Story of a Match: Spurs

Posted by on December 28, 2011 in Match Analysis | 5 comments

Whisper it, but Spurs are actually pretty good. I don’t like to admit it, mainly because I can’t stand Harry Redknapp, but they are. And tonight they beat convincingly. And I mean, convincingly. Was it anything more than a very good team outplaying one that isn’t at their level? Not really, but I’m going to have a look at it anyway.

The Setup

This is an interesting one. Quite a few people have suggested that a major problem in our approach to this game was a lack of width. Lambert went into the game with the same shape he’s played the last three – the diamond. Tierney and Naughton were replaced by Drury and De Laet, but the rest of the team remained and played a 4-1-2-1-2. Spurs played a five man midfield, with Van der Vaart nominally off Adebayor up front. It was an interesting setup, and had its pro’s and con’s. The main negative is the supposed lack of width, rectified late in the game when Bennett and Pilkington came on. However, faced with a busy midfield that could have run the game, Lambert seems to have settled on the idea that he would match it. By playing a diamond, he could get close to players like Parker, Sando and Modric rather than letting then pass around us. This would leave us potentially exposed on the flanks, but make us more competitive in the middle.

It wasn’t quite how it worked out, though. For about half an hour of the first half we were just as in it, useful in the middle and playing some decent stuff. Tottenham began to dominate at this state however, and the sheer ability of their midfield made it nearly impossible to match them. At this stage we began to pull wide to try and find space, and the result is the passing heatmap you see above. By the end we had surrendered the middle of the pitch to Spurs and their world class midfielders and were looking to go wide and find space out there. The addition of wingers helped, but they only completed 5 of 21 crosses, so it’s hard to argue this tactic would have paid dividends if implemented from the start. At this point we were playing it better, especially on the left with Surman, Pilkington and Hoolahan. They were able to get on the ball to good effect and drive forward, but the Spurs defence was excellent and didn’t really let them make clear cut chances.

When you look at the calibre of players Norwich were up against, it’s easy to see why the midfield battle was lost. Not only were we a man down in this area, the sheer difference in quality was huge.

As you can see above, Parker misplaced just 3 passes all game. He was key, picking up the ball and finding a white shirt over and over. Ball retention is absolutely key in the Premier League and their ability to monopolise possession was key in their win tonight. Bale, had a bit of a different impact than some were expecting. Rather than stick down the left wing and constantly burn our fullbacks for pace, he actually had more of a free role. He roamed across the pitch, probing, looking for space and putting the defence under pressure. He was in a centre forwards position when he scored the first and burst from central midfield during the second. Players of his quality are hard to defend against and he was outstanding all night.

This is in contrast to our own midfield…

As an attacking force, Wes grew into the game the longer it went on, and was more of an influence once we’d changed shape. However, he was useful in defence throughout the game, winning the ball more times than any other Norwich player. This is supposedly not the job he’s really there for, but he’s excellent in it and it often goes unnoticed. He has the ability to both win the ball and find a yellow shirt, and demonstrated again why he is is so important to the team. When you compare this to a player like Crofts, the difference is huge. I thought Crofts had a decent first half today, defensively anyway. His crossing wasn’t great but he was providing decent cover to RDL and was a nuisance in midfield. Unfortunately, the game at the top level just passes him by. Today he completed just 17 passes, compared to 57 by Fox, 50 by Hoolahan and 37 by Surman. Against Wolves he completed 24 to Fox’s 48, Hoolahan’s 47 and Surman’s 43. The pattern is repeated, and at this level Crofts isn’t able to influence the game in the way he did last season. This isn’t to say the rest of our midfield is fine; they all have off games and could do with a hand, but they influence the game more, are better suited to the top division and are better at finding team mates.

One interesting recall today was for Adam Drury, who came in for the injured Tierney. Most of us may have been worried given this was his first start in about 10 months, but we didn’t need to be…

But we didn’t need to be. Drury was as composed and professional as ever, strong in defence and holding off Kyle Walker repeatedly. Above you can see the cluster of incomplete crosses from Walker as Drury matched the young fullback for pace and repeatedly blocked the shots. A creditable performance from the one day hall of famer.

On the balance of the game, it is one I have no complaints about. Spurs were the best side I’ve seen this season, completely dominant in midfield and if they could finish they’d have had 5 or 6. There is no shame in losing to a better team and there will be many games when no matter what lineup or tactics we set out with, we’re up against it. This was one. That said…

Less Good Stuff

Zak Whitbread. He got sponsors MOTM and he has generally been praised for his performance, which I thought was alright. Not brilliant, not bad. He was solid enough. Unfortunately, and not for the first time this season, he was notable in their goal.

So this is how it came about. Adebayor had the ball in the Norwich box and was being crowded out by two defenders. As the ‘spare’ CB, that is the one who isn’t marking the lone centre forward, Zak is there to pick up other threats in the box and track runners. In comes Gareth Bale, and Zak appears to have taken care of him fine. In the top picture, he can clearly be seen marking him.

