With Spurs down by two goals just 28 minutes into Sunday's match with Southampton, it seemed the headlines for this match would write themselves:
Shambolic Spurs outplayed by sparkling Southampton (Guardian)
Pochettino shows Spurs what they're missing (Telegraph)
Spurs lack character and more importantly ENGLISH Spirit! (Daily Mail)
Such headlines (minus the last one, of course) would have been justified. Though Southampton's goals were the result of individual errors, the Saints were clearly the superior side in that opening half hour. Before reviewing how Spurs turned the match around, it's worth taking a look at why they were getting outplayed in the first place.
Same old mistakes
In recent games, Spurs have played a high line without pressing the ball, an incredibly dangerous combination. The opening half of Sunday's match was no different. Southampton players were consistently able to get in dangerous positions, survey their options, and play passes in behind Tottenham's defense.
Here, Adam Lallana, under no pressure from Danny Rose, find Rickie Lambert. Spurs are let of the hook when Lambert's poor first touch takes him away from goal. Note that Spurs back line is only 15 yards inside their own half and how easy it is for Lallana to time his pass with Lambert's run.
In the next GIF, Lambert drops into a hole in front of the Spurs back line and has time to find Jay Rodriguez. Spurs do a poor job of holding a steady line - Vertonghen is a yard or two deeper than Kaboul when the pass is played - but Rodriguez doesn't bend his run enough and is flagged for offsides.
Finally, Lambert plays a curved ball behind Spurs defense to Jay Rodriguez, who is incorrectly flagged for offsides.
That Southampton played all these passes from Spurs' left side is not coincidence; Christian Eriksen's tendency to drift infield and unfamiliarity with that position means that flank will always be less protected when he is playing there. Compounding the problem was an obviously unfit Mousa Dembélé. Dembélé finished with no tackles, attempted take-ons, and just a single interception.
Halftime adjustments change game
After the game, Jan Vertonghen revealed Sherwood's instructions at halftime:
The manager told us at half-time that we had to improve, put more pressure on them because they were able to play their game, just passing the ball. They were passing into midfield and the runners gave us a lot of problems at the back, so we tried to put more pressure on the midfield.
Quite why Spurs were not doing this in the first half is unclear, but to the extent Sherwood deserves blame for the poor first half performance, he deserves credit for the terrific second half performance. Sherwood has been deservedly criticized in the past for failing to make use of his bench, but his bold decision to replace the ineffective Dembélé with Gylfi Sigurdsson should also be lauded.
Both decisions paid immediate dividends. Though the Spurs second goal will be remembered for the pressure Roberto Soldado put on Dejan Lovren near the endline, the move started when Spurs pressed Southampton in midfield, prompting a turnover. The contrast to how Spurs gave Southampton time on the ball in the first half is stark.
Spurs pressing created several counterattack opportunities in addition to the one immediately above. Here, Nabil Bentaleb chases Jack Cork into a corner before gently easing him off the ball. His cross doesn't connect with Soldado but the idea is good. It's worth noting that were it not for Sherwood's halftime substitution, it would have been Dembélé, not Bentaleb, in this position.
The few passes Southampton managed to play behind Spurs' backline in the second half were easily dealt with by Jan Vertonghen and Younes Kaboul. Again, the key is Spurs' pressure on the ball. Southampton players had no time to look up and time their passes with the runs of their teammates, as can be seen below.
In the end, the tactical story of this game was fairly simple. Spurs gave Southampton time on the ball in the first half and nearly paid for it. In the second half, Spurs pressing prevented Southampton from playing and created several good opportunities. It would be really nice to see more of the latter during the final seven games of the season.
Despite playing in an unfamiliar central midfield role, Sigurdsson was particularly key to Spurs pressing game, as can be seen in two of the three GIFs above. In addition to scoring the winning goal, he also added a bit of guile in attack.
Here, he fills the space vacated when Aaron Lennon comes infield from the right wing. When three players converge on Lennon, Sigurdsson is left completely open.
His positioning forces Dejan Lovren out of position to cover, leaving a gap for Christian Eriksen to run into. Though the pass is a little late and under-hit, this was one of Spurs' best attacking sequences in the game.
Kaboul played three long balls behind the defense and hit his target every time. The first two were to Soldado and Chadli respectively, and the one below is to Eriksen. None resulted in goals, but these passes are much more dangerous than the typical diagonals to the wings typically played by Spurs' center backs.