Story of a Match: 12/13 Spurs (A)
Daniel Swift Gibbs
The visit to White Heart Lane in April was undoubtedly one of the highlights of last year’s amazing season – and it was always going to be difficult to replicate that performance – but yesterday we went and competed again, and looked like we’re another step on the way to forging a good side under Chris Hughton. Spurs have had a managerial change of their own in the summer of course, bringing in the initialism that is Andre Villas-Boas, and they certainly play a different way to the side we gloriously defeated in April, but were also totally outclassed by in December at Carrow Road. Like us, they are a team in transition, but on the strength of yesterday’s game we seem to finding our feet a little quicker than they do. Boos rang out at the end of the game from the White Heart Lane crowd yesterday – but how much was this a case of a poor Spurs side or a good Norwich one?
What was immediately clear was that Hughton seems to have quickly realised that the tactic of going away to bigger clubs to play defensively and close down games isn’t really in our playbook yet. After the poor showing on the other side of London a couple of weeks ago, Hughton instead decided to stick with the same lineup that showed improvement at home to QPR last week, with Jackson keeping his place in a front two. We weren’t shy of taking the game to Spurs, but we also showed discipline at the back, and we seem to be developing a good balance.
We were never going to go and dominate possession, but we kept Spurs at bay, and played our own game when we got the chance. Once again, Bradley Johnson and Jonny Howson put in good performances in the centre of midfield. Both were prepared to come deep to collect the ball from the defense, and were comfortable in possesion as we tried to let them dictate the play.
The maps above show where each player received a pass – both show a significant proportion were in our own half, in front of the back four. This is exactly what we have come to expect from Howson who is clearly developing into a very good playmaker. Johnson however has not always been so adept. Last season his game primarily consisted of a lot of running around and working hard, chasing back and closing down, but he did not generally look so good with the ball. He looked better against QPR though, and markedly so yesterday. One would assume that the signing of Tettey, another strong central midfielder, puts Johnson’s selection in the team the most at risk – perhaps this has been enough to motivate him. With the transfer window now closed, it does look like creating genuine competition for places has been the focus of the dealings over the summer – McNally tweeted that they wanted to have at least two players for every position, and this has been achieved. They clearly believe that having this competition is a way to get the best out of everyone in the squad, and Johnson certainly stepped his game up yesterday. Both he and Howson worked hard on and off the ball, keeping possesion, keeping the play ticking over, and doing their best to make tackles (marked by Xs in the map below), challenge for balls in the air (cicrumflexes), make clearances, (circles) and intercept passes (diamonds). Having both central midfielders able to perform both offensive and defensive duties is key – last year we tended to rely on one player to do all the passing (Fox) and one to do all the running/defending (Crofts/Johnson). Having options puts us in a much stronger position, both on the pitch in terms of the play, and in the wider squad, with Fox, Tettey and Surman all able to come in and play in these positions.
Making good use of the ball when we did have it meant that over the course of the game we created better chances on goal than Tottenham. Snodgrass was excellent again; deserved his goal, and was unlucky not to have another but for Friedel’s great save. Russell Martin headed on to the bar for the second week running, and even two out of three of Bradley Johnson’s characteristic wayward pile-drivers were close to going in. Spurs, on the other hand, despite dominating possesion, largely failed to create any meaningful attempts on Ruddy’s goal. This diagram below illustrating the proportion of shots from different areas shows how Spurs were largely reduced to long range efforts.
