A Look at Tottenham’s Build-Up Play under Mauricio Pochettino

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Mauricio Pochettino led Tottenham to a comfortable 3-1 win over Newcastle United, and again, the hallmarks of his attacking philosophy were present. Indeed, and under the Argentine’s instruction, Spurs enjoyed 61% of the ball, pressed aggressively when the situation called for it and, perhaps most interestingly, mixed a controlled build-up game with explosive running in transition.

And while it culminated in victory, that wasn’t the most important thing to be gained from the performance. After all, a win against Newcastle, who have lost their last six Premier League matches, isn’t overly difficult to come by at the moment. Instead, what was most interesting about Tottenham’s trip to St. James’s Park was how much better they looked in transition than when building the play more methodically.

In fact, all three of Spurs’ goals came about by breaking quickly and directly towards goal. Nacer Chadli’s opener, a cracking longshot, resulted from a moment of pressing, and one in which Tottenham demonstrated their penchant for playing high up the pitch and getting in the faces of the opposition. Then, in the second half, Christian Eriksen’s fortunate dead-ball finish was created by a quick break down the left, while as the game approached its conclusion, Harry Kane scored from a free-flowing break to complete the rout.

Yet while Tottenham showed plenty of proficiency against an unset Magpies defence, they struggled to do the same when their opponents had time to organise themselves. This was particularly apparent in the first half, as while Newcastle moved Remy Cabella into the No. 10 role after the interval, they actually started the game with the defensively-minded trio of Jack Colback, Ryan Taylor and Mehdi Abeid in central midfield.

Couple this with Spurs’ insistence on moving the ball through the middle of the pitch, and it soon became a struggle for them to do so with any great fluency. In addition to the already centrally located Eriksen, Chadli and Erik Lamela, Tottenham’s two wingers, showed an inclination to drift infield as well. As a consequence, Pochettino’s men relied far too heavily on creating crisp exchanges of passing centrally in order to create goal-scoring opportunities.

And as Tottenham continually narrowed their play in attack, so too did Newcastle in defence. They dropped back into a deep yet organised defensive block, and one that focused upon remaining compact and difficult to break down. This typically worked out well during the first half, too, and not just due to the fact that they were aided by Tottenham’s lack of variety in the final third, but also because the diminutive figure of Ayoze Perez offered both pace and incision in transition. Indeed it was the Spaniard who had a glorious opportunity to put the home side ahead following a move down the right, while on another occasion he was dubiously flagged for offside as he charged through on goal.

And yet, despite the problems attached to Tottenham’s approach in attack, there were also some benefits derived from their focus on moving the ball through the middle. In relation to their pressing, for instance, it meant that Spurs could swarm swiftly upon the opposition in a bid to win back possession. More than that, there was also the opportunity, once they regained possession, to play a quick flurry of passes in transition because they were so close to one another.

This was best illustrated just prior to Chadli’s opener, as the sequence begun with Yoan Gouffran trying to bring the ball out of defence after Spurs left-back Danny Rose was dispossessed. Yet as Gouffran moved forward, it quickly became clear that he had nowhere to go. Nabil Bentaleb sat back in a central area, screening the back four, and just ahead of him Paulinho and Eriksen started to converge upon Gouffran’s position.

The Frenchman tried to wriggle free, taking a couple of mini-touches to compose himself, but eventually the pressure applied was too much for him. Paulinho pinched possession and exchanged passes with Eriksen, while just ahead of them Chadli waited for his moment. And, after Paulinho slipped the shortest of passes into his path, it arrived for the Belgian.

He dribbled around the disorganised Newcastle defence and slammed his shot home from range, and yes, his thumping drive is sure to be the aspect of the move that most remember. Equally, though, it’s also important to remember the build-up. Once Gouffran was dispossessed due to the sheer quantity of Tottenham players in the middle of the park, the passing exchange that took place was only over a matter of metres. It was that proximity and closeness that facilitated Chadli’s opportunity, even though it was his brilliance that ultimately finished the job.

In addition, it’s also worth noting that Spurs’ desire to congregate in the centre freed up their fullbacks. Indeed the fact that Tottenham narrowed their play encouraged Newcastle’s defensive unit to do the same, which not only meant there was plenty of room for Rose and right-back Eric Dier to overlap, but also that when they had the opportunity to cross, they could do so with relative freedom.

In the first half alone, Rose had a couple of brilliant chances to swing the ball in after he was found with a quick switch of play. On Dier’s side of the field, too, opportunities presented themselves, and one in particular, where he was left with an acreage in front of him before being wrongly ruled offside, illustrated just how much space Tottenham’s fullbacks could generate when they went forward.

And yet, despite the space on the flanks, Pochettino’s men rarely elected to use it. They instead contented themselves with playing through the centre, and only recorded a total of 10 crosses for the afternoon. It quite simply wasn’t enough, and it seems likely that Spurs would have given Newcastle a lot more to think about had they made more of the wide areas, as this, in turn, would’ve added an additional layer of variety to their game.

Nevertheless, the signs are still good. After all, Tottenham comfortably accounted for Newcastle on the day, and while it was clinical play in transition that allowed them to do this, they still linked up reasonably well in the centre – it’s just that they need to make a few tweaks in order for the system to truly come together. As Lamela’s second-half chance highlighted, they could use some more outside-to-in runs, from the wide areas, in order to provide some extra penetration. And, as mentioned above, they could make better use of their marauding fullbacks as well.

But these are things for the future, and in fairness to Pochettino, he’s done a decent job with Tottenham this season. They’ve often pressed cohesively and, without the ball, the Argentine’s approach has generally been well implemented. It’s in the final third that he’ll truly be striving for improvement next season, and if he can strike a greater balance both in terms of personnel and variation of movement, then it may just be that Pochettino can finally allow Tottenham to deliver upon the promise present within their squad.