Tottenham Hotspur failed to beat West Bromwich Albion in both Premier League matches last season, with Tony Pulis’ rigid defensive shape making it extremely difficult to break them down. Spurs only managed two goals across those encounters; as one came via a long ball from Toby Alderweireld into the path of Dele Alli and the other through an own goal from Craig Dawson.
They struggled yet again at The Hawthorns, with a third consecutive 1-1 draw in the league against their opponents, as former winger Nacer Chadli put the home side ahead and Alli equalised seven minutes later. It’s just one win in their last seven meetings with the Baggies, as Pulis’ narrow back four worked successfully once more.
A variety of systems
Mauricio Pochettino predominately utilised a 4-2-3-1 formation in last term’s title challenge, with the rotation of his full-backs the only frequent change to his starting XI. Spurs direct style and high pressing ensured that they capitalised when teams tried to operate with a high defensive line.
“When I was in Espanyol and Southampton and from the beginning here when we didn’t take a good result there was some comment that it was because we play like this or we don’t have a plan B,” said Pochettino before the match.
“It is important when we are in a project after two years to try to improve the values and concepts and try to play in different ways in different games. Which formation we use depends on the characteristic of the players that we have on the pitch. We can use one or another on a different system. Both are good.”
One of the reasons Spurs were unable to do this in the last 12 months, was a lack of options outside of Harry Kane in attack. Their pursuit of West Brom youngster Saido Berahino seemed to indicate that they were looking for a striker with pace to help with their fast transitions and counter attacks.
However, the purchase of Vincent Janssen this summer has given Spurs a very different set of attributes to one they would have had in Berahino or that they currently enjoy when the injured Kane is available. Janssen may have scored 27 goals in 32 starts for AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie during 2015/16, but his Argentine manager has spotted something else in the forward.
His combination play with his fellow attackers in tight spaces is much better than that of Kane, as the Dutchman boasts a considerably higher pass completion rate than his teammate. Janssen prefers to play with his back to goal and bring others into the game, whereas Kane likes to linger on the shoulder of centre-backs and make runs into the channels.
This shift in formation saw Tottenham use a 4-1-4-1, as they did in the 2-1 victory over Manchester City before the international break. Then, they used Heung-Min Son as a ‘false nine’ to close down the City defenders quickly.
Against West Brom, Janssen led the line and was able to create four chances for the team. He had three shots himself, as one was deflected for a corner off Gareth McAuley at the end of the first half and ballooned another over the bar from outside the area in stoppage time.
In the same fixture last December, Kane received the ball much further away from goal and was frequently given passes (6) from Christian Eriksen. But on this occasion it was left-back Ben Davies that provided more incision into the lone forward, with (10) angled long balls into Janssen’s feet.
“They changed it and played in a different way,” said Pulis after the game. “They were very clever with the way they did it, they stretched us and then got Eriksen, Alli and (Mousa) Dembele into the little pockets at times.”
Pulis was referring to the role of Janssen, who pushed Albion’s defence even deeper and allowed the aforementioned attackers the space in-front of the centre-backs. This was illustrated perfectly by his weighted touch into Erik Lamela inside the opening 10 minutes, but the winger couldn’t quite execute the desired finish.
Janssen also has a good awareness of those running past him, which he showed when he cleverly flicked the ball around his marker into the path of Alli. The England midfielder should have given Spurs the lead but Ben Foster, who was superb throughout, was equal to the attempt once again.
The Spurs’ fans sung Janssen’s name to the tune of Depeche Mode’s ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’, as many supporters now do following Liverpool’s use of the song for Luis Suarez in the past. It didn’t really fit that well and some may draw that conclusion of Janssen should he continue his goal drought in the league.
His statutory approach will inevitably mean he will receive criticism as the campaign progresses, particularly if his return in front of goal remains low. However, Pochettino will likely fend this away and offer the explanation that he occupies defenders and creates opportunities for others.
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“I think he was good, as a striker you always need to score but he had some chances,” admitted Pochettino as FFT asked about his contribution in the post-match press conference. “I’m happy with his performance.”
Spurs were unable to win, but their display showed that they are looking for variety in their attacks and that they have more alternatives to combat those that wish to park the bus. It will take time to apply it more effectively, but Janssen could be crucial to its implementation.
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