Tottenham’s Defense Reaches New Heights

Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; MLS All Stars forward Clint Dempsey (2) of the Seattle Sounders FC and Tottenham Hotspur defender Toby Alderweireld (4) battle for the ball during the first half of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick
Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; MLS All Stars forward Clint Dempsey (2) of the Seattle Sounders FC and Tottenham Hotspur defender Toby Alderweireld (4) battle for the ball during the first half of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick /

Tottenham’s defense was never going to have any easy job of it Saturday. They were tasked with stopping one of the most potent offenses in the Premier League, one led by none other than Sergio Agüero. The Manchester City striker was utterly prolific last term, scoring 26 goals in 33 appearances – five of which were scored against Tottenham. Containing City began and ended with keeping Agüero off the scoresheet.

Tottenham’s defense went about doing that in two key ways.

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One: they controlled where Agüero received the ball. Per FourFourTwo’s Statszone, the Argentine received the ball as the result of a pass from a teammate 26 times. Only four of those passes arrived to Agüero when he was inside Tottenham’s penalty area, and none of those passes resulted in a successful shot.

That kind multi-dimensional defending – cutting off not only the shot-taker, but also the shot-maker – has been a vital component of Tottenham’s defensive efforts this season. Eric Dier has come to be the embodiment of this tactical evolution, though on Saturday his central midfield partner Dele Alli actually turned in a master-class of his own, completing seven tackles and five interceptions in his efforts to contain City’s midfield attackers.

Two: they either kept Agüero himself contained. That is typically easier said than done. Agüero is especially talented with finding and exploiting gaps in the defense for either himself or his teammates, so man-marking him – thus pulling the defense out of shape – could actually be counter-productive. Tottenham’s centre-back pair of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld instead coordinated their efforts to press Agüero, pushing him away from goal and especially out of the penalty area without compromising too much rigidity. When he did find himself with the ball in the area, he was marked tight enough that four of his shots were blocked before they could ever bother Hugo Lloris. His one successful shot on target can from well outside the penalty area.

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City have other threats besides Agüero of course, and on Saturday they were also corralled by Tottenham. The full-backs defended the flanks well and mostly kept Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne from getting into dangerous positions. They were assisted in those efforts by some heroic tracking back of both Christian Eriksen and Érik Lamela, who each recorded five tackles as they helped neutralize City’s wide threat. Dier and Alli checked Yaya Toure’s influence over proceedings through the middle of the pitch.

It was a genuinely impressive holistic defensive performance of a sort that is quickly becoming Tottenham’s trademark style. Last season taught Mauricio Pochettino and his coaching staff a valuable lesson about this Tottenham side: it will never function properly without a sound defensive base. The nature of the high-press, high-energy system Pochettino relies on means that at times the team can lack an effective shape. Defenders and attackers alike are pulled out of position so often that when the opposition reclaims the ball, they suddenly find acres of space in which to wield it.

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To combat that Pochettino has primarily emphasized the defensive midfield role, making sure that dangerous area just in front of the centre-backs is well patrolled by Dier and whomever he is partnered with. That area was the source of untold problems in recent years, and keeping it occupied by a Tottenham player has been one of the team’s primary strengths this term.

The evolution of Dier and the defensive midfield position is just the brightest example of a much broader defensive revamp. More than ever before, the entirety of Tottenham’s gameplan on the field is dependent on multiple phases of play. Players like Eriksen and Lamela cannot expect to only be involved when Tottenham are in possession. They are asked to contribute in defense as well, even if that defending takes place some distance away from Tottenham’s goal.

The pressing game that Pochettino preaches is that grey area between offense and defense. His ideal team is one in which every player is focused in their own way around retrieving the ball and delivering it back into dangerous positions. It’s not enough to let City’s fullbacks carry the ball forward and expect the actual defenders to deal with it. City or any other opposition cannot be allowed to play their game anywhere on the pitch.

Tottenham’s defense is consequently not simply the responsibility of the backline. Rather, it is the team’s responsibility, from Lloris in goal to Harry Kane at the top if Tottenham’s attacking spear. That’s no easy ask, but when it can be pulled off as well as it was Saturday, it can be glorious.

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