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Tottenham Hotspur's failure to hold a two goal lead against Stoke City was the result of three factors. First, Spurs stopped pressing after successfully doing so in the first half. Second, they failed to deal with Stephen Ireland's movement. Finally, they did not take advantage of the counterattacking opportunities afforded to them by Stoke's aggressive positioning.
Spurs drop intensity
Last week, I praised Tottenham for a fine pressing display against Manchester United. Spurs created several chances from pressing and conceded almost no chances to United. Against Stoke, Spurs continued that display throughout the first half. In the second half, however, Spurs stopped pressing so intensely, allowing Stoke to get back into the match.
Here, Spurs' four most attacking players press high up the pitch after a clearance. Their effort is wasted, however, when the defenders and midfielders do not follow suit. The result is an easy pass into midfield. In the first half, Stoke were rarely afforded this freedom.
Failure to track Stephen Ireland
Mark Hughes's introduction of Ireland for Marco van Ginkel was the game's key decision. Van Ginkel stayed reserved with his positioning in the first half, typically playing the ball to Stoke's wide players before retreating to central midfield. In contrast, Ireland stuck almost exclusively to Stoke's left side and got in dangerous positions to play the final ball himself.
Ireland combined well with Stoke's left winger, Marko Arnautovic. When Arnautovic stayed wide, Ireland found pockets of space between Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, and Toby Alderweireld. When Arnautovic cut inside, Ireland made the reverse run and found space on the wing.
In the follow-up to the first GIF above, Ireland passes to Arnautovic, then vacates the half-space for Arnautovic to dribble into. Eric Dier is reluctant to leave this zone, so Ireland moves outside, where he has time to pick out a cross for Mame Biriam Diouf.
Ireland is not a particularly athletic or tricky player, but he can pass, which makes Dier's reluctance to press him when in possession puzzling. Stoke capitalized on this reluctance for their first goal, as can be seen here:
With plenty of time on the ball, Ireland looks up and is able to time his pass with Joselu's run. After the match, Toby Alderweireld highlighted what Spurs were missing:
At Southampton, Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin put good pressure on so the opposition didn’t have time to put the ball in the box. It makes it easier for defenders.
For the record, Alderweireld also accepted blame for his foul on Joselu. His comments are telling nonetheless.
Dier was not the only Spurs player to have struggle with Ireland's movement. In the buildup to Stoke's second goal, Tottenham's defense was completely scrambled after a Stoke corner kick. Even so, it does not excuse the poor marking that followed.
Bentaleb is is slow to get to Ireland. When Ireland plays a 1-2 with Arnautovic, Bentaleb is unable to keep up with him. Meanwhile, Christian Eriksen and Kyle Walker are not alert to the danger.
Inability to Counterattack or Keep Possession
The final problem that doomed Spurs in the last half hour of the match was an inability to counterattack or hold possession after Harry Kane was removed to due to injury. Mauricio Pochettino's decision to replace Kane with Erik Lamela backfired completely. Lamela wasted several promising opportunities, which both prevented Spurs from creating scoring chances and allowed Stoke to continue mounting attacks.
This play was typical of Lamela's afternoon - an overeagerness to attempt the extravagant when a simpler, smarter pass was available. In retrospect, Pochettino may have been better off playing Tom Carroll, whose safer style of play might have made it easier for Spurs to retain possession. For Spurs, it was yet another costly mistake in a half full of them.