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Tactics Tuesday: What the hell happened on Chelsea’s winner anyway?

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Kevin Wimmer isn’t the first player to blame. He probably isn’t even the second.

Tottenham Hotspur v Fiorentina - UEFA Europa League Round of 32: Second Leg Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Pedro’s opening goal for Chelsea at the weekend is hard to get too terribly worked up over. Sure, you could nitpick a bit and say that center back Eric Dier ought to have closed on Pedro when he received the ball, but Dier’s decision to stay off of him is defensible given the rest of what was going on in the game. Ultimately, the opening goal was all about Pedro’s class. It’s a world-class curling finish from outside the box. You can’t get too upset about conceding a goal of that sort.

Chelsea’s winner was a systemic failure for Spurs.

Chelsea’s winner, of course, is a different story. The screen cap below shows the state of Spurs’ defense seconds before the goal:

moses-space-spurs-defense

A few things stand out about the goal:

  • Kevin Wimmer, the theoretical left back, is all the way on the right side of the field, basically level vertically with left center back Jan Vertonghen.
  • Eric Dier is standing in no man’s land—he didn’t track Costa and he didn’t move into the passing lane to deny the cross.
  • Left wing Son Heung-Min is nowhere to be seen.
  • Right back Kyle Walker is nowhere to be seen.
  • Chelsea only have four players in the box while Sprus have six defending (Mousa Dembele is blocked from view by Wimmer and Vertonghen).

We’re going to break down each of these points one-by-one.

Is the goal Wimmer’s fault?

To answer this question, we need to see the whole goal from beginning to end:

At the start of this sequence, Wimmer is sprinting hard to get back in time to mark Pedro as he runs down Chelsea’s right attacking channel. The reason he gets pulled so far inside is that Pedro (smartly, seeing how Spurs were defending him) decides to crash in at the near post rather than the far post. This pulls Wimmer all the way onto the right side of the field, leaving the far post completely open.

So, then, it’s Wimmer’s fault, right? He should stop tracking Pedro as he crosses into the center of the pitch and leave him for Vertonghen, right?

Well, theoretically yes. But when exactly is he supposed to do that? The goal comes at around 50:52. The last time Vertonghen looks back to check Pedro is 50:41. For the last 10 seconds before the goal, Vertonghen never once looks back to find Pedro or signal to Wimmer that he can hand off Pedro and move to mark the far post.

Chelsea FC v FC Porto - UEFA Champions League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

To be sure, you can knock Wimmer for his positioning relative to Pedro. Being on Pedro’s far side, the only thing he’ll be able to do should the ball come to Pedro is make a desperate challenge that may well end in a penalty for Chelsea. So, sure, you can blame Wimmer for being the wrong side of Pedro.

But that is also largely down to Pedro’s intelligent run. It’s not clear to me how Wimmer could get right side of Pedro. What ought to have happened is that as Pedro moved out of the channel and into the center Vertonghen would pick him up and Wimmer would move to mark the far post. But Vertonghen never gives Wimmer an obvious cue to make the switch and so Wimmer stays with Pedro for fear of leaving him completely unmarked inside the six-yard box.

So you’re saying the goal is Vertonghen’s fault?

Actually, that isn’t entirely fair either. The truth is the extremely narrow shape the defense has in the key moments before the goal is not necessarily bad. Teams use a very narrow, compact shape to defend all the time. Spurs themselves have done it in the past.

Leaving tons of space undefended isn’t a problem if you prevent the ball from getting played into that space in the first place. Undefended space only matters if the ball is successfully played into that space. Deny the passing lane and you don’t need to worry about leaving tons of space for players to run into.

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

The issue here is that Spurs didn’t cut off the passing lane.

But how does that end up happening? Well, watch the goal again. Dembele is tracking Costa the whole time and successfully denies him the chance to cut inside and forces him to the byline. Moose does his job.

