Fans of goals and attacking football had plenty of reason to be excited for Tottenham’s clash with Everton on Sunday.
These were, after all, the two most in-form teams in the Premier League. Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Everton’s Romelu Lukaku were tied for the most goals scored this season at 17 each. If both teams played their games, this should be a furious, two-way contest.
Only that isn’t precisely what happened. The 3-2 scoreline flatters Everton’s offensive efforts considerably. In reality, Tottenham enjoyed the run of this game.
That’s a fact most reflected in the shot record. Tottenham got off 20 shots in total, seven of which were on target. Everton managed just eight in total, with all four accurate attempts coming in the 71st minute or later.
By the time Everton actually grew into the game, Tottenham were already up two goals thanks to Kane, who pushed into sole possession of the Golden Boot race for the season with 19 goals. It was a classic case of too little, too late for Ronald Koeman’s side.
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In hindsight, it’s clear to see what the Dutchman had in mind here. Though Tottenham strolled through a four goal victory against Stoke last weekend, they suffered through an offensive slump for weeks prior. Robust, layered defenses had muted them before. Maybe, if Everton clogged up the center of the pitch and sat back, they could sneak through a visit to White Hart Lane with at least one point to their credit.
To that end, Koeman placed three nominal defensive midfielders right in front of centre-backs Ashley Williams and Ramiro Funes-Mori. Then, ahead of them, he had Ross Barkley and youngster Tom Davies — both of whom typically occupy less advanced central roles — attempting to feed the ball to Lukaku up front.
The result was a compact Everton side that featured no pace outside of the full-backs. Barkley and Davies were, in theory, meant to slide the ball forward into the path of Lukaku, who in turn was intended as Everton’s sole goal-scoring threat. The rest of the team was there simply to fill up the space usually so expertly exploited by Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen.
Only it did not work out precisely like that. The tactics only invited pressure, encouraging Tottenham’s midfield forward and leaving plenty of room for Ben Davies and Kyle Walker to operate in the wing-back positions. Everton gifted Spurs the momentum and left themselves no means to take it back.
Tottenham — read: Kane — subsequently made the most of Everton’s mistakes and saw off the game well before Lukaku grasped back some small bit of hope with his goal in the 81st.
Would the result have been any different if Everton came out and played their usually potent offensive game? Perhaps not. Spurs’ defense is the best in the league, after all, and pushing forward would have left even more space for Eriksen, et al to work their magic.
Faced with a choice between caution and risk, Koeman chose the former. It’s a testament to Tottenham’s own regenerated potency that Everton were legitimately damned if they did, damned if they didn’t.