It was a near-perfect weekend for Tottenham Hotspur after they dispatched West Ham in a home London derby. In the race for top 4, Tottenham benefitted from losses by Newcastle, Brighton and even Chelsea — who, despite their record, still have the ability to go on a strong run of form. There have been countless times in the past where Spurs have had a lot go their way only for them to be the architects of their own demise. Against West Ham, a side that recently found a decent run of form thanks to a new, solid defensive shape, Spurs faced a tricky opposition that has been known to up their game against Lilywhites in the past.
Without Antonio Conte at the helm, it was once again Cristian Stellini in charge of the side as he looked to right the ship after a midweek loss in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16. Stellini opted to rest Son Heung-min and Ivan Perišić down the left-hand side while also going with Emerson Royal at right wingback, a position of never-ending debate and speculation. The match started off extremely cagey, but an uptick in progression and aggression in the second half led to a number of good chances for the home side. In the end, it was a meaningful three points as Spurs jumped the Magpies into fourth place while also thwarting any chance of a letdown performance. Outside of Emerson’s continued good run of form, let’s discuss three takeaways that caught my eye from the performance.
The midfield duo of Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg
All season long, Tottenham’s primary midfield duo has featured Højbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur. In large part due to the way Conte has wanted his side to operate, the duo has often been overrun and has lost second balls due to their being outnumbered in midfield. Out of the two, Bentancur has been the more creative option while Højbjerg has played more as a clean-up player by reading and breaking up play.
In Milan, with Højbjerg being suspended for the match and Bentancur out for an extended period of time, Spurs went with Skipp and Pape Matar Sarr in the Champions League. The performance of the squad was pretty poor, but the midfield duo were the primary bright spots as the moment and spotlight did not seem to be too big for either of them. On Sunday against West Ham, Stellini went with Skipp over Sarr on Sunday, perhaps because Skipp was the more experienced of the two. Paired with Hojbjerg, Skipp played in Højbjerg’s traditional role whereas the Dane became more advanced.
We have seen in Danish national games that Højbjerg can be a more progressive number eight. However at Spurs, he has mainly played as a number six. I had my concerns about Skipp’s selection in large part due to me thinking more creativity was going to be needed against West Ham who were likely to set up compactly in order to frustrate Spurs.
The game state allowed for Skipp to have a really good performance as he was a nuisance in the middle of the park against West Ham’s midfield strength. Skipp has some of the best natural defensive midfielder capabilities in the squad and he was pretty exceptional in the match, giving license for Højbjerg to play a bit more up the pitch. The most important sequence of the game was Højbjerg being given the onus to move the ball up the pitch, which led to a defense-opening pass to Ben Davies. Davies then took out two defenders before a putting a final ball to Emerson who opened the scoring for Spurs.
The selection of Richarlison over Son
It has not been the best season for the South Korean superstar. I find it not surprising at all that Son’s poor campaign has coincided with Conte and his staff wanting Harry Kane to operate as more of a traditional number nine. In comparison to seasons past, Kane has not dropped deeper in space to quarterback and carry out attacking patterns to nearly the same extent. Kane’s ability to read defenses and link up play and find Son in space has been so huge for the South Korean. It has resulted in more responsibility on Son to carry out demands within the attacking third. Because of this, he has had to play in a role that is more back to goal and playing within tight areas.
Before getting into Richarlison, we can quickly talk about Son’s goal because it was a classic Kane/Son linkup. Kane performed the dirty work and won an individual duel against Angelo Ogbonna. Almost instantly, Kane found Son in stride making a run behind the defense. From there, it was just about Son’s touch into his stride and then his finish. I have driven this point home a ton on here before but when one simplifies the game for Son, he thrives.
The decision to select Richarlison over Son in the starting XI also made a lot of sense. In fact, it could be argued that the Brazilian should have been starting over Son much sooner than now. Richarlison has been something of a failure to launch this season, but his preseason expectations have not survived his unfortunate injury luck. His lack of game time showed in this match — Richarlison looked uncomfortable in the role, often giving the ball away and looking a little off the pace in the squad’s automations. That said, you could see evidence of the dynamism he can bring to this side.
It should be mentioned that playing Richarlison alongside Davies as wingback may not have worked as well because neither have much experience inverting or overlapping one another, but even so there were opportunities for Richarlison in this one. Perhaps their best opportunity of the second half before the goals was ultimately a tame effort from Richarlison that he should have definitely done better with. I am not sure how Stellini/Conte will handle the decision on whether to select Son or Richarlison. A lot should depend on game state and squad assessment match by match.
Sign of things to come or an overreaction due to opponent?
I touched earlier upon how West Ham came into the match in a decent run of form after solidifying their defense in a new shape. However, outside of an early chance from Jarrod Bowen and some moments of individuality from the former Hull City player throughout the match, the Hammers were pretty toothless and looked to be playing for a goalless draw before Spurs went ahead.
A lot was made by punditry after the match that sometimes you just never know which Tottenham are going to show up. After beating Man City 1-0 two weeks ago, they came out and completely laid an egg on the road 4-1 at Leicester. While I understand the sentiment, I think the opponent was really poor and Spurs did not have to work all that hard to capture the points.
Sunday’s match is of course a positive considering the result as well as an opportunity to refocus. Remember that Spurs, despite their inconsistencies, still have a lot to fight for this season. However, more consistency will be needed in the business end of the season. Results like this one are ones where Spurs need to win in order to stay in the race for top 4, while also fighting on other fronts. As shown in the tail-end of last season, this squad can be a handful when they are operating at their best. A clean sheet and a derby win at home should push Spurs on down the stretch. The key word, of course, being ‘should’.
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