A lack of penetration was a regular criticism of Villas-Boas’ Chelsea side last season, and for the time being he seems not to have been able to solve this problem at Tottenham either. A look at the passing maps from the first half highlights the difference in direction of the majority of passes from Spurs on the left, and City on the right. The vastly predominate pattern of Spurs passing play is of side to side, horizontal passes across the pitch (i.e. up and down on these images); whereas Norwich is predominately forward, vertical passes up the pitch. Note that this does not mean we were playing ‘long ball’, just that we were passing forwards rather than horizontally (in fact, if you discount Friedel and Ruddy, Tottenham statistically played 57 long balls to our 36 (or 65 to 55 incl goalkeepers))
Their failure to do little more than pass it around their back four was in part their own doing, but also down to City’s defensive discipline. We pressed well, and intelligently. Holt and Jackson tended to let their centre-backs have some time on the ball, but made sure to close down Sandro or Livermore if they came deep, while Pilkington and Snodgrass did a great job of pressing the Spurs full-backs, who they were trying to use as the main outlet. Consequently, the ball was being kept by Tottenham, but not being moved forward. The most frequent pass combination between any two players was one centreback, Gallas, passing to the other, Vertonghen. The next four most successful combinations all also involved Tottenham defenders. Diagrams of these passes show the back four, passing the ball between themselves with little very little variation in terms of position or direction. To be honest, they made it pretty easy for us, though we had to continually work hard to keep it that way.
Just by way of contrast – our own most frequent pass combinations were between Russell Martin and Jonny Howson, and Howson and Robert Snodgrass. As well as being further up the pitch, mostly in Spurs’ half, the passes come less from the same positions and directions. It would suggest that we were both more attacking and less predictable.
Interestingly, Villas-Boas actually described in some depth his philosophies on ‘horiztonal’ and ‘vertical’ passing in an interview for the Telegraph before his first game in charge of Chelsea last season – which didn’t end well obviously, under suggestions that his players didn’t really ‘get’ his system – and for the time being it looks to be the same way at Tottenham (ironically he actually seems to be a big advocate for ‘vertical penetration’). He is of course, like Hughton, only a couple of game in to the season, and in his defense, he was yesterday without three of the players who gave us a serious footballing lesson at Carrow Road in December last year – Parker, Modric and van der Vaart.
Above are the passing maps for those three players in that game, and if you compare them with the three central midfielders from yesterday as shown below (albeit in a different system) you can see the drastic variation in the way they played against us and the resulting success it brought. That 2-0 defeat was an absolute domination, but we’ve since taken 4 points away from White Heart Lane in two games, which is a good return by anyone’s standards.
For all Tottenham’s ineffectiveness, they did of course have a joker left to play – in the form of a Demebele who we had already faced once this season to devastating effect. Disappointingly though, it was another momentary lapse in concentration that led to his goal. When Martin drops a header into Howson 10 yards outside the box, he’s apparently unaware, not given a shout of man-on, or just dithers too long instead of laying an easy pass into any one of three open black shirts, and loses possesion to the impending Dembele, who then plays a one-two with Defoe, sells Howson one way with a little shimmy, and slots it into the corner. It’s the frustrating sort of half-mistake, half good play by the opposition that the cliché about “getting punished at this level” applies to. Once again, another otherwise solid defensive performance was undone in one preventable moment. And it is worth saying that the defense built on their first performance as a back four last weekend with another good showing. Barnett and Bassong seem to be developing a partnership; Russell Martin has so far transferred his good form at centre-back last season back to the right-back position – largely nullifying Gareth Bale – and Garrido in particular looked to have some real class about him.
Encouragingly after going behind, we showed a good resolve and spirit to fight back – the sort that was typical of the Lambert era but seemingly lacking in that first game at Fulham. Morison was brought on and looked a lot sharper than he sometimes has recently – getting in good areas, pulling defenders out of position and using his strength well, he looked more like the player that was so important for us at the start of the last campaign. He nearly won a penalty, and moments later did cause Livermore enough grief that he felt he had to haul Morison down on the edge of the area for a free-kick, from which the build up developed for Snodgrass’ equaliser.
So, three games in and we’re getting better. Hughton now has the squad finalised, and a two week break before a home game against West Ham should give us time to settle the new signings in. If indeed the likes of Harry Kane and Alex Tettey can push players like Morison and Johnson on, as well as what they bring to the side themselves, then that can only be good.