Eric Devin provides a detailed tactical analysis of the Champions League game that finished Tottenham 1-2 Monaco.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-2-3-1): Hugo Lloris; Kyle Walker, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Ben Davies; Eric Dier (Moussa Sissoko 81′), Dele Alli; Erik Lamela (Vincent Janssen 71′), Christian Eriksen, Son Heung-Min (Mousa Dembéle 46′)
AS Monaco (4-2-3-1) Danijel Subasic; Andrea Raggi, Kamil Glik, Jemerson, Djibril Sidibé; Fabinho, Tiemoué Bakayoko; Nabil Dirar (Thomas Lemar 5′), Joao Moutinho, Bernardo Silva; Radamel Falcao (Valere Germain 81′)
Thanks to Real Madrid’s furious late comeback at the Bernabeu, Monaco’s 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur stands as the shock of the first round of matches of this year’s Champions’ League. Only football predictions aficionados, such as forebet.com, might have predicted the upset as the pageantry at Wembley, the excitement over the club’s new signings, the team’s form, all went for nought as the French side’s incisive start saw the host’s hopes of an easy match quickly dashed. Tottenham did respond with a goal on the stroke of halftime, and played some fine football in the early stages of the second half, but were ultimately undone by a fair amount of overconfidence.
As the team sheet above indicates, the Moroccan winger Nabil Dirar was soon forced off with injury, with Thomas Lemar his replacement. At six feet tall and with a powerful build and a good proclivity for tracking back, the energetic Dirar has been key to manager Leonardo Jardim’s plans this season, not least for the protection he can offer Andrea Raggi. Lemar is a fine player, but at 5′ 4″, he was hardly a like-for-like change, and was himself making his first appearance after sustaining and ankle injury last month.
Here, in this image from shortly after Lemar’s introduction, we see how Mauricio Pochettino sought to take advantage of the diminutive winger and Raggi. Immediately after a throw-in for Spurs (itself the result of Lemar losing the ball to Alli) Erik Lamela has moved onto the left flank, with Son Heung-Min (not in the image) having drifted back to pressure Lemar. Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane have likewise moved over, helping to narrow the pitch. The slow-footed Raggi is caught upfield, leaving Fabinho (behind Lamela) and Jemerson (with Kane) to chase back to defend.
As a center back, there is no knock-on effect for Jemerson, but forcing Fabinho to do more defensive work would therefore limit his involvement in the attack, denying Monaco the chance to easily link their defenders with the front four. Behind Kane and to his right, Djibril Sidibé seeks to join in the fray, but in doing so, he has also left that part of the pitch dramatically open, giving the pacy Kyle Walker acres of space. Thus, by preying on the “weaker” combination of Raggi and Lemar, Spurs seek to dictate in what area of the pitch the action takes place, a tactic which also served to offer protection for Ben Davies, who isn’t quite the dynamic presence as the injured Danny Rose. Davies, as it turned out, was in need of said protection.
It would be unfair to lay all the blame for Bernardo Silva’s opener at the feet of the young left back, but he was turned far too easily by the Portuguese. Having been beaten once, he dropped deeper, often turning the ball towards Lloris or Vertonghen, rather than bombing on to provide the kind of balance that could complement Kyle Walker on the opposite flank. Walker, though, was at the heart of much of what danger Spurs did pose in the match’s early going.
Here, just before Monaco’s second goal, we see how open the visitors could be at the back, especially when Sidibé got forward. Here, the Monaco left back is on the ground, (in red circle) having failed to get the ball from Dele Alli after Falcao was dispossessed. As the young England international strides forward with the ball at his feet, he can either play the ball wide to Kyle Walker, whose run is anticipated by the lower arrow, or play a through ball for Harry Kane. Alli opted for the through ball, and Glik hurried back to make a fine challenge as it was, but this image also is instructive as regards the mistake that Pochettino had made in setting out his starting lineup.
As the image shows, Alli does have options, but little support. Erik Lamela, the nominal right winger, is behind him, forced to help Walker contend with Sidibé, while Son also lags behind the play, albeit in a wider area. Eriksen, the nominal playmaker, lags behind Alli as well, to the midfielder’s left. Alli is a fantastic box-to-box midfielder, and he has frequently dominated matches, but not from this position. Played alongside Dier, rather than behind Kane, Alli was forced to make more and longer runs with the ball at his feet to reach dangerous areas. While his passing ability could be useful in these instances, he is more useful driving at defenders, defenders being the key term here.
