A rather flat performance saw us emerge with three valuable Premier League points nonetheless, as it finished Spurs 1 Cardiff 0 at White Hart Lane.
This was partly due to Cardiff’s tactics to stifle the centre, but the key to the victory was creating chances from quick transitions before their defence could get set.
Cardiff’s three centre backs
In a radical change of system, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went with three centre backs, possibly suspecting that we’d go with two strikers. This was a decent plan to get extra bodies in the central areas and his 3-5-2 system had the desired effect for large parts of the game.
The middle of the park was congested as his side sat deep. His two strikers were dropping in to set up just in front of three midfielders. Gary Medel anchored the trio as Kim and Aron Gunnarsson set up either side of him and would shuttle out to the flanks once the ball was moved wide. This had the effect of getting five players in to the centre of the pitch ahead of the three centre backs, often creating 5v2 or 5v3 situations.
As it usually is against a back three, the space was therefore naturally out on the flanks. Having selected Andros Townsend and Aaron Lennon to play as wingers on their natural sides, it seemed as if Spurs would have the personnel to take advantage and we made a promising start.
Lennon and Townsend
The game started off as if Spurs knew exactly how to go about breaking down Solskjaer’s system. The ball was transferred quickly from side-to-side, often with long passes across the formation, in order to get it out to the full backs and wingers.
After just two minutes, Kyle Naughton sprung Aaron Lennon down the line in-behind wingback Declan John with a precise pass. The diminutive winger picked out Roberto Soldado in the centre who flicked a left-footed shot wide, but the move was a promising sign that we knew what to do.
Minutes later and Lennon was in-behind the wingback again and this time chipped in a short cross, but Soldado fluffed his header as Fabio came in to challenge. At this rate, it seemed just a matter of time before we’d take advantage.
However, after that chance we really struggled to get behind in the wide areas. The problem was two-fold.
Firstly, we were getting pushed back on both sides as Cardiff started to get their wing backs forward. This meant that after the initial passes up the line to Lennon, both wide players were now receiving the ball further from goal.
And secondly, over on the other side, on top of being pushed back, Andros Townsend also wanted to get the ball to feet and then dribble at his marker. This meant that it gave the defence time to get set, whereas he needed to look to receive it on the run in-behind the wing back, so that he would be moving in to space to cross.
Whether he was instructed to do so or if it was just frustration, but in the second half, Townsend started to drift in field and across the formation. This just added to the congestion in the centre and did nothing to liven up what had become a stagnant game.
Central congestion beaten by quick transition
With Cardiff playing a very tight formation that sat deep and congested the middle of the pitch, where we did create chances was from hitting quickly in transition.
This is where our goal came from, as Cardiff had loaded up our box in order to swing in a free kick.
The Bluebirds had sent a host of players forward, but Hugo Lloris punched the ball clear to Andros Townsend. Cardiff now had seven players caught up field and out of position.
Townsend raced forward and moved the ball out to Emmanuel Adebayor. What was interesting here was that the eventual goalscorer, Roberto Soldado, was loitering in the middle of the park and pointing to pass it out to Adebayor. As soon as Townsend played the ball, Soldado then sprinted off towards the box, possibly knowing that Cardiff would struggle to pick up what had become a delayed run.
Cardiff tried to get players back, but Medel and John, who were on halfway to guard against a counter, were overrun by Soldado’s late burst of pace through the middle. Adebayor found him and the Spaniard slotted it away to put us in the lead.
The goal arrived from a Cardiff set piece and these really had become a focal point of the match.
Michael Dawson had a shot and two headers from our corners. At the other end, the Bluebirds were also focussed on making something from dead ball situations.
I talked in the Tottenham tactics for Spurs vs Cardiff at how they focus on set pieces by getting five players well spaced around the six-yard box. Their best opportunity came as Steven Caulker hit the bar from point blank range, as Cardiff had encircled our keeper.
Our second best chance of the match also arrived from a quick transition, after Cardiff were caught up field at a set piece trying to equalise at the death.
Aaron Lennon received the ball out on the right and slid it infield to Nacer Chadli who raced forward at a depleted Cardiff defence.
He laid it off to substitute Harry Kane, who tried to flick the ball with the outside of his right foot past the Cardiff keeper. The shot was saved, but you were left wondering if Soldado, who had been replaced by Kane, would have added to his first half strike if he was still on?
Spurs 1 Cardiff 0 overall
This wasn’t a classic performance by any stretch of the imagination, but we did take three vital Premier League points and that’s what matters.
How much the Europa League victory over Dnipro took out of the players, both physically and emotionally is unknown, but nine of the eleven started again here.
The bigger factor than fatigue was that Cardiff did come to play extremely tight and sit deep. They set up with their two pacey forwards looking to run in-behind on the counter, whilst also trying to grab something from a set piece.
The space was down the flanks, but apart from the opening minutes, we didn’t exploit this enough. Having stand-in full backs didn’t help us, but neither did our wingers look to demand the ball on the run behind Cardiff’s wing backs.
This made it hard for us, but we did catch them on the counter from rapid transitions, which resulted in one goal and what should’ve been a second.
Roberto Soldado was so happy with his strike, declaring himself ‘ecstatic’ and it clearly meant a lot to him from his reaction. Hopefully he can get on a roll with some extremely difficult games coming up, starting with Chelsea this Saturday.
Final score: Spurs 1 Cardiff 0.