In the aftermath of Tottenham Hotspur’s FA Cup semifinal loss to Chelsea, most fans were left scratching their heads over Mauricio Pochettino’s starting lineup, and specifically the choice to start Son Heung-Min at left back over Ben Davies.
The assumption was that Davies picked up a knock just before the match, and starting Sonny there was Pochettino making the most out of a bad situation. In fact, that line of thinking likely originated with Sky journalist Lyall Thomas, who stated such on Twitter before the match.
Ben Davies has a knock and Danny Rose is not yet fit. https://t.co/EDG7f82HVy— Lyall Thomas (@SkySportsLyall) April 22, 2017
Except that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Mauricio Pochettino, in a press conference ahead of tomorrow’s match against Crystal Palace, said that the decision was tactical, and designed to give Davies a rest.
“Ben is ok, it's true that during three months he played a lot of games and sometimes you need to rest some players but I think the team played well.
Son played in a position we tried to be more offensive, we tried to stop in different ways, not wait for Moses, push him to play in the back five. I think he made a very good job and when you lose of course you need to find and try to improve. I think the decision was to be more offensive and try to play in a way to win the game always. We'll see tomorrow, Ben is ok, he needed to rest a little bit.”
Perhaps no player on Tottenham’s side has worked harder than Ben Davies. Danny Rose has been out injured for three months now, and since then Davies has started virtually every match as his replacement. That’s good for Ben’s playing time, but considering that Pochettino liked to regularly rotate his fullbacks last season, it’s a lot of miles on the legs. I have no doubt at all that Davies needed a rest, especially with Crystal Palace coming up on Wednesday.
You can see the rationale for Pochettino starting Son Heung-Min as his replacement, too. Pochettino clearly decided playing three at the back was the best way to defeat Chelsea, but with Davies apparently knackered and Rose still out, sticking Son on the flank was a calculated gamble.
Sonny isn’t a natural defender. However, he is adept at running at defenders and in theory could effectively function as another wide attacker, ideally keeping Victor Moses pegged back. It seems likely Pochettino thought the back three could help mitigate Sonny’s lack of defensive efficacy and that the extra offense provided by Son moving forward as a wing back might swing the match into Spurs’ favor. Starting Son there also gets Sonny on the pitch with Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen, something that otherwise wouldn’t happen with a back three.
Spurs played very well overall against Chelsea, controlling possession and turning Chelsea into a counterattacking team. Unfortunately, two of Chelsea’s goals came from defensive miscues, one of which was directly caused by Sonny making a horrible sliding challenge and gifting a penalty to the Blues.
Apart from playing a tired Davies, Pochettino didn’t have a whole lot of options. Apart from reverting to a 4-2-3-1 and shunting Jan Vertonghen to left back, Poch basically either needed to tell Davies to suck it up and play, bring Kevin Wimmer into central defense (again, moving Jan wide), or stick a winger at wing back and roll the dice. You can perhaps argue that Georges-Kevin N’Koudou might have made a better alternative, but Poch clearly doesn’t yet trust GKN for more than a relief role. (If only we still had Nabil Bentaleb!)
Sonny at wingback had the potential for a big upside, and in fact this might have been a better option against a side further down the table. Against Chelsea, it backfired, because Chelsea is a fantastic team who are extremely good at running at defenders and taking advantage of defensive weaknesses. I don’t have a problem necessarily with Pochettino gambling in this way for an FA Cup semifinal. Sometimes the bets just don’t pay out.