Kaustubh Pandey writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Premier League match that ended Southampton 1-4 Tottenham.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur travelled to a buoyant St.Mary’s on Wednesday night, with a view of winning their first away game since their 2-1 win at Riverside over Middlesbrough. Spurs, who have lost only two games this season – the least in the league, alongside Liverpool and Chelsea, were also on the lookout for their third consecutive win following their disappointing loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Southampton, on the other hand, have enjoyed a decent season themselves as Claude Puel’s system of playing three central midfield players has worked for the Saints. The game was impacted by a rather contentious sending off by referee Mike Dean, after which Spurs deservedly ended up claiming all three points in a dominant fashion. After going ahead early, Southampton went into self-destruct mode that saw them drop too deep into their own half and allowing Spurs to come forward more often.
Southampton (4-3-3): Forster, Cedric, Fonte, Van Dijk, Bertrand; Ward-Prowse, Romeu, Davis; Redmond, Rodriguez, Boufal
Tottenham( 4-2-3-1): Lloris; Walker, Dier, Vertonghen, Rose; Wanyama, Dembele; Eriksen, Alli, Sissoko; Kane
Full-throttle start overruns Spurs midfield
Much like how they were caught napping early in the game during their South Coast derby win over Bournemouth a week ago, Southampton made a really brisk start to the game to catch Spurs off guard. Virgil van Dijk’s early goal acted as a reflection to that. Before Spurs could organize and settle into their favored 4-2-3-1, Southampton breezed past them earlier than anyone expected.
The ever-bright Sofiane Boufal’s dancing feet caused Spurs problems as early as in the first thirty seconds and the Algerian won a free-kick after former Saints man Victor Wanyama had brought Ryan Bertrand down near the edge of the box. James Ward-Prowse, whose restoration to the first-team had helped Southampton throughout the game because of his exceptional set-piece taking abilities, floated in a perfectly weighted ball for van Dijk, who leaped and headed the ball into the back of the net.
Southampton’s high pressing disallowed Spurs from building from the back as the front three of Boufal, Rodriguez and Nathan Redmond sparked the press as soon as Hugo Lloris played the ball short to a defender at the back. The trio succeeded in making sure that the defenders remained stifled for passing options and this forced both Moussa Dembele and Victor Wanyama to act as water carriers by dropping deeper than usual.
The above example shows how Southampton succeeded in limiting the space available for Spurs to play by pressing them high up the pitch. The man to man press and the pressing shadows of the front three (four, in this case) is forcing Kyle Walker to play a long throw-in because the shorter options have been nullified.
In another passage of play that sees Southampton push Spurs back again, the back line is crowded out to make sure that the retreating pair of Eric Dier and Walker don’t have the time to play the ball smoothly out from the back. It all starts from Lloris trying to play a short pass to Dier, who is aware enough of Davis’ presence behind him.
After making a start that came close to blowing Spurs away with a second, Southampton began to sit off and press from deeper areas than the usual way of doing it high up the pitch. The transformation to a 4-4-1-1 while defending allowed them to make two blocks of four that forced Spurs only to play in front of them and come forward more often.
Boufal, Davis, Romeu and Redmond, who were fronted by Ward-Prowse, disallowed the duo of Dembele and old boy Wanyama to pick out either Christian Eriksen or Dele Alli, who were lurking right behind them to pick up a pass and move forward with it.
Southampton fielding blocks of four
This approach allowed Puel’s men to play on the break and the presence of Ward-Prowse and the occasional one of Davis in that position made sure that Jay Rodriguez didn’t get stuck in isolated cul-de-sac’s up front. The positioning of the players in this shape made sure that the hole player could link up with the other players and play snappy, triangular passes on the break. Southampton nearly doubled the advantage, thanks to that, but Redmond ended up firing just wide of Lloris’ right hand post.
But inefficient cover in the first block of four often means disorganization. And that nearly led to Spurs capitalizing on a golden opportunity to make it 1-1. A lack of organization meant that Wanyama managed to pick out Alli, who was positioned right behind the midfield four. It also resulted from Ward-Prowse’s inability to plug the gap that had opened up in the bloc and has allow Alli the room to find the pass from Wanyama. It did lead to a chance, only for Eriksen to take an extra touch in the box and spurn the opportunity.
This instance went onto prove that it was only a matter of time before Spurs would breakthrough, if there lie spaces between the back four and the midfield four, Pochettino’s men have enough flair players in there to exploit any spaces that Southampton leave in any part of the park. It was only a matter of time until the Spurs players got their rhythm back.
