Three days on from Dortmund and the Champions League, the full-time whistle blew at the end of Tottenham goalless draw with Swansea. Previous disappointments had been mitigated by the recognition of a trying circumstance, but there was none of that in the air. In fact, there was nothing but irritation: the sort which greets any poor performance. This wasn’t Wembley, it was nothing but a tactical botch and the crowd’s many groans betrayed their intolerance for any non-footballing explanation.
Mauricio Pochettino has evolved as a coach. He and his side have grown steadily better in unison and, now into his fourth year with Spurs, he is inarguably a better manager than when he first arrived. There are many colours to that success but none as bright as his growing dexterity. Pochettino has received fair financial backing over the course of his reign, but Tottenham’s advancement has relied on his ability to do a lot with a little; he has improved individual players, altered systems (often many times within the same game), and been highly inventive with his components.
Most teams improve with stability and with the aid of the transfer market. But while the Argentinian’s side have leaned on those supports too, he has also kept them in a state of perpetual motion. Week-to-week, Tottenham rarely look the same; somewhere on the pitch, there is always someone doing something slightly different. And generally that’s a great advantage.
Once in a while, though, that same pursuit of innovation creates difficulty – as evidenced by the performance on Saturday night. Swansea certainly defended well and got the point their resistance probably deserved, but Spurs looked like a team who had thought themselves into a fog.
Any criticism of Pochettino would seem to miss the larger picture, but this is still a semi-legitimate gripe. Whether it’s reflective of his desire to show a broadening tactical range or an over-think provoked by the limitations of his squad, he remains prone to frustrating self-defeating selections which cost his side points. There’s also a suggestion, perhaps, that some of his players struggle with the adaptions they’re required to make between fixtures and that occasionally shows in their performance.
It’s easy to be wise in hindsight, but Saturday was full of such instances. Son Heung-Min’s confused interpretation of his wing-back role in the first-half denied the team proper touchline width. Moussa Sissoko’s awkward force was shoved into an area which really demanded light-footed technique. Eric Dier, too, so often a a stable performer, was too often asked to play the kind of feathered, ultra accurate passes which remain beyond his range. Dier’s distribution may be one of his under-appreciated strengths, but dropping straight, chipped through-balls into half a yard of penalty-box space is not part of his natural game. Dele Alli, such a threat in the box but so often peripheral outside it, was also marginalised by a 3-4-2-1 system which imprisoned him within the inside-left channel.
All of those issues were limiting in isolation, but the collective effect was far worse: Tottenham, stymied by their own flux, became a long-ball side in that final half-an-hour, slinging cross after cross towards a visiting defence which, if nothing else, is extremely reliable in the air. Across the game as an entirety, rarely did they press the pedal in their opponent’s half, preferring to shuffle the ball around slowly and hope for a lapse in concentration.
The statistics confirm what many saw: 75% possession, 26 shots, 43 crosses attempted, and only six dribbles completed. It was almost Moyesian; a clinic in how to negate the technical value of a talented group of players.
Swansea played in almost exactly the same fashion as they had during their 1-3 defeat to Spurs at the end of last season. That night they grabbed an early goal and repelled nearly 88 minutes of stale possession before they were chiselled open in a thrilling comeback – and the relevance of that evening lies in the lessons that Pochettino failed to learn from it. The two goals which altered the result in south Wales were both the result of combination play and attacking midfielders making opportunistic runs into the penalty-box: Alli’s anticipation following Christian Eriksen’s shot and Son’s exchange of passes with Vincent Janssen.
It’s certainly true that Paul Clement has toughened his side without the ball and cured their habit of beating themselves, but they remain susceptible to talent. Reliably, the only two chances of merit that Spurs created on Saturday were the result of quick, accurate exchanges on the edge of the penalty box (the first, at the end of which Lukasz Fabianski saved well from Son and, the second, when Kane smashed against the bar after Sissoko’s cut-back). And yet, in the main, Pochettino’s players were content to arrow straight balls towards Federico Fernandez and Alfie Mawson until full-time.
The relevance of Pochettino’s approach to that complaint lies in its effect on team chemistry. When players are moved around the pitch and particular attributes are shifted with them, the result is hesitation. The combinations between certain players are altered and familiarity is interrupted. With the exception of sides who are habitually direct, the kind of football Tottenham resorted to at the weekend is nearly always a symptom of diminishing confidence – of players not trusting what surrounds them and deeming the percentage-ball to be their best route to success.
There are other excuses for those dropped points. Heavy, post-Dortmund legs likely played a part and Moussa Dembele’s absence, which frustrated many supporters, was a necessary consequence of the Belgian’s complicated injury history. However, it was also a game which conveyed one of Pochettino’s lingering vulnerabilities: his variations have so often been successful that, sometimes, he cannot resist the temptation to bend and flex around a fixture which really requires continuity.