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How Can Tottenham Hotspur Regain Their Steely Defensive Solidity?

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterDecember 17, 2015

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 05: Jan Vertonghen (L) and Mousa Dembele (R) of Tottenham Hotspur warm up prior to the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham Hotspur at The Hawthorns on December 5, 2015 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Michael Regan/Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur have enjoyed a hugely productive 2015-16 season under Mauricio Pochettino, winning the hearts and minds of many a neutral—and reinvoking deeper attachments with their own fanbase as well—thanks to their homegrown efforts.

The season started with a disappointing 1-0 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford, courtesy of a rather remarkable Kyle Walker own goal, but it picked up dramatically in the weeks to follow. Until defeat to Newcastle United on Sunday, Spurs had gone 14 league games without losing—a hell of a run for such a young side.

Harry Kane shooting to form, Mousa Dembele refinding his brilliance, Dele Alli and Eric Dier’s first England call-ups—the storylines have, without doubt, been overwhelmingly positive. Given Spurs seem to often find themselves in a perpetual state of crisis—be it because of transfer duds, managerial sackings or post-match interviews by Tim Sherwood—it’s all the more surprising.

But over the last month or so they have faltered ever so slightly. Wins have turned to draws, and sharp, incisive play has eroded into sloppier work. The two most recent showings—the 1-1 draw with West Bromwich Albion and the 2-1 loss to Newcastle—sowed the story of a side that is going through a bit of a rough patch and may be lacking confidence.

The UEFA Europa League campaign has certainly been a factor, and while Pochettino and his squad have clearly enjoyed the road so far, there’s no doubt it has taken a little something out of the players. Harry Kane missed the final group game against Monaco, but that was the first one he’d sat out all year. The first-team squad went out to Azerbaijan and back to face Qarabag late on a November Thursday, then played Chelsea three days later.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 02:  Mauricio Pochettino manager of Tottenham Hotspur before the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa at White Hart Lane on November 2, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA
Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

According to WhoScored.com, only 15 Tottenham players have played 200 or more Premier League minutes, with Pochettino opting to use a small pool of players to get the job done at weekends. That’s the same number as Leicester City, who have played four fewer games, three fewer than Manchester City and six fewer than Manchester United.

Some managers prefer not to operate with a sprawling squad, and Pochettino has shown a tendency to develop a trusted selection and stick with it. That’s fine, but the odd tweak is required to ensure the approach doesn’t become stale.

Suggesting Pochettino simply rest players may make for some reductive analysis, but the notion certainly has its merits. Yes, Nabil Bentaleb is on the comeback trail and could give Dier a much-needed weekend off—he’s put in two iffy performances in a row—and sure, Kane could sit out, but who would assume the role of attacking fulcrum in the side?

That’s an answer even Pochettino can’t find, so we must look to more solvable puzzles. Of late, Spurs’ steely defensive solidity has slipped away.

Earlier in the season, the central-defensive duo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld were praised to the hilt, their synergy as compatriots shining through on the pitch. It did take them four league games to register their first clean sheet, but plenty more followed. Just shy of a third of their divisional games have resulted in shutouts, while they’ve only conceded more than one goal three times. Stability and familiarity has been their friend.

Confident Vertonghen
Confident VertonghenCredit: Canal+

Alderweireld, an £11 million summer acquisition from Atletico Madrid, shocked no one by performing so well given how impressive he was for Southampton on loan the previous season. Vertonghen was enjoying a renaissance following 12 to 18 months of largely disinterested showings.

But Vertonghen’s recovery has hit a wall, his form dipping. The right side of Spurs’ defensive line is far more solid and reliable than the left, with Vertonghen’s performances regressing in alarming fashion. The Belgian is understandably attracting a bit of flak—particularly for his conduct for both Newcastle goals last time out—but there are other issues plaguing the side too.

There’s a correlation between Vertonghen’s initial dip and the reintroduction of Danny Rose into the starting XI. That’s not to say it’s all Rose’s fault—it isn’t—but his playing style changes the dynamic of Tottenham’s formation and exposes new weaknesses, as well as digs out fresh strengths.

Frail Vertonghen.
Frail Vertonghen.Credit: Sky Sports / Wyscout

Rose is Pochettino’s pet project; since arriving at the club in 2014, it’s almost as if he’s made it his personal mission to drastically improve the Englishman as a player. That’s left £10 million man Ben Davies in the cold a little despite being one of Pochettino’s first purchases—a strange situation indeed.

The two full-backs are near polar opposites despite playing the same position. Davies is smart and considered, more defensively stable and tactically astute (when playing with confidence), while Rose attacks with speed and directness, relying on his physical attributes to bail him out when tracking back.

Both are good players, and both have their uses. Starting Rose brings great thrust, purpose and a goal threat from the left flank—his tendency to take the outside channel a nice complement to Spurs’ wingers’ more inverted propensities—while starting Davies helps Vertonghen and increases the solidity shown by the defensive line.

Given the fact Tottenham’s midfield intensity has dropped off a little recently, and results have worsened a little in conjunction, it’s arguable the quickest way to shore things up would be to reintroduce Davies to the XI. It’s a defensive-minded swap at left-back, but it could also coax Vertonghen back into form. Two birds with one stone.

Pochettino’s tendency to use a small squad and his slight mismanagement of his striking options—backup to Kane is one of Nacer Chadli, Son Heung-Min or Erik Lamela, who are all wingers who have occasionally played up front in less physical leagues—means it’s conceivable the goals will dry up a little later on.

Should that happen for any reason, Spurs need to make themselves preposterously difficult to score against once again. Amazingly, Ben Davies might just be the solution.


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