One second later, Zak decides to abandon Bale and go to Adebayor himself, despite Ade still having the attention of two Norwich players. In closing down the striker, Bale is left completely unmarked just inside the box. The tinest of touches later and Bale has the ball, ready to fire it past Ruddy. This pass is only available because Whitbread left his man. Otherwise Ade is forced to either shoot himself, or pass it backwards. By leaving a player unmarked, he’s just invited problems.

This isn’t the first time. Both Newcastle goals came from Zak either losing Ba, or getting caught in possession. Against Chelsea it was his hesitance that gave Bosingwa so much time to shape up and shoot.

Last week I mentioned how the root of our defensive problems come from the constant pressure we invite on ourselves by giving the ball away so frequently, and this is true. It is also true that individual errors continue to hurt the team when concentrating more would erase them. I’m not going to say that if it wasn’t for Zak we’d have got a point; Spurs were clearly the better team. But I will say he’s cost us more goals than anyone else so far this season.

As for Morison, he isn’t lazy, he just got very little help tonight. Service to the strikers all night was poor because the midfield rarely had the ball, and Morison was clearly frustrated at this. Given his previous games, where he’s made chances out of nothing by hassling defenders out wide (Chelsea, Man City) or got a goal from it (Arsenal), I find it odd the lazy accusation is made. I think he suffers from the same problem as Surman, in that his often languid style makes him more of a target. I find it especially strange given how many fans are quick to point out that Chris Martin isn’t lazy, and he doesn’t need to be like Holt to be effective. Neither does Morison.


  1. As always, I agree with some points but not all, Spot on with Whitbread, he basically got MOM for winning some headers, marking/concentration and more importantly for me, decision making, both positionally and with ball at feet is poor.

    Agree on crofts too, he tries, but he’s just woefully out of his depth as he shows for Wales when they play the better teams. He was a passenger tonight, not his fault, just not good enough to play against Spurs World Class midfield. I guess I feel if you can’t out pass an oponent then maybe you should get in their face not jog slowly with your arms out-streched and mouth gaping. Johnson, for example, would have got stuck in at least.

    The reason I say Morison is lazy and will stick to this view is because he gives up far too easily, let’s his head drop and doesn’t try, I can forgive his lack of first touch/control as he’s not a technically gifted player, but sometimes he works hard, goal against Arsenal and sometimes, he does not (most of tonight), I like Surman and you’re right, he works a LOT harder than people give him credit for, however, as I’ve maintained even when he was scoring, I’m yet to be convinced by Morison. Chris Martin has a lazy mind too! Attitude stinks!

    Fully expected to lose this, but like against Man City, we made life too comfortable tonight.

    • Yeah, the Morison stuff is splitting people. I can totally see why people would call him lazy, but what I see isn’t laziness. I think his head did drop and he did have a crap game, for what it’s worth, and if we hadn’t needed to sub a defender he would’ve been off. Maybe it’d be clearer to say I don’t think he’s a lazy player, but perhaps just had a lazy game. Hopefully it’s a one off.

  2. I think that Aresenal for stetches of this game were equal to or better than Spurs especially in the first 30 minutes or so. When Martin was robbed by Bale (who them missed woefully) it seemed like a switch that either Spurs turned on or we turned off and therefater we were on the book foot.

    The goals both came from mistakes and in my opinion the first goal began when De laet (who otherwise had a good game) headed the ball straight back to Modric (I think) and was then out of position for a while puting the right side of the defence under pressure. Adebayor had the ball for ages before he released to Bale and Zak made a poor decision in trying to assist get the ball away from Him. AS you say the big man was able then to punt the bal to Bale but even then Ruddy wasn’t far away from it. The goal was TOO EASY

    The second of course was brought about by Morision losing he Ball (Modric again) and a quick one two with the whole of the midfield out of position (mostly on the left) and Bale able to run thorough the middle like a Cheetah almost untouched. I did wonder whether Ruddy ought to have come out of his goal to at least make Bale think about it and (possibly) give the defence a chance to catch up?

    The question of Morision is intereting. Last night he was frustrated (you can see that) and myabe thats it if he’s not getting something he can do with he does appear to let that be displayed in his game. Tne alternative is just to mouth off and become agitated (and get booked for fouls) Truth is that neither he not Holty got any joy from Gallas or Kaboul and even at the beginning Morision was outjumped by the LB (about a head shorter) in the punt from the Kick-off.

