Spurs got their first win of the campaign against Palace recently, and it was one of the first times that Pochettino has fielded two strikers from the start for Spurs. Barring a somewhat odd away day at Villa in November 2014, where Soldado played just off of Adebayor, Pochettino has approached games with a single striker. A single striker who happened to really make his name with Spurs fans on that aforementioned clash at Villa Park with a late, deflected free kick that won Tottenham the match, and won a young Harry Kane a place in Spurs’ fans’ hearts.
Kane quickly became not just a regular starter, but a regular scorer, and he clearly relished his opportunity to lead the line for Spurs, catapulting himself way ahead of Soldado and Adebayor in the pecking order. The end of the 2014-15 season saw an end to the Spurs careers of ‘Bobby’ and ‘Ade’, much to the delight of many fans, however it left us extremely short of options up front, with many worrying about who could fill in for Kane in the event of an injury. This sparked an ultimately pointless quest for West Brom’s Saido Berahino. Young, quick, English, on form and scoring goals. He seemed like the ideal player to either partner or fill in for Kane. The massive interest the club showed in Saido led to Pochettino claiming to want to play with two strikers, and we seemed to be on track to achieve that.
However, numerous failed bids, a stubborn Jeremy Peace and a couple of moody Twitter likes by Saido later, and we exited the transfer window without signing a single recognised striker. Kane was to go the entirety of the 2015-16 season as the club’s only striker. Despite Kane going on to win the golden boot, it was clear that an out-of-position Nacer Chadli or Heung Min Son were not suitable deputies in Kane’s absence.
The club’s hopes soon turned to Eredivisie top scorer Vincent Janssen to be that insurance striker they so desperately needed. If the 21 year old’s 27 goals in Holland weren’t enough to impress fans, his pre-season performances may have been. He grabbed two goals and an assist in five friendlies, and played a big part in dismantling Inter Milan in the final warm up game. His strong performances left many believing that he may actually be more than just Kane’s back up for the season.
With Janssen impressing on his off-the-bench debut against Everton, many fans were eager to see him start on his home debut against Palace. The fans got their wish, and Janssen found himself in the starting line-up, as his pre-season and debut performances merited. However, his inclusion did come at the expense of Dele Alli, and the eccentric footballing spark that his play can provide. The loss of this creativity meant that we were about to witness a subtle change to Spurs’ approach. It was only a slight variation on Pochettino’s beloved 4-2-3-1, but it was a clever one.
The usual set up of two inverted wingers (Lamela and Eriksen) either side of a lively attacking midfielder (Alli) playing just behind an all-round striker (Kane) works well, because it allows the creativity and guile of the inverted wingers to play inside and threaten, which allows Alli to push closer to Kane, either to support him or make runs in behind. This system does work well, as the statistics back up. Lamela and Eriksen earned nine and 13 assists respectively from their wide-inside-playmaker roles, and Alli hit 10 goals and nine assists from his all-action attacking midfield role. On top of this, the trio’s attacking fluidity, intricate movement and intelligent service provided Kane with enough chances to earn him the golden boot.
The evidence is there to back up the system’s usual effectiveness. Although at times we saw how the system could fail to break down teams that were defending deep, as there was limited space in behind for Kane and Alli’s runs, and the compact midfields meant Lamela and Eriksen’s attempts at drifting inside were met with congested dead ends made up of Tony Pulis-drilled drilled defenders or relentless Leicester City players, deeming their attempts at creating chances as largely ineffective. At these times we needed a plan B, and this is something we never saw. It was pretty much a battle of persistence in these types of games, with Spurs’ attack continuously using the same method to attack, in the hope it will eventually break down a team who were defending tirelessly. It was clear they needed something different.
Janssen looks to be that plan B that Spurs craved at times last season. His target-man style hold up play allowed our other attackers to get more involved in the game against Everton (most notably Lamela), and his poacher-like instinct allowed us to take more direct routes to goal, in the hope that he could feed off of scraps – which very nearly gave Spurs the win if it wasn’t for the strong left hand of Stekelenberg.
However, incorporating him into the starting line up would be a little trickier than simply throwing him on up front. With a lack of natural wingers at the club, it would be very difficult to field an effective 4-4-2, so Pochettino’s best bet was indeed going to be a variation to Spurs’ usual 4-2-3-1. One of, if not the most notable difference against Crystal Palace was the role of Harry Kane. So accustomed to leading the line, Kane was dropped just in behind Janssen, and for his number’s sake, let’s call it a ‘10’. However, he didn’t play this role like you’d expect other ‘10’s too. He wasn’t the playmaker like an Ozil, Eriksen or even Rooney, neither was he a busy attacking midfielder, like De Bruyne, Alli or Coutinho. He was quite simply a deep-lying-forward.
What Kane did was sit a little deeper to usual, and roam when he needed to in order to find space or get involved with the build up play. Janssen took on Kane’s usual responsibility of initiating the press, and he did this really well. This allowed Kane to push forward into Janssen’s position to occupy Dann and Delaney when he needed to, and then drop in behind to find space again. Kane’s deeper position meant he found himself on the ball outside of the box more often than usual, which allowed him to threaten with his shooting from distance more frequently. This nearly lead to a goal when his low, deflected, long range effort was parried by Hennessey, who then made a fantastic double save to deny Janssen.
Kane’s positioning would have made it difficult for the inverted wingers to be at their effective best. With Kane occupying the centre in a less mobile manner than Alli does, it would have been hard for Eriksen and Lamela to find the pockets of space they usually do.
On top of this, it would mean that they couldn’t rotate as freely and as fluid as they would have liked. To avoid a congested attack, Pochettino made the decision to swap the wings that Lamela and Eriksen would normally operate on. Lamela from the left and Eriksen from the right. Although this may have been an impediment to Eriksen’s game, it was definitely beneficial to the team as a whole.
What this allowed our playmakers to do was take up wider positions than they usually would, with Kane providing the threat through the centre. Lamela and Eriksen were mainly occupying the ‘half space’positions, not right out on the touchline, not too far inside. This gave our attack great balance as it allowed Rose and Walker to attack down the wings, Lamela and Eriksen to find areas in the half space, and Kane and Janssen to threaten through the centre. This gave as an extra variety of options in the final third, and the combinations worked well to create numerous chances throughout the match, including the nice little move that sent Rose down the left to win the corner that we scored from. However, I feel the best example of the system working came just before half time. Alderweireld’s clever pass put Eriksen down the right, Eriksen plays a ball across the edge of the area, which reaches Lamela via a Janssen dummy, and then Lamela lays the ball back across to Kane who was arriving a little later than Janssen. Kane fired his shot wide, and he probably should have scored, but it’s a great example of how Spurs’ attack can be effective when they play this way.
The tactics Mauricio Pochettino against Palace employed may have only been a slight alternation of Spurs’ usual tactics, but the change did prove to be an effective one. Although Spurs only recorded the one goal, it could easily have been three or four, with Kane, Alderweireld and most notably Janssen missing at least one goalscoring opportunity each. On another day there would have been goals for both Spurs’ strikers, which is ultimately what they change in tactics had set out to achieve. With chances falling to both Kane and Janssen throughout the match, you can see why Pochettino opted to play the two strikers in this way. And with the system creating chances for both of Spurs’ strikers, it shouldn’t be long until both these golden boot winners start finding the net regularly again.