Focus: Spurs' stodgy square play to contrast with Everton's improved directness
Claustrophobic tiki-taka tactics and disjointed passing lines characterised both Tottenham Hotspur and Everton last season, but it would seem that this campaign their paths have diverged. While Roberto Martinez has quietly integrated a plan to dismantle the restrictive cage, stilted creativity remains a dominant hallmark at White Hart Lane.
Tottenham’s reliance on Christian Eriksen was proven by his absence last weekend. Without his flitting movement and yo-yo interplay from attacking midfield, Tottenham’s central midfield struggled to transition the ball into the final third. Eriksen often drops deep to make meaningful passes and sow the lines together, but against Leicester the gap between Ryan Mason and the front four was far too large to connect with a pass.
Key to this issue is Mason’s static positional play, and the lack of box-to-box midfielder in this Tottenham team. Coupled with the cautiousness of the wingers (Moussa Dembele’s 90.5% pass accuracy and Nacir Chadli’s 87.5% is too high for creative players), this often leads to an attacking rigidity and aimless square passing (0.3 through-ball key passes per match). Eriksen isn't fit to play against Everton, but his flitting movement alone would not have been enough to solve this creativity issue anyhow.
This absence of directness, risk taking and box-to-box movement are precisely the attributes added to Everton’s midfield this season. Ross Barkley is excelling in a deeper role, providing a penetrative element to central midfield that helps transition the ball into the final third with greater urgency.
Tom Cleverley’s influence from right wing has been more subtle, but equally important. Mirroring his role under Tim Sherwood at Aston Villa, Cleverley swings in an arc movement from central midfield to right wing, using his superb positioning skills and off-the-ball movement to alternate between drifting into the channels, darting infield to link the lines, and joining the forwards in a No.10 role. The intelligence of his interplay allows full-back Seamus Coleman to maraud forward with greater urgency while injecting purposeful energy into midfield – and thus making Everton’s short-passing philosophy more fluid.
This contest should offer an intriguing insight into the extent of Spurs' creative deficiencies and Everton’s new directness. Mauricio Pochettino may learn a valuable tactical lesson from his opposite number.