    The problem was the midfield were unable to get good ball to the strikers and something we must do somethiung about. The midfiels were unable to get into positions to assit either and both Morision and Holt found themselves the wrong side of the half way line in open play and even then there was still little support for lay-off etc (and even if there was they often went astray and the two strikers sometimes found themselves going for the same ball…)

    Finally two wingers Pilks ran a lot at Walker but then gave the ball away to him and Bennett had a couyple of useful balls and a couple of awful ones . We have scored a lot from corners etc this year but onlky got a couple near the end

    Really I (like Morison) was frustrated and dispoainted I agree we were beaten by the best team and its no disgrace BUT I am not sure we should be looking at it like that. WE didn’t play to our best ability and we always seemd to let them play the ball out oof their defence and collect and ditribute the ball into ours. WE also found out that we can’t dribble and jue our way round premier league players as easy as we did in the Chamopionship

  3. If you look at the first goal again, Whitbread moved across as he felt Adebayor was going to get a shot off which he could block. At least he was trying to do something, even if it was misjudged. Unlike Surman, who is marking nobody – look at the screen shot above – and despite seeing Bale on his own 5 yards away, comes across to cover far too late. Defenders will always get sucked out of position and away from their man – that’s when full backs and midfielders have to concentrate and do their covering job.

  4. I have to say I was one expecting us to go back to a 5 man midfield today, to counter Spur’s wide threats – coupled with the knowledge that Naughton was out, and then the news that Tierney also wouldn’t be playing – I was pretty worried we’d be in for a tough one. As you say though, it was interesting that they didn’t actually get a whole lot of joy from wide positions – only completing 1 cross; that’s compared to 5 against Chelsea, and 6 against Sunderland in their last two games. So credit to the backup fullbacks. As you rightly point out, Drury was especially competent, continually preventing Walker from beating him on the outside, forcing him to check back, and either cross unsuccessfully from deep, or lay a pass to someone else into the congested midfield. Tierney, and Naughton, have been great this season, but if I have one criticism, it’s that they both tend to dive in a bit too easily and get beaten on the outside. Kyle Walker may not quite be Walcott or Agbonlahor, but Drury did a really good job of staying on his feet and not letting this happen. De Laet too, showed he looks better as a fullback than a centre back. I do wonder though, whether it’s the best use of one of our loan slots, given the time he’s spending out with injury, and that he’s in a backup role anyway?

    You’re absolutely spot on regarding their first goal. Whitbread should have never come across like that. It’s such a cliche, but he was ball watching. In the scheme of things, it probably didn’t change the course of the game, Spurs were just much better than us. But it’s so frustrating, again, that a lapse in concentration has cost us a goal.

    It’s also frustrating for me, again, that Crofts continues to be a passenger in the midfield. You’re quite right – all our midfielders have poor games, and yesterday, against a world class Spurs, they were always going to have a hard time, and it’s fair to say none of them had their best game for us.

    This image shows layered pass maps for our midfielders against Tottenham. The left map shows passes from just Surman, Hoolahan, and Fox. The map on the right also includes Crofts. The point being that there is no noticeable difference. Crofts’ influence on the game in terms of passing is unnoticeable. I feel like each of the others playing yesterday – Surman, Fox, Hoolahan – had moments where they looked like they *might* make something happen, even if it didn’t quite come off. They have each already this season – be it through goals, assists, key passes, exciting runs or taking on players – influenced the game in a positive way. Even when they are not at their best, or not doing anything remarkable, they each tend to keep the game ticking over, making space for themselves and receiving the ball, playing easy passes, retaining possession. At this level, this is absolutely key. Crofts is not this type of player, and this is a problem.

    When we have the ball, particularly if we are only playing 4 in midfield, and especially against a team playing 5 in there, we need every single on of those 4 to be able to receive the ball and pass it to someone else. Every one needs to be able to make space, either for themselves, or for one of the others, and provide an opportunity for a pass. If they don’t, then our alternatives are drastically diminished, and we end up playing hopeful balls upfield. We are not deliberately playing a long ball game. We resort to it when our midfield runs out of options for shorter passes. A major reason for this, is that Crofts does not provide one of those options, and we just get over-run. In the Championship, this was not so much of a problem. Crofts was more competent himself with the ball against lesser opposition, but we could also rely on other players to pull more than their fair share because they were often more skillful than the opposition. Crofts’ shortcomings were somewhat covered up by other players – and, in fairness, he did his share of making up for other players’ weaknesses too, on the defensive side; closing players down, making interceptions, providing cover when others were marauding forward. With Premier League football being played the way it is, we really need to find a player who can do both. Who this could be, I’m not sure.

    One other thing – I thought it was interesting that we kind of switched to a 3-5-2 when Pilkington and Bennett came off the bench late on. We actually looked slightly better, I thought, although I expect this was as much, if not more, to do with the fresh legs than than the formation. It was slightly forced of course, due to simply running out of enough defenders to play 4 at the back – but it was something Lambert kind of tried at Stamford Bridge as well. Wigan have tried a few games playing 3 at the back with pretty mixed results, and it’s not something you see very often now. Tierney/Naughton/Bennett/Pilkington do look like they could handle playing as wingbacks though, and it could provide an answer to the question of how do you play two up front without sacrificing a central midfielder? I mean, I don’t think it’s likely to happen in any capacity other than just trying something different like last night, and I don’t know if it would actually work as a system, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless.

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