Alli’s trickery is so effective in forward areas because his pace and dribbling allow him to run more directly at center backs. Here, he was faced against Bakayoko and Fabinho, both midfield players who are not only much quicker than centre backs but also themselves threats to create a counterattack should Alli lose the ball. Add to this the Monaco pair’s physicality, and it is no wonder that the team struggled to establish a rhythm through midfield, as the limited Dier couldn’t abandon his defensive role, as he needed to cover for the runs of Walker. That said, nor could the lightweight attacking midfielders (Son, Eriksen and Lamela) be of any meaningful help taking the ball off of the pair either, and with Falcao dropping deep to be an option in holding play up, it was no surprise that Monaco’s two wide players, Moutinho and Silva had so much joy.
Buoyed by Alderweireld’s goal, Pochettino endeavoured to change things in the first half, with the primary objective being to provide a platform for Alli. Son, who by rights should have been more impressive against Raggi, was dropped for Mousa Dembélé, who took Alli’s spot in central midfield. Eriksen moved to the left wing, allowing the young Englishman space to operate behind Kane. He immediately took up a variety of positions on the pitch, operating in a free role as he linked with Christian Eriksen on the left to allow the Dane space to deliver a cross, only to pop up on the right side less than a minute later, lashing a shot at Subasic that required a strong save. In the above image, we can see this borne out, as Dembélé and Dier form a tight axis and the front four attempt to overload one side of the pitch, much as they had in the match’s early going.
At this point, though, in Alli, Tottenham had a player who could be dangerous in a free role; for all of Son and Lamela’s gifts, their effectiveness in playing with that sort of freedom is limited, as neither is particularly skilled at swapping flanks. Lamela is a threat cutting inside, but he crucially lacks the finishing prowess of Alli. Thus, Alli began to influence the match in a more profound way, but that was not the only positive from Dembélé’s introduction. Fabinho and Bakayoko had provided strong support in front of the defence, but were also getting forward relatively unchecked, as Eric Dier repeatedly was forced into wide areas to cover the runs of Walker. The Belgian is still lacking match fitness after a lengthy domestic ban, but his physicality and prowess with the ball at his feet made things much more challenging for Monaco’s central partnership.
Here, we see this in action. Alli is riding a tackle from Sidibé, who has left his position at left back. With Kyle Walker pushed up, Lamela in support and Kane looking for a ball over the top, Alli is given three options. He can spread play to Walker (orange arrow), play a chipped pass for Kane (white arc) or find the Argentine, who can reset play. He eventually opted to try to play the striker in over the top, and Jemerson did well to clear his lines, but in this role, Alli will constantly present his teammates with options. Monaco are forced to take the sort of chances that Sidibé is in closing him down, such is his threat to shoot from range. The finishing of Kane in particular was somewhat lacking on the evening, but throughout the first part of the second half, Spurs dominated the ball, and an equalizer looked inevitable.
Or, at least it did until Pochettino made his second change with twenty minutes left, dropping Erik Lamela for Vincent Janssen. Janssen, late of AZ Alkmaar, has had a fine start to the season, but it was hard to imagine Spurs setting up in a 4-4-2 to accommodate both he and Kane. Instead, the Englishman was pushed deeper, with Janssen as a lone striker, and Eriksen shifting to the right. Now, Alli was asked to be a left winger, and given the danger posed by Lemar and the nerves already displayed by Davies, Tottenham’s most dangerous attacking player was forced into additional defensive duties.
In the first image, we can see Alli doing his job well, helping Davies to close down Lemar. The Frenchman did manage to get a shot away, but it was easily claimed by Lloris, who sought to start a counterattack. His long kick found Eriksen, and with Sidibé and Raggi up the pitch in support, Spurs were looking dangerous once more, or were they? As the second image shows, without Alli to create balance, Eriksen is lacking in options. Janssen (yellow oval) is well-covered by the two center backs, Glik and Jemerson, while Fabinho is a more than worthy adversary should the Dane move play centrally to Kane. He may be able to beat Bakayoko with the ball at his feet, but by the time he repositions himself, Monaco have reset themselves, and the chance to play quickly is gone.
Things continued in that fashion until the match’s end; Monaco even managed to fashion a chance or two themselves. While Spurs are certainly humbled by the defeat, a draw between CSKA Moscow and Bayer Leverkusen in the other match means that the group is still an open book. That said, the lesson here is apparent. Despite the goal-scoring exploits of Kane and the fine match at the weekend from Son, in a competition of this stature, Tottenham have really only one player capable of being a force on his own, Alli. With his obvious gifts, forcing him to play wide or in defensive midfield to fit in these lesser talents is a blatant misuse of his ability. The return to fitness of Danny Rose will help create more balance in attack, but unless Pochettino sets up his team to privilege the former MK Dons player, this could be a hugely disappointing Champions’ League for Spurs.
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Eric Devin is an Oregon-based football writer. He writes about Ligue 1 for Get French Football News and Outside of the Boot.
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