Sam Marlow writes about the tweaks Spurs needs to make to their system in order to compete effectively in Europe next season.
It has been well documented that Tottenham struggled in Europe this season. After finishing a lowly 3rd in their Champions League group, they eventually crashed out of the Europa League to relative Belgian minnows, Gent. Yet, Spurs have been the best team in the English Premier League over the last two seasons, and once again consistently punched above their weight to secure qualification for the Champions League for only the third time in their history. So why is there such a vast difference between how they perform in the Premier League when compared with the European stage?
Pep Guardiola recently attributed his struggle to adapt to English football with Manchester City, to the fact that everything seems to happen in the two penalty boxes, whilst there is no control in midfield. On the contrary, European teams play on the whole, a much more measured and considered brand of football than that of English teams. Tottenham were undone by a clever counter-attacking Monaco, and did not seem to learn from their mistakes for the games against Leverkusen and Gent. The problem lies in the midfield. They were simply unable to exert any control over the games they played in Europe. Compared with their league form, especially at home this season, this seems pretty baffling. Some pundits attribute this to Wembley but this misses the point.
Tottenham’s midfield is perfectly suited to the Premier League. Stacked with power and physicality, Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama win the majority of their 50:50 battles, and in every second ball, they are favourites to come out on top. Opposition players get drawn towards Dembele, creating pockets of space for Eriksen and Alli to operate in. This does not happen so much in Europe. The more intelligent teams patiently sit and wait, putting the initiative on Tottenham to find a gap to exploit. Kane was left isolated and Eriksen struggled to find space. The young, inexperienced Tottenham side naively committed men forward, only to be opened up by swift and potent counter attacks.
Mauricio Pochettino needs to rethink his approach to European matches. Most importantly, he needs to find a way to get Eriksen on the ball more. European referees are much less lenient than their English counterparts, meaning Tottenham’s lighter, less physical players do not need the same level of protection as they do in the Premier League. Dier, Wanyama and Dembele need to draw on a completely different set of skills compared to what they require week in week out in England. Towards the end of games when Spurs have been on the front foot searching for a goal, Christian Eriksen often drops into a deeper role in the midfield. From here, he can dictate the play and use his exemplary vision to pick passes. Perhaps, Pochettino needs to consider this deeper role for the Danish playmaker as something more permanent, as Spurs march into Europe once more.
The physical demands placed on the players in the combative Premier League suit Tottenham brilliantly, but European football is a completely different game. The midfield needs to be more suited to controlling, dictating and even dominating a game, rather than battling in the centre of the park. Spurs certainly aren’t lacking in this department. Harry Winks has proved himself as a reliable midfielder who has excellent vision for a pass. Until his injury, Pochettino would often trust him as a late replacement for Mousa Dembele, in order to see out a game. High praise indeed. As mentioned above, Pochettino is not averse to moving Eriksen into a deeper role. If Pochettino can find some sort of balance in the centre of park, perhaps Spurs won’t look so out of place in European football. Certainly, Tottenham play best when Eriksen can get on the ball and influence the game. When he is isolated, there is no point him being on the pitch.
A lot has been made of Wembley but its impact has certainly been overstated. With Spurs playing all their home fixtures there next season, the excuse of not being used to the pitch will no longer stand. If anything, the larger pitch may suit their attacking play, with more space facilitating Eriksen. Furthermore, the marauding full backs, which are central to Tottenham’s attack, should have a lot of success down the wings. One issue Pochettino may find is that his high pressing game is less sustainable on a larger pitch. But this is not to say his philosophy only functions on a compact field. Some of the best pressing sides in the world play on the largest pitches (FC Barcelona). Pochettino seems to be pragmatic insofar as he does not stick to one formation. He is happy to change shape in order to best facilitate his team’s style of play. It was not until Tottenham settled on a 3-4-2-1 this season that they really began to kick on. The Argentine needs to take this pragmatism into how he approaches European matches and suitably adapt.
It is difficult to imagine Spurs attempting to replicate Leicester’s counter-attacking style of football, with two banks of 4 patiently sitting and waiting. Controlling and dictating a game amongst the European elite is a massive challenge. Perhaps this goes some way to explain why English teams have struggled so much in Europe over the past few seasons. The English game is so different to Spanish or Italian football, it is no surprise that English teams have failed to make an impact. However, they must adapt if they are to have any chance of progressing. Pochettino is not short of options, with many of his players being capable of playing in multiple positions. Spurs will be without Dele Alli for their first games back in Europe after his red card against Gent. Perhaps, this the chance for Heung-Min Son to step up and make an impact on the European stage. It also remains to be seen what transfer business Tottenham will do, but it would be surprising if they did not add any attacking depth.
Tottenham’s defence has once again been extremely tight this season, and this is down to the protection that Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen receive from Victor Wanyama and Eric Dier. If Pochettino is to move Eriksen into a deeper role, he needs to find some way of maintaining this defensive solidity. Adaptability and fluidity once again remain key to Tottenham’s chances of success, and undoubtedly this will inform how Pochettino prepares for the upcoming challenges of European football at Wembley.
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