Story of a Match: Spurs (A)
When Spurs came to Carrow Road in December we got a schooling. Probably the best team to visit so far, they dominated the game and ran out comfortable winners, inspired by Bale who just tore us apart. So how the chuff did we just go to White Hart Lane and emerge with a 2-1 win, a result which could have been more but for the moronic decisions of Michael Oliver? How did we join Man Utd and Man City as the only teams to beat Tottenham on their own turf?
Lambert sprung yet more surprises with his lineup, dropping Wes and Surman to the bench, Fox altogether (injured?), and recalling Bradley Johnson, Pilkington and giving Wilbraham his first start of the season. It was richly deserved for Wilbs who has put in some really good shifts coming off the bench, and his ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play would prove useful in a game where we were expected to have less possession. We needed to make it count. They lined up in an orthodox 4-4-2 but, as you can see from the average positions on the right, we didn’t use much width. Bennett and Pilkington kept tight, compressed the middle of the park and joined Howson and Johnson in pressing the spurs fullbacks and midfield.
In fact as you can see from the comparison with the Man Utd game below, we didn’t really concentrate on crossing it. Despite the use of our only two real wingers, they weren’t picked for their ability to run down the flanks and get balls into the box, but for their discipline, defensive awareness, tireless running and help they could offer the midfield.
By playing a 4-4-2 we were effectively doubling up on Spurs’ two main threats; Bale and Lennon. While Pilkington and Bennett obviously have their attacking abilities (both, after all, scored), it was their allround game which helped swing this tie in our favour. Pilkington caused Kyle Walker problems all afternoon, while Bennett got forward less, tending to drop deep and offer Russell Martin support in dealing with Bale. After all, the two Spurs wingers are among the best in the league on their day, and it was always going to be important with how we dealt with them.
Bale, while starting the game on the left wing, does have a tendency to come inside. He frequently popped up on the right wing or through the centre, but was rarely covered for on the left, offering us space to get forward if we needed to or relieving the pressure on Martin who had probably his best game at fullback all season.
As well as his ability in the tackle and clearing countless balls from the box or wing, he made the most number of interceptions in the team and blocked three shots, one of which was from Bale at the very start of the 2nd half which looked destined to go into the net. He was completely on his game, reading the play well, rarely getting forward and leaving gaps and sticking to his task. His discipline in his role is one of the reasons Lambert trusts him so much, and he repaid that throughout. Bale, despite being far faster, offered little from the left side and his only real moment came cutting inside from the right and firing a shot against the bar.
It wasn’t just in defence that the team was disciplined and aware. In central midfield we had our Leeds two, Howson and Johnson, keeping a lid on Modric and Livermore. Modric was always going to be a threat and Howson and Johnson took turns in man marking him, depending on the situation. In fact, it was from Howson temporarily abandoning his close marking and going pressing that led to Bale hitting the bar…
As you can see in the first image, he peels off Modric to go pressing the defence. After putting King under pressure, the ball ends up with the Croatian but this time he has no man marker and acres of space in front of him. From this he bursts forward, sends a pass through to Bale who subsequently hits the bar. It was a rare relaxed moment from Howson who played a different role to that he did on Saturday. Rather than being advanced, bursting into the box and offering an attacking threat, he was deep, keeping things simple and disrupting the Spurs midfield. It was another excellent performance, and it was a tackle from Howson, on Modric, that started the lovely passing move that led to Bennett’s glorious strike.
As you can see on the left he nips in and takes the ball of Modric’s foot and lays it off to Bradley Johnson. On the right I’ve made a very loose approximation of the passing move that followed – straight lines are passes, dotted lines are players running with the ball. We passed it from front to back to front before Bennett ended up with the ball and lashed it into the far corner. A glorious team move followed by a glorious individual strike. Best of both worlds.
Howson’s midfield counterpart, Bradley Johnson, was an interesting selection as he’s underwhelmed in recent appearances. His looseness with the ball, poor first touch and general drop in form has seen him spend more time on the bench, but he put in a decent performance against Spurs.
Brad’s main problem, in my eyes, is his lack of mobility. He has the pace of a glacier and this often means he gets bypassed by a good oncoming midfielder, or easily passed around. It’s happened a few times this season, and it was a worry when he was picked on Monday. Despite a couple of nervy moments and times when he was bypassed too easily, Bradley was solid in possession and a good presser, tackler and defensive shield. All of his passes can be seen on the left and you’ll notice that all of his failed passes were in non threatening areas. He never gave it away in a stupid position, kept it simple and got it to another yellow shirt or out wide. He was, in fact, our highest passer in the game. On the right you can see he was successful in all 3 of his one-on-one tackles, and he was also useful in intercepting the ball, blocking shots and generally disrupting Livermore and Modric. If he could finish it might not have been so nervy, as he missed that sitter in the 2nd half.
Nevertheless, despite playing a midfield that was able to disrupt Spurs movement and provide a defensive shield, it also offered a lot of attacking threat. This was far from a team sitting on the counter and waiting for its moment to strike – we had plenty of the ball and got it forward, causing the fullbacks and defence so many problems that they continually fouled us around the box.
The 12 fouls suffered above show the numerous opportunities we had to get the ball in the box and create chances, and we went close a couple of times. Notably missing are the two stonewall penalties that Mr Oliver declined to give; one on Holt and one on Wilbraham. It is a relief that they did not affect the outcome of the game. What the picture above paints is a team who were troubled by our attacking threat and struggled to cope with the physical game given by Holt and Wilbs. King in particular had a torrid game and was bullied across the park, a sad sight for player who was once so good.
Upon going 2-1 up, however, things changed. While we still had opportunities on the counter (one glorious one fell to Howson who just couldn’t set up Morison), we were in the business of stopping Spurs scoring. Surman came on for Pilkington and we effectively doubled up at fullback, frequently going to a back 5 or even 6 with both normal fullbacks, Martin and Drury, going more central.
Various examples of this are illustrated above. In the first frame you can see Bennett join Martin in dealing with the oncoming BAE, and Bennett spend a large portion of the end of this game at right back. His pace was a huge asset to have, especially with the threat of Bale down the wing. In the top right you can see him take up a full back position while Martin is more central, turning the defence into a back five. Here, Martin was able to step forward and occupy Defoe, Ryan Bennett marked Adebayor and Ward was left as a spare man to deal with any oncoming midfielder like Van der Vaart, while Drury and Elliott Bennett covered the flanks. This was a frequent occurrence as the game went on. In the two bottom frames you can see Surman join Drury in doubling up on the oncoming Lennon. This either forced him central where Howson and Johnson were able to force pressure, or if Lennon went wide he had two men to beat and rarely got a decent cross in. By using our wide midfielders in this defensive setting we were able to offer a lot of support to our fullbacks, who in turn were able to help the centrebacks. It was excellent tactics, and the highlight was Elliott Bennett who provided both attacking threat and defensive help throughout, putting in a man of the match performance.
Brilliant. The best performance of the season, taking advantage of a Spurs team who seemed complacent. We were first to every ball, played with the sort of passion and desire that overcame any supposed technical inferiority, and caused them countless problems. Should have won by more but for the referee, but in the end the discipline shown by the players in sticking to their jobs and disrupting the Spurs midfield and wings was key.