But as Moose tracks Costa, a couple things need to happen: Dier needs to track Costa as well from about a yard behind Moose in order to cut off the passing lane and needs to follow him all the way to the touch line so that if Costa does get the cross past Moose, Dier can put the ball out for a corner or perhaps even control the ball and pass it out, given the lack of Chelsea players around him. But look where Dier is as the ball is crossed:

dier-position-moses-goal

If you review the GIF above you’ll see the problem clearly: Dier simply stops running once he gets to the edge of the six-yard box. Costa continues his run. Dembele follows him and tries to block the cross. Vertonghen and Wimmer both end up trying to cover Pedro at the near post. Dier does... basically nothing. Because Dier doesn’t track Costa all the way, Vertonghen has to shift down toward the end line to try and cut off the passing lane. And because Vertonghen has to do that, Wimmer has to track Pedro.

Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to Rio Ferdinand as he’s watching the goal: The one player he singles out is Eric Dier.

Why blame Dier? What are Walker and Son doing on the wings?

You could ask why Walker isn’t in the frame here on the right flank and why Son isn’t anywhere to be seen on the left. That said, it’s hard to blame either of them for the goal.

First off, in the build up to the goal, Spurs have five players defending three Chelsea attackers. The problem here has nothing to do with Spurs needing more numbers back. Tottenham had plenty of players back defending.

Second, Walker cannot sprint every minute of every game. He has to manage his work so that he can play the most demanding position in Pochettino’s system for a full 90+ minutes.

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Third, Son’s role in Spurs’ attack is distinct and unlike that of Christian Eriksen or Erik Lamela, who were the wide players in last year’s best XI. Son is most regularly used as an inside forward making runs down the channels and looking for short passes from the number 10 and the center forward.

To borrow the phrasing Caley used in the writer’s room, Son is detached from the back four in a way that Eriksen and Lamela usually are not. He’s not expected to do the same kind of defensive work that Lamela and Eriksen routinely do—which is why in-form Son scores more goals than either Lamela or Eriksen but is also why our pressing is not as effective with Son as it is with Lamela or Eriksen.

The problem here is not with either Walker or Son.

This reallly wasn’t a 3-4-3 problem. It was more basic.

One of the problems teams often run into when playing a 3-4-3 is that it is difficult to cope with the numbers that the opposition can push forward into attack. When surging forward, a team playing that system can have two wide players in the attacking third, two inside forwards playing off the striker, and the striker. If you add a late run from a midfielder, you might have as many as six players pushed into the attacking third. This creates obvious challenges for the team looking to defend such an attack.

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

But in this case, that’s not the issue. Hazard checks his run and drifts into a wide area for Costa to recycle the ball if needed. So he isn’t a factor on the goal. N’Golo Kante is trying to make a late run, but is behind the play by some distance. He’s not a huge problem. Pedro has crashed in at the near post and needs to be marked. Victor Moses is making a run down Spurs’ left flank and needs to be marked. But Pedro and Moses are the only problems here for Spurs thanks to Dembele’s tracking of Costa.

Conclusion

Blaming Moses’s goal on Kevin Wimmer is easy. The goal came from a wide right attacker. Wimmer is the left back. That’s all you need, right?

Well, no. When you watch the entire goal from beginning to end you realize the problem is more complicated. The Dembele giveaway happens in an inopportune position. Walker is caught well-up field and can’t reasonably be expected to get back in time. Dier doesn’t follow the ball all the way to the end line. Vertonghen doesn’t signal to Wimmer that he can drop off Pedro and mark the far post. Wimmer never gets right side of Pedro.

What we have, then, is not a goal with a single responsible party, but instead a cascading series of errors with the gravest offense being committed by Dier, who simply stops running as Costa dribbles to the touch line. Next in line is Vertonghen, who fails to track Pedro and let Wimmer know when he can drop off to the far post. If you really want to nitpick, you can ding Dembele for the initial turnover and Wimmer for being wrong side of Pedro. But the biggest culprits on this goal are our two center backs.

Moral of the story: Replacing the best center half in England ain’t easy. Toby Alderweireld is a huge miss at the heart of Tottenham’s defense.