Minutes later(below), danger signs were again sent creeping through to the back four in a similar manner. Wanyama squeezed through a pass to Eriksen, who had managed to find a large amount of space behind the trio of Ward-Prowse, Davis and the dominant Romeu. The chance does go begging, thanks to the firm back four but Spurs were probing.
This approach by the Saints allowed Spurs to grow into the game and dominate possession, but Puel’s men were clever enough to get rid of the gaps that existed between the two blocs. Romeu began dropping in front of Fonte and van Dijk, shielding them, as the other midfielders too began sitting deeper than they were. This made Southampton a more compact unit, making Spurs play in front of them, rather than behind them.
Due to the 4-4-1-1 that was stifling out spaces in the midfield for them, Tottenham had to play in wide areas more often than they had. Full-backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, who had enjoyed stellar campaign last season as much as this time around, had to bomb forward with more attacking intent to break Southampton down.
Spurs overloading from the wide areas
This eventually forced Southampton wingmen- Sofiane Boufal and Nathan Redmond, to drop deep and fill the gaps in the wide areas and deny Walker and Rose the room to attack. Boufal can be seen tracking back and doing the defensive work below, despite the presence of Ryan Bertrand there. And the Spurs overload from the wide areas meant that the midfielders had to shift wide and defend.
And it was an overload from the left that Southampton failed to close out, leading to Alli’s headed equalizer. After switching wings quickly, which catches the Southampton organization off guard, Moussa Sissoko finds some space down the left to deliver a cross into the box, assisting Alli in scoring from a deflected cross.
The goal did hurt Southampton, but the goal came from their tendency to allow Spurs dominate possession and get into their rhythm of creating chances. Dembele and Wanyama had exchanged quick passes in front of the first block to dislodge the midfield four and this had resulted in the goal, apart from the overload of the flanks.
Throughout the first half though, Southampton’s reliance on the counter was brought to the fore by the amount of chances they created from them. Although, they failed to take advantage of the opportunities that came their way, but their compactness in front of the two centre-backs was regularly denying the Spurs creators any room to pick out the well-marked Harry Kane, who was having a torrid time up front.
Flexibility helps Spurs dominate
The second half saw Spurs make a start that oozed intent and the willingness to win the game. They dominated possession and began counter-pressing Southampton once they lost the ball high up the field. As the minutes ticked by, Spurs began hunting the Southampton players in numbers, making sure that they nicked the ball off in them in areas closer to the goal
The second goal though,stemmed from Eric Dier’s long ball from the back to Kyle Walker, who had made a run in-behind the Southampton back-four. It didn’t yield a goal directly though Walker did manage to win a corner from it. It was Christian Eriksen’s well-drilled corner that found Kane, whose bullet header ended up handing Tottenham the lead.
After conceding the second goal, Southampton’s morale had been dented and Nathan Redmond’s sending off only added to the woes. Puel’s men were lucky not to go further behind after Harry Kane somehow managed to send his spot-kick into orbit somewhere.
Committing forward costs Southampton
Towards the end of the game, as Southampton began committing men forward in an attempt to equalize, their high defensive line allowed Spurs a high chance of penetration. The 72nd minute triple substitution, which is rare in modern day football, was an attack minded one. The introductions of Charlie Austin, Dusan Tadic and Shane Long clearly suggested that Southampton were beginning to put more emphasis on attack.
The above graphic shows that Southampton were happy to commit as many as four of their ten men forward, probably because Spurs’ nerves had encouraged them to get the equalizer.
Despite some nervous moments for the Spurs backline, it was their man advantage that made their manner of dealing with it look convincing. And the Saints, unperturbed by the dangers of committing too many men forward, paid the price when substitute Heung min-Son got the third for Spurs. The goal was also a product of spaces opening up in the middle third and Son’s impressive ability to run into the channels around the centre-forward. Eriksen’s killer pass deserves appreciation too.
Spurs’ fourth was a result of Southampton players failing to track back in time to chop down Danny Rose’s dribble towards the inside channel. The Englishman did well to free countryman Alli, who made no mistake in curling one past Fraser Forster and in getting his second.
Many would believe that Mike Dean’s decision to send off Redmond was a wrong one, but Dean, who is known to be a ‘Secret Spurs fan’, was spot on. Redmond was pulling Alli from behind in a professional foul situation and although, the sending off was justified enough, but the decision to hand Spurs a penalty and not a free-kick was a controversial one indeed.
And Southampton, who were a man light for a majority of the second half, were undone by Spurs in dominant fashion. It’s debatable whether Pochettino’s men from North London would have got a similar result if they were facing eleven men, but it was one of those games that do come about sometimes in every season. The result left Spurs just one point off fourth placed Arsenal and three points ahead sixth-placed and flying Manchester United. Moreover, it was Tottenham’s fourth away in all competitions this season.
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