Tottenham Hotspur suffered through a frustrating scoreless draw against Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday. While the statistics show Spurs with the bulk of possession (62%) and the advantage in shots (16 to 8) and shots on target (4 to 1), they looked mediocre to the eyes and often out of ideas. Attacks fizzled, players weren’t finding good spaces, and the entire offense looked disjointed.
Spurs are not a bad team, and Bournemouth is clearly better than many give them credit for. So what went wrong? The answer is probably a combination of a good Bournemouth performance, bad tactics, and even worse in-game management from Mauricio Pochettino.
Poche got the lineup wrong from the very beginning.
There were no doubt good reasons why Poche set up the team the way he did. Eric Dier moving to center back necessitated Victor Wanyama starting in midfield again. Based on recent history, Poche seems to think Wanyama is better as a lone destroyer in a 4-1-4-1 formation, like how Spurs set up against Manchester City and Bayer Leverkusen. There may have been rotational issues at play as well.
That’s well and good, but there were two decisions made in the starting lineup that were outright baffling: playing Mousa Dembele in a more advanced midfield role, and starting Son Heung-Min ahead of Vincent Janssen.
Bournemouth came out with an intense press and a high line and it gave Tottenham all sorts of trouble in the first half. In fact, that intense press was by design, as Eddie Howe confirmed in the post match interview:
“Our gameplan was to disrupt their rhythm, their normal way of playing. They’re supremely talented players and we felt our best option was to try stop the ball getting into the final third with our workrate and intensity. That’s easier said than done, but the players delivered an incredible physical performance, full of endeavour and desire.”
With that in mind, Son was absolutely the wrong choice to start as a striker in this match. With Bournemouth well-structured at the back, they were constantly double-teaming Sonny whenever he touched the ball. Consequently, while he did receive service in some dangerous areas, he wasn’t able to do much when he got the ball and only got one (blocked) shot off.
Sonny’s effectiveness is mitigated by a set defense. While he ran rampant against Manchester City, the circumstances that made him so good against City were completely different in this match. Bournemouth were much less likely to allow him space in the channels and didn’t allow themselves to lose their shape. That was bad for Son, and he probably didn’t have much of a chance as a lone striker up top.
Spurs could’ve used the excellent hold-up play from Vincent Janssen in this game, who has a knack for delivering balls to players in dangerous positions even if he hasn’t laced up his scoring boots yet. Instead, Spurs brought on Janssen much too late for him to do much good. But more on that later.
While Wanyama is an excellent defensive midfielder (and, it should be said, he played well on Saturday), passing the ball is not one of his strengths. Putting Moose in a more advanced position instead of in the pivot negated what he is so good at: pressing opponents, retaining possession, and shuttling the ball from defense to attack. To Poche’s credit, Dembele appeared to drop back into the pivot in the second half as the formation reverted to a 4-2-3-1, and that coincided with a stretch where Spurs started pushing more into Bournemouth’s half.
Pochettino’s substitutions were baffling.
As strange as Tottenham’s starting lineup was, Poche’s substitutions were even stranger. Janssen finally did come into the match in the 62nd minute, but in a like-for-like sub for Sonny, in a match where Erik Lamela was already sitting on a yellow and could’ve picked up a second before halftime. Son’s natural position is off the wing, and his dynamism in the attacking channels might have served Spurs well with Janssen holding up the ball.
Things weren’t made any better ten minutes later when Dele Alli, one of Spurs’ primary goal scoring threats and creative players, was subbed off for a completely ineffective Moussa Sissoko. If you cock your head and squint you can see a situation where Sissoko running at a defense could be an asset, but he’s not especially a great crosser of the ball and isn’t he kind of player who’s likely to drift inside and drag away set defenders.
Janssen, it should be said, didn’t have an especially great match himself, and it’s particularly troubling that the chances he was taking at the beginning of the season seem to have dried up lately. This might be a crisis of confidence, but he certainly wasn’t helped by having two of Spurs’ best goal scorers and runners off the ball taken off before he had a chance to make an impact. Those decisions are on Poche.
Spurs missed Toby Alderweireld’s long passing from the back.
Tottenham’s defense was good. In fact, it was probably the one area where there isn’t too much to complain about: even though they were missing Toby Alderweireld, they still only allowed four shots and one on target, though that one shot from Charlie Daniels took an excellent save from Hugo Lloris to keep out of the net.
When subjected to a midfield press and a high defensive line the way Spurs were, sometimes the best thing you can do is to bypass the midfield entirely and fire a long diagonal ball over their heads for players to run onto. That’s something Alderweireld offers that his replacement, Eric Dier, doesn’t. Also, Toby’s ability to push forward in a quasi-regista role can suck opposition players in and create space in the midfield that Spurs can exploit to set up attacks. It’s not the reason Spurs didn’t get a goal on Saturday, but you wonder if a couple of well-played long balls from deep might have opened things up a little on Saturday.
Dier has capably filled in defensively in Toby’s absence, but as good as he is in the defensive midfield position he doesn’t provide the same sort of dynamism out of the back line that Toby does. Spurs miss Alderweireld, and not just because he defends like Gandalf the Gray facing a balrog.
Let’s give Bournemouth credit for a good match.
While I’ve focused mostly on areas where Spurs fell short, the Cherries played a good game and deserved their point. Eddie Howe set them up well and the executed a game plan that, while 100% different from the one utilized by West Brom the weekend before, was equally as effective.
Christian Eriksen, who had a frustrating match, had comments on Tottenham’s website Sunday that illustrated how difficult it was to get things going against the Cherries, and why they weren’t able to effectively set up the offense:
"[Bournemouth] stayed compact and didn’t let any runners between them. We still had our chances, the balls we played between were dangerous but not dangerous enough. You keep trying and as an offensive player, you always look for that opportunity to create something, but there wasn’t many chances to do that. You have to try to find the right solutions when you are on the ball and if you are under pressure, you play it back, if not you go forward and try to create.
“It was a hard-fought game on every level, in every position. It was a difficult game. We tried to play offensively, tried to go forward but when we lost it they looked long and looked for the counter, so we had to go all the way back and start again. We had to build up again and again - you get tired at the end if you play at the level we both played."
The draw, Tottenham’s third consecutive in all competitions, feels like dropped points, especially when Spurs had the chance to finish the weekend on top of the Premier League. But it’s not the worst result: Spurs are still unbeaten in the Premier League and still haven’t conceded a goal from open play.
While they weren’t helped by poor play and questionable tactics, Spurs now have a chance, assuming most of the starting XI are rested for the EFL Cup match on Tuesday against Liverpool, to recharge their batteries ahead of Sunday’s home match against Leicester. Maybe by then, both Alderweireld and Harry Kane might be ready for a return, too.