on, we started to give more corners away, some unnecessarily, and the tension began to build.
It culminated in their equaliser. The corner was won after Salomon Rondon’s shot was tipped over. The resulting dead ball was dangerously swung in to the six-yard box. Erik Lamela took a lot of flak for failing to block out Sessegnon, which allowed him to impede Hugo Lloris just enough to stop the keeper getting to the ball. However, several Spurs players, including Dier and Kane were caught getting too far under the ball and misjudged the cross. Jonas Olsson, as he frequently was at set pieces, was also causing a nuisance of himself, by knocking players around off the ball. At this one, he took Jan Vertonghen clean out with a shove, but with no call forthcoming, the score was now Spurs 1-1 West Brom.
When the goal went in, the life was sucked out of the Lane. The players knew we faced an uphill battle given how little we had created and so did the crowd. The injury to Dier allowed the moment to drag on and the tension to set in. It was too much thinking time and it allowed the disastrous moment of realisation that this could be the end of our title challenge to fester. Dier then going off meant we lost a major ball-winning presence in the heart of midfield, one Ryan Mason couldn’t replicate.
We never recovered and then began to panic. Everything was being done too quickly. We were trying to force the ball too much when we still had fifteen minutes to play and stoppage time. This made the robust Baggies difficult to play through with their size and strength and many attacks just petered out.
Mauricio Pochettino did try to change it by bringing on Heung-Min Son and Nacer Chadli. However, neither did anything to stretch the game horizontally, which was what was required at this point. Frustration set in as time ran out and the three points dissipated with our increasingly anxious play.
Spurs 1-1 West Brom overall
Last Monday we took to the field knowing that Leicester had dropped points. This week, with the Foxes winning, we struggled with the pressure of a must win game.
The tactics to start with were well intentioned to break down a side that had previously been porous through the centre. However, having seen what West Brom was up to, a change of formation or at least of approach to get the ball out to attack Sessegnon and McClean was needed.
A continued run of having to play after Leicester proved just too much to handle. The tension and nervousness ran right throughout. Neither the team nor the fans felt at ease like we’ve witnessed when running up the score in previous weeks. The team plays good attacking football, but when this is stifled or subdued by a tricky opponent, then a more robust plan B is needed to graft out games.
But this is a valuable lesson for our young side of how to play and deal with pressure. One that will stand them in good stead given the foundations we have put in place for this team to be a force for years to come. The title is still a possibility. However, depending on an Everton side that has already mailed this season in or on a Chelsea team that have stated their support for the Foxes, doesn’t provide much confidence.
Final score: Spurs 1-1 West Brom.