Whilst Mauricio Pochettino has achieved some remarkable things with Tottenham, transforming the club immeasurably into an aggressively attacking and defensively imperious unit, the Argentine makes tactical choices that ultimately fail to deliver.
A disappointing 0-0 draw against Swansea City means Spurs have now dropped seven points at home this season, more than they did in the entirety of 2016/17 (4).
Despite enjoying 75% possession and 26 efforts at goal, the best of which fell to Harry Kane, who hit the bar, Spurs failed to score at home for the first time in 30 games.
It was also the first time Spurs have gone three home league games without a win since December 2013.
For all the good work Pochettino has done at the club, it doesn’t leave him immune from criticism. He got it wrong on Saturday and sometimes you have to hold your hands up at your own mistakes.
Where was Serge Aurier? Why was Heung-Min Son playing at left wing back? Why didn’t Spurs switch up their approach when Fernando Llorente came on?
RealSport take a look at the answers.
The Heung-Min Son experiment
Heung-Min Son as a left wing-back didn’t work in the past and won’t work in the future. It’s a doomed experiment that needs to be abandoned.
Son’s mistakes in this defensive role arguably cost Spurs the game against Chelsea in the 4-2 defeat in last season’s semi-final, but the South Korean bizarrely found himself deployed as a left wing-back once more in Saturday’s match with Swansea.
First, if Pochettino wants to experiment with personnel like this, do so against Barnsley in Tuesday’s Carabao Cup fixture, not a must-win Premier League game in which a draw leaves Spurs five points behind the Manchester clubs at the top of the table.
The wrong game to experiment.
The game’s positional map shows that Son’s (7) average position was effectively as a third striker with Harry Kane (10) and Dele Alli (20).
Beginning the game as a wing-back, it left Jan Vertonghen having to cover two positions, hence a massive gap between his average position (5) and Davinson Sanchez’s (6) as the middle centre-back of the back three.
As a result, there was far too much space between the three centre-backs and it’s no surprise that 48% of Swansea’s attack were focussed down this left flank, despite the Swans failing to register a shot on target.
The result was that Spurs looked defensively suspect, Vertonghen was stretched on the left and Son was torn between attacking and defending, meaning he didn’t make too much of an impact at either end, and the Lilywhites consequently played with limited width.
Considering Ben Davies has created the second-most chances (12) for Spurs, scoring and assisting a goal apiece, it was nonsensical to exclude a natural left back in form.
Dropping him for Tuesday’s Carabao Cup game was the best course of action.
Where was Serge Aurier?
After a brilliant debut against Borussia Dortmund, £23m Serge Aurier was left on the bench against Swansea, with Kieran Trippier starting as right back. The Englishman, however, offers very few of the Aurier’s qualities.
Trippier was tentative on the ball and only managed one successful dribble and eight attempted crosses. He fired one speculative effort at goal late on, though, that half the ground thought had gone in.
Pochettino changed his tactics at halftime, pushing Son higher up the pitch, which meant Trippier was shunted out to the left and Moussa Sissoko dropped to right back. This created a situation in which Spurs were playing with no width at all, with two unnatural fits on either flank.
Why wasn’t Aurier brought on sooner? Why didn’t he start the game?
When the Ivorian did eventually enter the fray in the 63rd minute, he was one of Spurs’ few bright sparks, taking players on and getting his head up to look for crosses and smart passes into the box.
Aurier was unfortunate to not have a penalty awarded after he went down under a challenge from Jordan Ayew, in which the Swansea striker clipped his heels in the box. Mike Dean inexplicably awarded Swansea a free kick for a handball by Aurier.
Fernando Llorente was bought for this reason
One issue of last season was the lack of a Plan B, specifically having no change of approach for teams, like Swansea, that park the bus, sit deep and defend with numbers in their own penalty area.
In these situations, space is desperately limited and working the ball into the box isn’t the best approach.
It’s baffling, therefore, that Llorente was introduced so late in the game and the Spaniard should have made his Premier League bow earlier than the 74th minute.
He was brought on for Son, another wrong decision, as Dele Alli was in the midst of one of his worst games in a Spurs shirt.
When he came on, Spurs didn’t even change their approach.
Having a 6’4 striker leading the line means Spurs should utilise his height to their advantage and pump long balls into the box for Llorente to win, with on-rushing attacking midfielders challenging for the second ball.
Spurs continued to pass on the ground into Llorente’s feet, with the Spaniard only winning two aerial duels. When he held the ball up, there were few options in support and the attack ultimately broke down.
A back-firing gamble
Ultimately, Pochettino took a gamble with his team selection and it back-fired. It’s a simple as that.
In typical fashion, the Argentine experiments with his side and approach from August to November, eventually settles on something that would have worked at the beginning of the season, then Spurs subsequently go on a great run and kick themselves for falling short.
Spurs could have had three penalties on a different day, decisions that Mike Dean bottled. One for Ayew’s foul on Aurier, the second for Martin Olsson’s two handballs, and impeding Toby Alderweireld in the box, but a situation in which you’re relying on penalty shouts to win games isn’t a promising one to be in.
Therefore, the Wembley ‘curse’ continues, the pressure mounts and Spurs lose pace with the leaders. It’s the same old story.
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