Qualification for the Europa League knockout stages is assured, as it finishes Spurs 1 Partizan 0 at White Hart Lane.
“Job done” smiled Mauricio Pochettino after we edged Partizan in a match, which like the evening’s disruptions, flowed in fits and spurts.
The head coach made several changes to the team that lined up against Hull and the disjointed nature was evident. However, he was “happy” afterwards and this was due to the match being won, along with several good chances being fashioned, by patented Pochettino play.
Supporting the striker
Mauricio Pochettino likes to have his striker come short for the ball and then hit the runners that go off him. This is done to drag the opposition centre backs out and expose them to other player’s movement in-behind. After laying it off, it is then the centre forward’s job to get up and get in the box as quickly as he can, looking for the second ball. This can be a through pass, cross or pull back in the penalty area.
Pochettino went with Roberto Soldado to do this. The Spaniard has looked good at coming short, providing the nice link up play, but has been lacking any finishing touch.
Soldado almost opened the scoring with this ploy in the first minute. The Spaniard had come short and neat flurry of passes with Paulinho and Erik Lamela set him up with a shot from the edge of the box that was scuffed wide.
The move highlighted just how Pochettino was looking to get support up with the centre forward. He was inverting his midfield triangle in order to have both Mousa Dembele and Paulinho closer to Soldado.
Erik Lamela was drifting in from his staring position on the left and Aaron Lennon was often supporting from the right. These two switched sides several times during the match, but the consequence of these tactics was once more a very narrow formation. So much so that our best chance of the opening 45 arrived when we actually played with some width. Erik Lamela got round the back to fizz a ball across the box that Soldado was slightly too slow to reach.
Of course this set up of getting support up with Roberto Soldado had its problems in the defensive phase.
Partizan counter attacks
With Pochettino pushing Dembele and Paulinho on, as well as encouraging the full backs forward, this left Benjamin Stambouli exposed as the holding player.
Partizan were sitting off and through their five man midfield were stifling the centre of the pitch and trying to take away space between the lines. This meant with us trying to go through the middle by working off Soldado, they were able to congest this space, create turnovers and counter attack.
The Belgrade side were extremely dangerous in transition and were able to overrun Stambouli in midfield by the numbers and speed with which they got forward. This often left just Jan Vertonghen and Vlad Chiriches to defend as they got in to our left back zone to provide crosses and pull backs through the penalty area.
Petar Grbic got in on three occasions, sending a dangerous ball across the face of goal that fortunately missed everybody. He then found Skuletic and Lazovic who both spurned good opportunities. Their best chance came from a scooped pass to Skuletic, but he was unable to finish with Hugo Lloris quickly out to him.
The warnings were there and the narrowness of our attack was playing in to their hands, but Partizan were unable to capitalise
Classic Pochettino play
After a first half where the only thing slower than Spurs’ play was the speed of stewards to deal with the pitch invasions, the second period saw us up the tempo.
With us only rarely creating in the first 45 by working the ball off Roberto Soldado, we took the lead four minutes after the interval by doing just that.
Vlad Chiriches was able to bring the ball forward with the Belgrade side not set in their shape. He could then play a vertical pass straight in to Soldado’s feet as he came short, dragging the Partizan centre back with him.
Benjamin Stambouli had made a break from his position at the base of midfield and took the ball from the Spaniard. As he did, Soldado turned and span off in-behind the Partizan defence and Stambouli returned the ball to put him in.
Soldado’s neat chip looked to be on the way to breaking his goal drought, but pinged back off the inside of the post. Stambouli had continued his run and swept home the rebound, Spurs 1 Partizan 0.
Working the ball in to and off the centre forward for a runner and then to get it back to the striker was textbook Pochettino.
After the go-ahead goal, Partizan were forced to come out and the game opened up. Space was now appearing between the lines and we created two more great chances off the centre forward after Harry Kane came on.
Firstly he dropped in short to spring a pass for Paulinho’s run off him. The Brazilian got choked up on the ball and it ran loose to Lamela who fired over.
Then, once more Kane had come short to spring Stambouli’s run as the Frenchman raced on to his header.
Stambouli was in the clear, but for some reason he tried to pick out Lamela’s run. The Argentinean was not high enough up and always trailing the play. Lamela’s lunge at the ball sent it agonisingly back across the face of an open goal.
Three excellent chances, four if you include Soldado’s scuffed shot wide in the first minute, one of which was converted for a goal, but all created how Pochettino likes. His centre forward was coming short and finding those running off him to create a chance for them or by returning it back to the striker.
This was good, but our play was once more lacking width. Lennon and Lamela were frequently playing as inverted forwards. With us being so narrow, we only attempted ten crosses from open play, but also fashioned two great chances.
Lamela’s ball across the box in the first half saw Soldado fail to react quickly enough to get on the end of it. In the second, Aaron Lennon dug out a cross that found Soldado in acres of space.
With too much time to size up the keeper, Soldado’s hesitation allowed Lukac to narrow the angle and keep the his shot out.
A honourable mention should go to Mauricio Pochettino’s use of his substitutes bench. After discussing his questionable use of his changes in several games this season, with Stoke at home being especially prominent, they were much better here.
Five minutes after taking the lead, he withdrew Mousa Dembele for Nabil Bentaleb. This restored his midfield triangle to having two at the base so that Stambouli wasn’t being overrun anymore.
Harry Kane came on for Roberto Soldado and continued the good work of playing off the striker. Kane was also unlucky to have an effort ruled out for offside, as we again went through the middle.
To give Harry Winks a debut was also a nice touch.
Spurs 1 Partizan 0 overall
Qualification for the knockout stages of the Europa League was the objective. With that achieved, just who qualifies in top spot is the only thing left to be decided.
Mauricio’s verdict was one of being happy with the performance and in periods of the game we were very good. We did look far too open in the first half, as we tried to get numbers forward in support of Roberto Soldado. After the quick goal and bringing on Bentaleb, we were much more in control at the back and Partizan’s only real chance came from a free-kick.
Overall the game was won with a piece of classic Pochettino play, but the narrowness of the side continues to be a cause for concern.
Final score: Spurs 1 Partizan 0.