If there’s one takeaway from Tottenham’s 1-0 win over Watford on Saturday, it’s that it is no longer possible to put this team in a box. In seasons past, visiting teams might feel reasonably confident that they could sit back, defend in rigid bands of four or five and probably leave White Hart Lane with some kind of result.
The Tottenham team of Andre Villas-Boas was vulnerable in particular to oppositions parking the bus, and with the Portuguese’s preferred high-line it occasionally resulted in the concession of too-easy goals.
The problem wasn’t just Villas-Boas’ tactics, however. Those teams were held back by a general lack of options when it came to attack. Indeed, it’s not entirely unfair to suggest that were it not for the prolific form of Gareth Bale, those teams would not have been able to compete. Match to match, there simply wasn’t a reliable set of goal scorers.
The sale of Bale to Real Madrid in 2013 put that in pretty stark contrast. Even after the Bale money was spent, the team seemed overly to lack sharp edges. Only during the brief resurgence of Emmanuel Adebayor under Tim Sherwood did Tottenham seem to find any kind of reliable attack.
Since his appointment in 2014, however, Mauricio Pochettino has sought to remedy that problem on two fronts.
One, he’s stripped the squad of players who offer little more than pace (see: Aaron Lennon and Andros Townsend) while giving regular starts to players who offer more dimensions. Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Erik Lamela all perform a slightly different role in the trident of attacking mids behind Harry Kane, often blending contributions to the high press with shots and key passes. No, they might not be able to beat their man on every occasion, but they can do a lot of things with a high degree of competence.
Two, he’s refined how Tottenham take their chances. While the club has maintained one of the highest shot per game averages in the Premier League over the last four seasons, in the past those shots tended to skew heavily in favor of low probability efforts from distance. Such spectacular goals would become Bale’s trademark, but overall they were not a sustainable way of generating goals.
To that end, Pochettino has enlisted his three multi-taskers in an effort to not only take shots early and often, but also to make sure those shots were coming from dangerous areas. This has led to Tottenham being occasionally criticized for playing too narrow in attack as they attempt to exploit the areas of the pitch with the highest probability of converted shots.
Watford believed they had what it took to shut down Tottenham is this regard. They played narrowly in an attempt to clog up the avenues through which Tottenham usually find their goals. And, to their credit, it almost worked.
Why it didn’t work came down to a bit of pragmatism on Pochettino’s part. While he has good reason to be confident in his usual style’s ability to win games, he retains the ability to bring to bear surprisingly effective Plan B’s.
The match against Crystal Palace two weeks ago might have ended as a scrappy draw (or perhaps even a Palace win) were it not for Pochettino’s introduction of Nacer Chadli in a winger role midway through the second half. The Belgian provided the extra width Tottenham needed to get around a Palace defense that was as content as Watford to stay narrow. It was his cross that set up Kane’s equalizer and his spectacular goal that killed off the game in stoppage time.
Lesson learned, Pochettino anticipated Watford’s tactics and started not only Chadli but also rarely used right-back Kieran Trippier. Combined they were, in theory, supposed to stretch Watford’s defense, or at the very least provide the crosses that the Hornets have proven to be so vulnerable to in recent weeks.
While Chadli disappointed in that regard, Trippier made the most of his start. He was our Man of the Match in Saturday’s player ratings for good reason. He constantly tested Watford’s left flank, and found himself in position to score the winning goal.
It was a route to victory that few anticipated, and that’s the point. Pochettino has created a Tottenham team that is not nearly as easy to thwart as they once were, with multiple different sources of goals from multiple different angles. Along with the high press and an indomitable defense, that multiple-edged attack has already resulted in a season to remember for Tottenham. Who knows how much further it could take them?