Tottenham Hotspur’s bid for Premier League glory took a dent on Sunday as they lost by three goals at home to London rivals West Ham. 3-0 seems like a fairly emphatic scoreline, and if one glanced at the result without watching the match they could be forgiven for thinking that it was a match dominated by the Hammers. The fact that it wasn’t should send a few alarm bells reverberating around Andre Villas-Boas’ head as the Premiership takes a break for a couple of weeks.
The reason why AVB should be concerned about this result is not just because it signifies a loss of three points that would have put Spurs joint top, but because Tottenham enjoyed the lions share of possession, had more shots and chances than West Ham, yet still lost by three goals.
Sam Allardyce must be credited with setting his team up in such a way as to make life very difficult for the North London club. Allardyce employed the ‘false nine’ strategy which has become increasingly prevalent in modern football and it proved highly effective. Ostensibly, a team that plays with a ‘false nine’ omits a striker from the starting line-up, and basically plays 6 in midfield. The benefits of this tactic are far ranging, but the two main reasons why teams use it are:
- To win the midfield battle by outnumbering the opposition in the middle of the park. The 6 midfielders form a wall that is very difficult to overcome.
- To confuse the opposition’s defence. Not having a striker means that the opposing teams central defenders are not sure who to mark. When a team plays with a traditional striker, the central defenders are able to easily identify who to pick up, but with the ‘false nine’ tactic, there could be several players that need picking up.
The false nine tactic worked perfectly for Allardyce at White Hart Lane, and faced with a wall of sometimes 10 or 11 players behind the ball, Spurs were not able to capitalise on the possession they enjoyed. What will be concerning for Spurs fans is that Allardyce has ultimately shown other sides how to go and play at Tottenham – flood the midfield and cut down the space in which Tottenham’s gifted midfielders (Paulinho, Eriksen and Dembele) can operate in.
Unfortunately for Spurs, once they had run out of ideas, there was a late rally from West Ham, helped in no small part by a combination of calamitous defending and almost laughable good fortune for the men in claret and blue. However, when you’ve failed to convert your dominance into goals by the 66th minute, there is always a chance that your opponent could nick a result, and that’s why it’s so important to ensure that your dominance results in goals, something that Spurs failed to do on Sunday.
Considering Tottenham’s elevated status this season, plenty of teams will be headed to White Hart Lane happy to leave with a point, and as such there will be plenty of teams operating in the same manner that West Ham did. The challenge for AVB will be to effectively counteract these sort of space-starving tactics and assert their superiority on the game in a way that they singularly failed to on Sunday.
Ultimately it seems that the way in which to counteract this sort of tactic is to look for space in other areas. The one player who seemed to be getting some joy for Spurs was Andros Townsend on the flank, but as the only wide player his threat was often snuffed out with defenders doubling up on him. It may have been prudent from Villas-Boas to introduce Nacer Chadli, as the Belgian would have been able to double the threat on the flanks and stretch the West Ham midfield. Instead the three players introduced by the Portuguese were Holtby, Lamela and Soldado; three players who do their best work in the middle (although Holtby and Lamela can operate out wide).
To speak plainly, Allardyce had clearly studied Tottenham and come up with a plan designed to highlight their weaknesses out wide. Spurs must now try to work out how they can counteract this particular tactic, but when thinking about how he can add extra width to his team, AVB must be now be acutely aware that there isn’t a great deal of natural width in his side. Townsend has been a breath of fresh air and has made the right flank his own, but Nacer Chadli has failed to make a real impact so far and Aaron Lennon has been injured for quite some time. Eriksen, Holtby, Lamela and Dembele are all better through the middle, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the manager dipped into the transfer market for another winger in January.
When your wingers fail to add the requisite width, there is a tendency to look at your fullbacks, and when Danny Rose is fit again, AVB may look at adding width to his Spurs side via Rose and Walker, with perhaps a third centre back slotting into the middle to add defensive protection. Whatever he does, it is imperative that Tottenham come up with a plan B, as now that Allardyce has exposed the weaknesses of their plan A, it seems likely that a few more teams will head to White Hart Lane with stifling the opposition their number one priority.