For the first forty-five minutes yesterday, Spurs put on perhaps the best display of Mauricio Pochettino's counter-pressing style seen all season. Fiorentina looked absolutely shell-shocked, and had no idea what to do with so many white shirts closing them down so deep in their own half. The press forced turnovers high up the pitch and panicked Fiorentina's defenders into reckless passing out of the back that time and again landed right at Bentaleb's feet for Spurs to launch a counter of their own.
Spurs' dominance should have given the team a sizable halftime cushion, but somehow the sides went into the break level. When the second half rolled around, it was a different game.
Roberto Soldado had one of his strongest 45 minutes in a Spurs shirt in the first half against Fiorentina. Soldado, as any Spurs fan can tell you, is a striker who thrives on service. He's not going to beat a defender on the dribble and he's not going to create his own chances. But put the ball at his feet inside the box and he can be deadly. Andros Townsend's success on the flanks and Fiorentina's tactical set up gave him both space and opportunities.
In the first half, Fiorentina's 3-5-2 formation played perfectly into Pochettino's hands. Townsend found himself isolated against wide center back Jose Basanta, and had the beating of him seemingly every time he had the ball. And while Basanta peeled off to chase Townsend's shadow, that left Soldado alone in the box with only one defender to trouble him, and he looked positively deadly any time the ball came near the box.
Vincenzo Montella made a halftime switch from a back three to a back four, a frankly basic and obvious response to the way they were getting ripped apart in the first half. The two features of Spurs' first half dominance evaporated from kickoff. Yet for all its simplicity, Pochettino had no answer for it.
Fiorentina also made sure to double and even triple team Townsend on the flanks. With so many defenders around him, Townsend struggled to work his way down the wing and couldn't provide the service Soldado had thrived on. Despite this, until Townsend came off in the 72nd minute, Spurs continued to force the attack through him at every opportunity. It's as if the team were attempting to do all of the things it should have done more of in the first half, without any regard to the fact that the game had changed around them.
The knock-on effect was that Soldado became completely obsolete. With two center backs guarding him instead of one he couldn't get free in the box to pick up the few balls that did make their way to him. Not only that, but he never left the box to help out Townsend. With better interplay between Townsend and the other attackers, he may have been able to get the space he needed to wreak havoc once more. But Soldado couldn't provide it, and he instead spent the second half cutting a forlorn figure trapped behind a purple wall.
For this Tottenham side, there's a simple and obvious answer when chasing a goal: Harry Kane. Kane, unlike Soldado doesn't depend on service in the box. He's happy to float around the attacking third and link with his teammates, and is willing to run at defenders with the ball to create chances for himself and others.
But instead of bringing on Kane to function as the focal point of the attack, Kane came on to sit in the hole behind Soldado, which completely squandered his abilities. Not only that, but it also squandered the tactical benefit to playing two strikers against a back four. Bringing on a second striker typically works because he occupies the second center back. Where before, Fiorentina had a spare center back to double team Soldado, adding a striker should have allowed each of them to contend with only one defender.
But while the team may have nominally switched to a 4-4-2, Kane played much more like a #10 floating between the lines. So Kane's addition didn't help Soldado get free, because he was rarely in the box drawing defenders away. It also didn't alleviate the burden on poor Townsend, and he continued to find himself alone on the wing.
If the goal of Pochettino's substitution was to improve service to Soldado, Kane didn't accomplish that at all. If the goal was to bring on our best goalscorer, Pochettino's use of Kane completely marginalized his ability to do the things he does best.
It was apparent that Soldado should have come off for Kane. His skillset, while fabulously well-suited to the dynamics of the first half, were completely unsuited to the second half. While it may be harsh given how good he was in the first half, the unfortunate fact is that he was good in a tactically-specific way that no longer applied.
The next change Pochettino made was to remove Townsend for Lamela. On its face, this seemed to be a like for like change. Townsend had probably run himself ragged, and Spurs had another tricky dribbler on the bench. However, like for like wasn't going to solve the tactical conundrum of Townsend being faced with too many defenders, it just meant it became someone else's problem. Rather than address the clear tactical issue of the way his team was set up, Pochettino just hoped Lamela would handle it better.
Despite this tactically uninspiring decision, the substitution had interesting knock-on effects. After the sub, Spurs seemed much more willing to attack down the left flank instead of just the right. But the switch to attacking both flanks wasn't so much a product of Lamela coming on, but more because Townsend came off. With Townsend on, he was willing and able to beat his man to get down the pitch almost at will, so Spurs kept forcing it even though it had become a dead end. When Lamela came on, instead of solving Townsend's problem as Pochettino hoped, he was instead unwilling to take anyone on and failed to dribble a single defender.
As a result, Spurs were forced to use the left side of the pitch. The right flank, that for much of the match was the key source of drive and attacking impetus, stopped functioning. The ancillary benefit was a diversified attack for the first time in the second half, but bizarrely only because Spurs had been completely one-dimensional and then lost the ability to use that one dimension.
(Despite its inadvertent impact, I have a hard time giving Pochettino credit for a decision that amounts to "I will deliberately make our right side worse so that we use our left side more" because that doesn't sound like a deliberate tactical plan at all.)
Pochettino's final substitution of the night was to bring on Ryan Mason. Given how one-dimensional and ineffective Spurs' second half strategy of "give the ball to Townsend" was, the addition of another player willing to drive the ball forward and try ambitious, creative passes was a no-brainer. However, Pochettino waited until the 83rd minute to make the switch, far too late for Mason to have an impact on the tempo of the game.
Curiously, when Mason did come on he wasn't his normal progressive and energetic self. He seemed very conservative with the ball and his movement at a time when his manic hustle all over the pitch would have been exactly the tonic the team needed. Perhaps if Pochettino had brought him on earlier, he would have had time to impact the match. As it was, it was just another listless and ineffective substitution in a match that bypassed the head coach at half time.
Pochettino has done a phenomenal job this season implementing his preferred tactical system. When Plan A is working, Spurs look incredibly dangerous. But for all his excellence as a proactive manager, he can often struggle to be reactive as the situation demands. Against Fiorentina on Thursday, both sides of the manager were out in full force.