Are Spurs in the title race? Sitting two points behind reigning champions Man City on Christmas Day would certainly suggest so. Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has been keen to down-play Spurs’ title credentials but with a few winnable fixtures over the festive period, such as Boxing Day’s home tie against Bournemouth, Spurs’ chances of closing the gap to leaders Liverpool looks very likely.
As does the form of Pochettino’s side. Seemingly in response to seeing their coveted manager heavily touted as the man to take the reins at Manchester United, Spurs spent their December 23rd afternoon dishing out a footballing masterclass to Everton at Goodison Park in a 6-2 win. Their forwards have been fit and firing, an unwelcome sight to a currently indifferent Bournemouth team.
The bookies’ favourite to take over at Spurs should Pochettino leave is none other than Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe. Given the rife speculation surrounding this story in the last week, this game was billed by some as a test of Howe’s credentials for the Spurs job.
The game began at an anticipated fast pace and went from end to end as both teams started brightly. Howe’s instructions seemed clear, The Cherries’ defensive shape was 4-1-4-1 without the ball and their defensive line was rather high. This left a lot of space between themselves and their goalkeeper, perhaps feeling they could match the Spurs’ forwards for pace should through balls be attempted by the home side.
Also evident above is Spurs’ attacking shape which would be seen throughout the match. Harry Winks has dropped deep into the defensive line, seen on the far side of the pitch, both he and Sissoko would do this often to both aid build-up play and cover their advanced full-backs should Bournemouth counter with the dangerous Wilson, Brooks, Fraser and Stanislas.
Danny Rose provides the wide option on the left, allowing Son to search for space infield. Kyle Walker-Peters would do this with even more regularity on the right, allowing Lucas Moura (out of shot on the right-wing) to mirror Son’s movement and find space between Bournemouth’s two lines of four.
Spurs’ back four also played with a high defensive line. Bournemouth’s wingers were inverted, Brooks a left-footer playing right and Fraser vice versa, and both looked to make inward runs onto through passes in attacking transition.
Bournemouth’s counter-attacking approach almost paid dividends in the 14th minute when Jefferson Lerma received the ball in Spurs’ half following a turnover in possession and picked out the run of Brooks with an excellent chipped pass over the Spurs defence, only to see Brooks’ lobbed effort halted by Hugo Lloris. Bournemouth looked a match for Spurs in the opening 10 minutes.
Bournemouth’s Tactical Failings
Having not taken any of their early chances, Howe’s men quickly found themselves on the back foot. Playing with a high line ideally requires your midfield and forward lines to put pressure on the opposition’s ball carrier. But Spurs’ defenders, who are very competent passers, continuously found themselves with time on the ball to pick out long diagonal passes to their advanced full-backs, whose wide positioning caused havoc for The Cherries very narrow back-four.
Kyle Walker-Peters would be pivotal to Spurs’ attack throughout and when he received the ball in space down the right flank in the 16th minute, his square pass to Eriksen was largely unchallenged. Teams typically have what many will call a confrontation line, a point where you must press your opponent and not drop your defensive block any deeper. Bournemouth had 10 men behind the ball, they couldn’t fall back any deeper and yet they still did not put much pressure on the Danish midfielder who struck from under 25 yards out to open the scoring.
But the goal didn’t change Bournemouth’s approach, they failed to apply any real pressure on Spur’s defenders and deep-lying midfielders, whose accurate diagonals created many 1v1 situations in Bournemouth’s defensive third. Kyle Walker-Peters, in particular, was getting the better of left-back Charlie Daniels. Even when Daniels cut-out a pass to the right-back in the 23rd minute, Spurs had the numbers to counter-press and Walker-Peters won possession back before finding Son Heung-Min outside the box who expertly made it 2-0 Spurs.
While others may have been stealing the limelight in this impressive display, the performances of Moussa Sissoko and most of all Harry Winks were crucial to Spurs’ excellent performance in this game. We highlighted previously how they aided build-up play and covered their advancing full-backs but in addition, they also led the press for their team.
Unless they had numerical parity or advantage, the Spurs forwards would not counter-press and would regain their defensive positioning. Their que to press the ball was given by Winks or Sissoko applying pressure on the ball carrier, attempting to drive Bournemouth back toward their own goalkeeper or play long, hopeful balls forward.
Winks also displayed his fine passing ability. The Spurs academy graduate completed 71 of his 73 passes and played a significant pass in the game’s third goal. Once again Bournemouth’s midfielders were quite passive in defence and Winks had the time to pick out another forward run on the right-flank by Kyle Walker-Peters. His pass back across the box found Lucas Moura, The Cherrie’s defence had too many bodies to deal with as their midfield line was mostly nowhere to be seen.
Ultimately Eddie Howe’s side had no answer to Spurs’ wide, attacking full-backs and wingers moving inside, often creating a 5v4 situation in Spurs’ favour. One answer may have been to use the 6v5 advantage Bournemouth often had during Spurs’ build-up play to press the home side intensely and deny them time to pass around their defensive block. The first half finished 3-0 to Spurs and the game looked all but over.
Very unfortunately, Bournemouth right-back and Captain Simon Francis suffered an awful knee injury toward the end of the first half which will likely see him miss the rest of the season. Eddie Howe’s response was to change his team’s shape to a 3-4-3 (5-4-1 in defence) which saw Ryan Fraser switched from the left-flank to right-wing-back.
Change of approach, similar outcome
Bournemouth’s change in shape seemed to even the match up a little. Wing-backs Ryan Fraser and Diego Rico gave Howe’s side a new dynamic, using wide attackers to stretch the Spurs backline as Wilson, Stanislas and Brooks stayed central. This mirrored what Spurs had done so successfully in the first half.
But the parity was short-lived. Bournemouth once again failed to capitalise on their chances and Spurs’ quality at the other end turned a gap into a chasm. Right around the hour-mark, Spurs regained possession following a Bournemouth corner. Harry Kane received the ball just inside is opponent’s half but lacked support from his teammates.
Kane displayed his quality hold-up play, taking the ball into the corner and back out again, evading the pressure from two Bournemouth players. He eventually found his way back infield and made an expertly timed run beyond the Bournemouth backline to get on the end of a Christian Eriksen pass before volleying it home between the keeper’s legs, 4-0.
Kane’s movement would wreak havoc again less than 10 minutes later married with a through ball from Danny Rose. Calamitous defending ensued and a second goal for Son Heung-Min would conclude the scoring. 5-0 to a very impressive Spurs side, Pochettino’s men currently firing on all cylinders.
The game took a dip in intensity after Son’s second with both teams seemingly happy to keep possession. Spurs wanted to keep a clean sheet as well as rest themselves given the congested festive fixture list, Bournemouth looked to limit the damage and ensure the defeat didn’t become heavier.
It may seem a reach but Bournemouth will feel the 5-0 score-line flatters Spurs. The Cherries had plenty of opportunities to score and could well have opened the scoring had their finishing been more clinical. Ultimately Eddie Howe will be disappointed with how easily Spurs seemed to tear his team open, tactical changes may have come sooner to stem the flow of attacks from the home side. It doesn’t get much easier this weekend for Howe’s team as they travel to Old Trafford in their next match.
For Pochettino and his players, another five-star attacking performance which saw them leapfrog Man City into second place, a title challenge looking more likely with every passing game for Spurs. Kane, Eriksen and Son are all in the form of their season right now and they will be eager to extend this run at home to Wolves this Saturday.
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