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Tactics Tuesday: Anatomy of a Goal, and a Season

Tottenham Hotspur's defending in the buildup to Manchester United's first goal was almost a perfect microcosm of Spurs' season. Let's turn to the tape to break it down.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The characteristic that is most associated with football teams managed by Mauricio Pochettino is intense, organized pressing out of possession. "Our style of play," he once explained, "is to win the ball as soon as possible and then play it[...] When we lose the ball we must have the mentality of winning it back as soon as possible." Unfortunately for him, Tottenham Hotspur have yet to master this concept. At no point has that failure been more evident than in the build-up to Manchester United's first goal on Sunday.

Phase One: Everything is under control.

mu image 1

When play starts, Spurs are attempting to get into a proper defensive shape after a cross-field pass is played to United center back Phil Jones. Kyle Walker jogs to the touchline to mark Ashley Young while Ryan Mason scampers after Marouane Fellaini. Note how compact Spurs are - Chadli is less than 15 meters from Spurs' center backs.

Phase two: We've got problems.

mu image 2

This image illustrates how things have taken a turn for the worse. Fellaini has intelligently positioned himself in the halfspace along Spurs backline. Mason, presumably wary of leaving Walker alone with both Fellaini and Young, has dropped alongside. Meanwhile, Nacer Chadli attempts to press Daley Blind, who has just received a pass from Jones.

Chadli's positioning here is an interesting contrast to the previous image. Instead of running directly to the ball, he first moves between Carrick and Blind in an attempt to take away the passing lane. However, Chadli is unaware that Mason has decided to stick with Fellaini rather than shield the zone in front of the back line. As a result, a 12-meter gap has opened up between Chadli and Mason. You know what else is 12 meters and completely stupid? This:

Phase Three: Bad options and worse options.

mu image 3

After breaking into the gap between Spurs attacking midfielders and defensive midfielders, Michael Carrick receives a pass from Blind. Mason leaves Fellaini to pressure Carrick but arrives too late. Carrick plays Fellaini through on goal and the rest is history.

Here is the goal in full:

Fellaini Goal

What went wrong?

The short answer is that Spurs never recovered after United sliced through their first line of pressing. The longer answer is that Spurs defensive midfielders were never on the same wavelength as Chadli and Townsend; the latter two press while the former drop off, creating the massive gap where Carrick receives the ball. If either set of players had done the opposite, the chance would have likely never materialized.

United's players, particularly Fellaini, deserve credit for their movement, too. Pochettino will still be aggrieved, however. United typically play Fellaini in a forward position, and prior to the match, Pochettino surely would have given his side instructions to deal with this kind of action. Either Chadli should have realized that it was not an appropriate time to press, or Mason should have recognized that Chadli was pressing and positioned himself accordingly.

After the initial breakdown, Mason should have stayed put on Fellaini, right?

There are two reasons that might not be the case. First, Mason's decision did not leave Fellaini with an easy goal. Fellaini had to take a precise, angled shot with his weak foot to score. And second, leaving Carrick unmarked would have presented its own set of problems.

mu image 4

Here's how the pitch looked at the moment Carrick received the pass. If Mason had not pressured him, Carrick would have had the opportunity to knock a diagonal pass into the path of Juan Mata, who was unmarked at the far side of the field.

So, whether he was aware of it or not, Mason faced a choice between leaving the sometimes ungainly Fellaini with a free run on goal or allowing Carrick to pick out Juan Mata, a much more skilled player in a slightly less advantageous position. Not an easy decision.

Has this been a recurring problem for Spurs?

Absolutely. Spurs have conceded forty-two goals this season, twelve more than any other top-seven side. Back in January, Michael Caley wrote about how Tottenham are exposed when their press gets broken. Only an epic season from Hugo Lloris and poor finishing from opposing strikers have prevented Spurs from giving up even more goals.

mata to falcao game one

This GIF is from the December 28th match against Manchester United. United had at least two more chances of equal quality that they failed to convert in that match.

How was Carrick so free on the second goal?

Walker marks Carrick

Spurs were playing a mixture of zonal and man-marking. Mason has positioned himself near the front post while Kyle Walker has picked up Carrick, as can be seen above.

carrick goal

As Fellaini beats Dier to the backpost header, Carrick runs past Walker into Mason's zone. Both Mason and Walker lose track of Carrick, and he has a free header after Chadli fails to clear. Another illustration of how simple lateral movement across zones has undone Spurs this year.

Did Pochettino get his tactics or selection wrong?

Yes and no. By bringing on Mousa Dembélé for Andros Townsend in the 29th minute, Pochettino basically admitted he got the team selection wrong. Dembélé is the Spurs midfielder most suitable for games against pressing teams due to his ball retention and ability to beat a defender, and he should have played from the start. Bentaleb and Mason struggle against high-pressing sides and would have benefited from playing alongside Dembélé.

With that said, the issues in this game go beyond team selection or the decision whether to play a high-pressing game. Twenty-nine games into the season, Spurs still cannot execute Pochettino's instructions on a regular basis. Until that changes, Spurs will struggle to challenge for the Champions League places.

I would like to read another article that discusses this same game and also uses GIFs and crude, self-taught photoshop.

You're in luck! Mike Goodman wrote a great breakdown on Grantland. Read it!