In the hours and days that have followed the enthralling encounter with Spurs, one pertinent question remains -how did we lose the game?
Professional and amateur experts have suggested a number of different reasons, but I feel that no one has really focused on the basic problem which allowed Spurs to turn the game around and win in the dying moments of the game.
While some experts suggested that missed scoring opportunities and poor defending was the cause of our demise, this still fails to focus on the main problem. In this article, I will provide the potential solution for a game that was there for our taking. Let’s take a closer view…
The game began at a frenetic pace, and continued in this manner for most of the match.
While we played most of the game with less overall possession (33%), we made better use of the ball, with strong running and creative movement. It appeared that we began with a 3-5-2 formation, (although one may have been given the impression that a 3-4-3 was employed due, in part, to Andre Ayew’s difficulty in settling into a specific role).
Spurs wasted a lot of possession by pushing the ball up and down the flanks, in addition to stereotyped square passing. After a series of attacks and counter-attacks, we took the lead in the 24th minute, via a swinging Payet corner that eventually led to Michail Antonio superbly heading home. This added to his tally of five previous headed goals this season. He seems to be very comfortable as a make-shift striker.
Spurs picked up strongly in the remaining 15 minutes of the half, but we were good quality for our half-time lead.
Spurs began the 2nd half with improved vigour, and were able to equalise in the 51st minute. However, this didn’t seriously dent our strong, creative, counter-attacking play, once again, looking like the side which started the game in such fine style.
After 60 minutes, Slaven Bilic brought Simone Zaza on for a tiring, yet impressive, Diafra Sakho, together with Edmilson Fernandes for Andre Ayew, who never managed to get himself seriously involved in play. In the 68th minute, Lanzini sent goalkeeper Lloris the wrong way from the spot to restore our advantage.
Then, to the surprise of many, Bilic made a drastic alteration to the formation, deciding on a park the bus 5-4-1 set-up. In a post-match media conference, Bilic admitted that at this point of the game we could have hung on to the lead or added a third goal to put the game to bed. The choice of the 5-4-1 formation suggested that he favoured the former alternative.
However, the formation seriously failed for two reasons. The less important factor related to the premature timing of the change. But the most relevant factor was the inability to implement the correct use of this strategy. For some reason the midfield players all moved to very wide positions, creating an enormous central vacant square in the middle of the park (below)…
In addition, Simone Zaza remained far too deep, leaving himself isolated from the rest of the team. So in addition to the creation of this massive central vacuum, we were suddenly left, in effect, with nine outfield players. The Spurs players did not need a formal invitation, as they took control of possession, leading to relentless attack upon attack.
Our few attempts to counter-attack were totally futile, with long-balls being returned straight back into the hands of our marauding opponents. The collapse in formation also led to a sudden lack in player confidence, exemplified by Lanzini running the ball into touch as a means of eating up precious time.
Sadly, it never should have ended this way. An effective tweaking of the original formation (above), allowing Obiang to replace Antonio in the right wing-back position, with Fernandes, Payet and Antonio all adopting central midfield roles, may have improved the probability of scoring the all-important 3rd goal, while at the same time diminishing any chances of Spurs equalising.
This was a game in which we played very well, deserving all three points, except for the unexpected lapse in thinking from Slaven Bilic. This was a good lesson for any young enthusiastic manager to learn.