On a blustery day we got sucked in to some disjointed and scrappy football as our Premier League clash finished West Brom 1-1 Spurs at the Hawthorns.
The unbeaten streak may not be over, but we got drawn in to a chippy and stop-start game that threw us off our normal free-flowing football. The result was plenty of possession, but not much penetration, as we ran in to the heart of Tony Pulis’ plan.
Counter vs long ball
Opening up the game it seemed as if this could be a long afternoon of having to be patient against a team sat deep and playing on the counter. West Brom showed a lot of respect as they were content to concede possession and dropped off quickly to get in to a solid defensive shape.
At the heart of it was Jonny Evans. The Republic of Ireland international was stationed as a defensive midfielder as Tony Pulis pulled a surprise. Evans sat in front of the back four and was breaking up and disrupting play. This allowed both Darren Fletcher and James Morrison to buzz around him in the defensive phase to make a solid trio to block off the centre. With us having Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela drifting in to the middle, we often ran in to this central wall and the ball was lost, turned over or forced back to our defenders to start again.
West Brom’s set-up pushed us in to two choices. We could’ve attacked down the flanks, but with Eriksen and Lamela moving inside, it meant that this wasn’t explored. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose struggled to get forward as they were both 1v2 in the wide areas.
The second option was to go quickly from back to front to navigate over the West Brom central trio and this is what we did. Eric Dier looked early on for one such ball, but the wind caused it to be over hit. Later on and Jan Vertonghen marginally missed Erik Lamela as the blustery breeze was once more a factor.
Toby Alderweireld has made the accurate long pass a feature of our games this season and he showed how it should be done. The ball was moved around between Dier, Vertonghen and Alderweireld as they formed a back three in order to create space to bring the ball up. With only Salomon Rondon challenging to close down, he was easily taken out of the equation and Alderweireld had time and space to pick out the run of Dele Alli.
The long pass took the midfield trio of Evans, Fletcher and Morrison out of the game and also bisected Gareth McAuley and Craig Dawson to land perfectly on the outstretched boot of Dele Alli, 1-0.
Going against the elements
The goal was a bit of a false friend as we had been going against the elements and it encouraged to continue doing so. The ball was spending a lot of time in the air where it is not as controllable in the blustery unpredictable gusts as it is on the turf.
The combination of West Brom blocking off the centre, us trying to go through this zone, plus the ball not spending a great deal of time of the surface, meant that we created very few good quality chances.
What also happened was that our goal broke the mould of what looked to be shaping up as a classic game of the possession based attacking side vs the counter attacking defender.
West Brom came to life after the goal and were closing us down heavily in the full back areas. This caused a number of turnovers or long clearances where an accurate aerial pass of the ball was pretty uncontrollable due to the blustery conditions. Jan Vertonghen whacking one such ball out that was skewed up in to the wind only to blow back and come down on the head of James McClean for an effort at Hugo Lloris was one example.
West Brom crosses
West Brom’s change in their stance to come out and close down more aggressively without the ball caused turnovers in higher areas of the pitch. It allowed them to get their crossing game working. Stephane Sessegnon was proving pesky down the right and James McClean a nuisance over on the left. The two players were heavily involved in the move that led to West Brom’s equaliser.
With Jonny Evans playing as a defensive midfielder this allowed both Darren Fletcher and James Morrison to get forward and join the attack. Fletcher got the ball out on the right and some one-touch passing took the play back inside to James Morrison then instantly out to Craig Dawson. This push-pull movement sucked our defence in and out, particularly Christian Eriksen. The Dane was matched up with Fletcher, but then let him go as he went out to challenge Dawson who had the ball.
This momentary lapse in tracking meant that Fletcher drifted off and in to space with Eric Dier having to pick up his run. Dier was just a step slow, allowing Fletcher to run down the inside right channel and receive the pass round the corner from Sessegnon.
Fletcher hit the byline and chipped a deft ball back across the goal. Kyle Walker, who was marking James McClean, got caught watching what was developing. This allowed the Irishman to run from behind, get across him and be first to meet the cross as it came in, West Brom 1-1 Spurs.
The Baggies had equalised from a cross and their other good moments also arrived from balls in to the box. Salomon Rondon almost got on the end of one that saw our defence hesitate to judge the flight of it before the bouncing ball was cleared by Kyle Walker. The Venezuelan then almost got to James McClean’s knee high effort across the six yard area.
Crosses from free kicks were also a problem. Tony Pulis sides have always been well-coached at set pieces, something we looked at in the West Brom vs Spurs preview.
We conceded a number of fouls on the edge of our box that allowed Chris Brunt to whip in deliveries with his left foot. These were generally dealt with as West Brom tried to overload the back post. Jonas Olsson’s flicked effort that was sensationally pushed over the bar by Hugo Lloris was the only real one that caught us with a lack of numbers to defend the amount of attackers.
Little change in tactics
There were three factors that were running in to.
Firstly, West Brom were blocking off the centre with Jonny Evans martialing the area in front of his back four. This led to very few chances for us through here. Dele Alli’s chip pass over the top for Harry Kane to try and smuggle the ball home was one rare example, Mousa Dembele’s tame drive from distance the other.
The second factor was the wind. This was a problem as the ball was spending a lot of time in the air. We tried to go long from back to front. We also had to often clear long as West Brom increased their pressing after we went ahead.
The third factor was the number of chippy and sometimes blatant fouls. It’s not often we’ve been out-fouled by the opposition this season as our high pressing game has had the side effect of mistimed challenges. Here we saw a return to the type of stuff Tony Pulis used at Stoke to disrupt the flow of games and make them stop-start and extremely chippy. James McClean’s high lunge on Mousa Dembele was the worse of the lot and it, like other fouls, contributed to halting any type of flow to our play.
Mauricio Pochettino has been much better at influencing games this season, but here he did little to alter the match by way of his changes.
Son Heung-Min came on for Erik Lamela but essentially did the same thing to drift in to the centre, albeit from the left. This substitution moved Christian Eriksen more centrally, but he was just increasingly limited by the congestion that West Brom were causing in here.
The first switch moved Dele Alli out to the right, so to address this imbalance, Mauricio Pochettino brought on Clinton N’Jie. He looked to run in-behind much more from a wider area, which was better.
His burst off the shoulder of Chris Brunt that Mousa Dembele picked out was the ideal of what we were looking for in this game to counteract West Brom’s tactics. A ball on the floor to a player that is either out wide or looking to run from an outside position, but most importantly, in-behind a full back. Dembele’s pass to N’Jie delivered this, but the Cameroon international was flagged offside when clean through on goal.
The chance was a one off and should’ve signalled the way to unlock the West Brom defence, but we were unable to recreate this type of situation again.
West Brom 1-1 Spurs overall
A point away to West Brom still sees us unbeaten since opening day, which is no mean feat.
The main takeaway from this game will be a learning exercise of how to play against teams that are going to try and alter the flow of matches. This can be from the opposition being intent on making them scrappy and stop-start from fouling or just generally chippy in play. It can also be from the opposition making the elements a factor by forcing us to play against the conditions. We needed to be smarter here and play more on the deck away from the wind and move the ball in to wider positions to stretch the opposition out.
Experience is the best teacher and learning from games where the opposition is going to disrupt the flow will stand both Pochettino and our young squad in a much better position next time.
Final score: West Brom 1-1 Spurs.