Tottenham Hotspur—after their incredible summer spending spree—were heralded by many as potential Premier League title challengers and top-four certainties.
Their first five games showed that to be the case.
Even with a narrow defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates, Spurs found themselves in a strong position with four wins from five and only one goal against. They were back playing European football with the start of the Europa League and appeared to be every bit the contender that many heralded them as.
Yet then the slump started. First, the draw against Chelsea.
Then, the loss this weekend to West Ham United.
Despite dominating possession and most of the attacking chances, Spurs were unable to get past their opponents in the first half—and they paid for it. The Hammers counterattacked beautifully in the second half, and ran out with a somewhat incredible 3-0 victory as a result.
The biggest question that many had after seeing the score (and perhaps the game) at White Hart Lane was as to how they stopped their London rivals.
And not only stopped them, but completely destroyed them.
The answer is perhaps two-fold, and it starts with Tottenham's Europa League commitments during the week when they played (and beat) Anzhi Makhachkala.
Last year, Tottenham had great success in the Europa League before being eliminated by FC Basel. However, it's also worth noting that they suffered some shocking Premier League results as a result of that focus—results that may well have cost them a top-four finish. Here's some result that came following a Europa League match.
West Ham clearly knew this. They had done their homework and were prepared to let Tottenham attack in the knowledge that they could very well tire later on.
The Hammers were strong across the back and allowed Spurs to dominate possession. Spurs did a lot of work, but didn't gain any real potency in the attacking third.
Bizarre game at Spurs. West Ham have played 4-6-0 at times but are 2-0 up from a couple of rebound goals. Tottenham can't find incisive pass— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) October 6, 2013
Paulinho threatened once or twice, as did Gylfi Sigurdsson, but neither offered any real threat for West Ham to deal with in the opening minutes.
Thus while Spurs attacked, they tired themselves out substantially—which showed in the second half when the Hammers attacked.
Tottenham's defense simply wasn't as fresh as West Ham's attack was, and it showed most clearly when Jan Vertonghen couldn't run down Ravel Morrison.
That said, it's also important to note that this "tiring out" of Tottenham per se, was only possible courtesy of West Ham's first-half defense. Had they given Tottenham space and allowed their playmakers the opportunity to hurt them with solid running lanes, they most likely would not have been able to attack them with the same vigor they did in the second half.
With Roberto Soldado benched, their biggest task was stopping Christian Eriksen—the man who's accounted for 22 domestic goals and 47 assists since 2011.
As we can see in the first image below, West Ham looked to try and keep a man tight to Eriksen early on. Yet as they soon learned, that's not always enough, and the Danish international can hurt defenders when the men assigned with stopping him get caught watching the ball.
Kevin Nolan and Mohamed Diame give him far too much space here, and it's little surprise that Eriksen quickly breaks after this—almost creating a goal-scoring opportunity for Jermain Defoe or Sigurdsson, who were positioned ahead of him on the field. Fortunately, though, West Ham would learn from this mistake, and soon start playing much tighter on Tottenham's playmaker.
When in an advanced position, West Ham would look to plug up the middle of the field with their midfielders and ensure that Eriksen couldn't get the ball.
When he dropped back centrally, they'd play much tighter than they had earlier, and it was little surprise to see Eriksen post some woeful first-half numbers.
Fifteen attempted passes, just eight completed. No successful take-ons.
Eriksen—since his arrival to White Hart Lane—has been very important to Villas-Boas' side, but his tendency to go missing in big games continues to be a big problem. West Ham were able to shut him out here, and in doing so, killed off any chance Tottenham had to dominate.
They still needed to hold great shape at the back and work very hard in midfield (which shouldn't be underestimated). But at the same time, it was also very easy.
At least that's how it looked. And for a team that boasts as much attacking talent as Tottenham do, shutting down their attack should never look that easy.
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