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Tactics Brief: Spurs Manufacture Goals in Win Against Southampton

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Spurs won 4-1 without playing their best. If we’re going to finish in the top four again, we’ll need to do that more consistently.

Southampton v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

I wanted to make three notes on the midweek win against Southampton before the weekend arrives and we turn our attention completely toward Watford.

First, Spurs found a way to manufacture four goals.

Here is the xG map from Michael Caley:

Spurs wasted their best chance to score all night: Harry Kane’s second half penalty that he Puncheoned halfway to Bournemouth. The remaining chances we created only totaled 1.3 on xG but we scored four goals from them. That’s obviously an unsustainable return aided by the Finishing Pixie, to borrow Caley’s phrase, but it’s a notable result all the same.

The way those goals were scored is also notable: The first goal came off a deflection and is entirely attributable to Dele’s excellent positional sense and timing, both of which are remarkably developed given his young age.

The second is a set-piece goal, only the third such goal we have scored this season, which places us 19th in the Premier League ahead of only Sunderland, who are yet to score from a set piece this season. Defense-first teams generally need to be able to score more consistently from set pieces so the fact that we got a goal from a corner this week is significant. If Toby ever returns to the lineup and we can again play both Toby and Eric Dier at the same time, our set piece threat will improve considerably.

The third and fourth goals came against ten men and came late in the game, but both were encouraging for a simple reason. Here is the first goal:

Note how quickly this goal happens. Spurs win the ball inside their own third. They make one pass to get the ball to Eriksen. The second pass is Eriksen’s (deflected) pass to Son Heung-Min, who then scores the goal.

It takes ten seconds from the time Spurs win possession to when the ball goes into the net. This is the kind of direct attacking we did often last season and have seen far less frequently this year.

Now here’s the second goal:

It’s the same thing again. Win the ball. Immediately move it vertically. From the time the ball is won till it goes in the net: 12 seconds. And this goal only involved two players: Danny Rose, who won the ball, ran vertically with it for probably 50 yards, and then made the pass, and Dele, who scored the goal.

This kind of direct style is foundational to our attack. If it is working properly, the offensive numbers should start to improve.

Second, the press looked better than it has in a long time.

Here’s one selection:

Note how quickly the team responds to the pressing cues.

First, at 31:53 the ball is played into the feet of a player facing his own goal. Victor Wanyama quickly moves to the ball and forces a quick backward pass.

Second, at 31:55 the ball is played forward into space down the wing. Wanyama chases from behind, Dier steps up from the right sided center half position, and Southampton attacker Steven Davis is squeezed off the ball, forcing a Tottenham throw-in.

The stats tell a similar story. Southampton completed only 219 passes out of 312 attempted—a 70% success rate. To be clear, that’s not too unusual for Tottenham opponents this season. Manchester United had an even worse completion rate when they beat us at Old Trafford. But it does suggest that even when on the road Spurs are forcing teams to play the ball quickly and that the opposition are generally having to play lower percentage passes as a result.

Where you really saw how disruptive Spurs were is when you compare Southampton’s passing against Spurs to their performance in their other home fixtures this season:

Southampton Home Passing

Opponent Passes Completed Passes Attempted Pass %
Opponent Passes Completed Passes Attempted Pass %
Watford 494 577 85.62%
Sunderland 386 474 81.43%
Swansea 362 435 83.22%
Burnley 465 543 85.64%
Chelsea 403 479 84.13%
Liverpool 238 357 66.67%
Everton 360 451 79.82%
Middlesborough 392 505 77.62%
Tottenham 219 312 70.19%

Only two opponents this season have limited Southampton to fewer than 400 passes at home and a 70% completion rate or lower: Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Tottenham.

There are other encouraging signs as well. Here are the tackles Spurs made against Southampton, attacking left to right.

When Spurs are squeezing the ball well, you see a lot of defensive actions on the flanks because pressing when the ball is in wide areas is especially effective

What is happening in most of those situations is Southampton is trying to build the attack but they get swarmed on the wing, forced to make a quick pass inside and the pressure forces an error of some sort leading to Tottenham winning possession back.

Mousa Sissoko looked good!

Sissoko’s performance is also worth noting. After a woeful start to life in north London, the French winger has looked sharper in recent weeks. To be sure, his role in the opening goal is largely luck—his cross takes a kind deflection of Nathan Redmond that Dele manages to head into the back of the net. That said, he was generally more active and looked to be pushing the ball forward more effectively than he has in most of his performances.

To compare, let’s look at Sissoko’s nadir at Spurs, the invisible performance he turned in against West Brom, and then at his performance against Southampton. Here is his passing against West Brom:

Of 24 passes, only six are forward. Of the six forward passes, only three are complted. The three he completed? Two are in the midfield third. The third is in the attacking third but covers all of five or six yards.

Now here is the same chart from Southampton:

He’s attempted over 50% more passes in this game, which simply means that he is being much more active going forward. He’s showing for the ball, making runs, and linking up with teammates. (Note how many more short passes he is playing on the flanks, suggesting a closer relationship with the attacking fullbacks.)

He is also pushing the ball forward more regularly. I think I count 16 forward passes here, which means he’s pushing the ball forward more often as well. Most notably, he made the pass that set Dele through on goal and led to the penalty and Redmond red card.

To be sure, part of the issue here is that West Brom defended with, literally, 10 guys behind the ball for most of that game and a player like Sissoko is uniquely unsuited to such a match. He’s a vertical runner most comfortable playing on the counter, running into space.

That said, Spurs still had high possession numbers against Southampton, forced the Saints to defend deep, and had to break down a packed-in opponent. And Sissoko managed to be much more involved. With Erik Lamela injured and Josh Onomah struggling to take the next step in his development, it is quite encouraging to see Sissoko finally beginning to perform. Spurs will need more from him if they are going to chase a top four finish.