Ever since his arrival at Spurs, Mauricio Pochettino has expected a certain versatility from his players. At first, this was a function of his high-pressing 4-2-3-1 style. Center backs needed to be good with the ball so that they could play out from the back and athletic enough to play a high defensive line. Fullbacks needed to have enough pace and athleticism to be de facto wingers and cover normal defensive responsibilities for a fullback. The attacking four needed to have boundless energy, positional smarts, and normal attacking qualities. Midfield had to cover ground defensively, tick over possession, and contribute to the attack while also linking defense and the attacking third. All of these roles, then, require players who have broader skills than is common.
In more recent years, he has required this versatility as a matter of necessity: In his third season, the team had to find a system to accommodate the extended absence of Mousa Dembele as well as the limitations of Victor Wanyama. They shifted to a 3-5-2, which worked because of the flexibility of Eric Dier, Jan Vertonghen, and Toby Alderweireld as well as Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen.
In the last two seasons, this flexibility has been even more in demand as Harry Kane has faced long absences in each season and Dembele’s powers have waned before he departed the club in January.
That said, the degree of flexibility demanded of the players has often exceeded their actual ability and this has forced Pochettino to evolve as a manager, figuring out ways to further tailor the system to his personnel.
Doing this well is, of course, extremely difficult—particularly when you are depending on some fairly limited players, as Spurs are this season. Finding a system that maximizes the strengths and minimizes the weaknesses of some Tottenham players is a tall order. And sometimes Pochettino gets it badly wrong.
The opening half hour of the first leg against Ajax is an example. Tottenham set up in a 3-4-3 system, a low bank, and Fernando Llorente up top. The plan was to sit deep, absorb pressure, and counter through Llorente. But it didn’t work because there was no linking player in midfield and the distance between Llorente and the rest of the team was too large. If Llorente won the ball, no one was there to link. If they played the ball over Llorente’s head for him to chase, he wasn’t up to it because he is a 34-year-old target man who hasn’t been able to run ever since Marcelo Bielsa destroyed him during his time at Athletic Bilbao. It was only after the injury to Vertonghen and the introduction of Moussa Sissoko that Tottenham began to gel and assert themselves, but then Sissoko is the sort of midfield runner that can link up play in the way that was required.
That being said, when Pochettino makes the right adjustments, the results are dramatic. And that brings us to this week’s semifinal second leg and how Fernando Llorente is the reason Spurs are in the Champions League final.
Use these two charts from Michael Caley to compare the expected goals maps for the first and second halves:
second half xG map for Ajax - Tottenham— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) May 8, 2019
Ziyech had a chance from the spot to put it away. But Spurs played an absolutely unreal 50 minutes of football to get to the final. pic.twitter.com/W6oDMTWcxo
Why was the second half so different? Some of it, no doubt, is because Spurs were chasing the game and Ajax was trying to hold on. But a far larger portion of the credit should go to Llorente, who came on at halftime for Victor Wanyama.
In the first leg against Ajax, Llorente struggled because the distance between him and Tottenham’s runners was too great for his holdup play to make any difference. But in the second half in Amsterdam with Spurs surging forward and the trio of Lucas, Dele, and Son buzzing around him, Llorente became the focal point of the Tottenham attack.
The most obvious place you can see this is on the winning goal from Lucas in stoppage time:
But that was hardly the only time the big Spaniard contributed in that way. In fact, according to Squawka Llorente won 13 out of 17 aerial duels in the second half:
Fernando Llorente won 13 out of his 17 aerial duels against Ajax, the most in a #UCL knockout game this season and second-most in any game in the 2018-19 competition.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 8, 2019
He was only on the pitch for the second half. pic.twitter.com/mHB9MEgx8R
This was massive because it did two huge things for Spurs.
First, as already mentioned, Llorente’s ability to hold up play provided a platform for Son, Lucas, and Dele to influence the game. All three of Tottenham’s other primary attackers on the pitch in yesterday’s second half love to run at the opposition with the ball at their feet and play quick pass-and-move football with their fellow attackers. But for that style to be most effective, it needs a hold-up man that can be the focal point for the attack and serve as the hub that the runners play off of. When Harry Kane is fit, he does that and much more. Llorente, unfortunately, is very limited and does not offer much else. But in the second half that was all that Spurs required. It was Llorente’s knockdowns that frequently set up the other attackers for great chances.
But the other aspect to consider is how Llorente’s presence occupied Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt. The 19-year-old Ajax skipper is already a world-class defender and one of his greatest strengths is his ability in the air. Tottenham’s vaunted air raid attack never got going in the first half in large part because you can’t run an air raid against de Ligt when your two strikers are Lucas and Son. But with Llorente on the pitch, he could win headers against de Ligt and take the Dutch national out of the play at the same time.
There cannot be any doubt that this has been Pochettino’s best season at Spurs. It is, arguably, the thinnest squad he has ever had. But, and this is perhaps the greatest proof of Pochettino’s genius, he has taken that limitation and actually found ways to build his team around the strengths of his most limited personnel. Early in the season he made Kieran Trippier the primary progression option for Spurs attack. By mid-season he had hit on a system that made Moussa Sissoko the linchpin of the Tottenham midfield. And now in the season’s dying days he has found ways to make Fernando Llorente the focal point of a potent Spurs attack.
Certainly, no Spurs fan wants Pochettino to have to perform at this level. I think all of us would have rather the team signed a few players last summer and, you know, actually had a midfield this season. But, once again, Pochettino has proven himself a master of working with the resources made available to him. And while he has already established himself as one of the finest managers in the world, he may well be on his way to sitting next to Bill Nicholson in Tottenham Hotspur history. Indeed, depending on what happens on June 1 he may be only mere weeks away from surpassing the great Bill Nick.