Tottenham: What to watch in season opener vs. Everton

Tottenham Hotspur host Everton FC in the first game for both sides on Sunday. If Spurs are to win, several areas will have to click.

Tottenham Hotspur have signed three first team players this season – unfortunately, Alex Morgan does not count – but only one, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has my full attention Sunday.

Besides Hojbjerg, how Spurs align defensively, along with the games of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and at least one more Spur will go a long way toward determining the outcome in the opening Premier League match for both sides in north London on Sunday.

The impact of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg

While at Southampton, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg demonstrated himself to be a sound defensive midfielder, who could come make plays here and there, but overall had a limited passing skillset. However, the player on display with Tottenham Hotspur in the preseason was one with a far broader range of passing skills and football sense in the final third than was demonstrated at Southampton.

One can argue that Hojbjerg had limitations on him based on the talent around him and his role at Southampton where his opportunities to attack were more limited. Another person could argue that Tottenham were simply playing far inferior opposition in the preseason friendlies, so anyone worth their salt at this level would have looked good. The reality is likely somewhere in between.

The best-case scenario with Spurs and Hojbjerg is that he is the player that showed in the preseason who could just as easily time a tackle on a defender in the final third as he could break up the opposition break. The worst-case scenario is a player who is competent passer and a strong defender and guard for the defense. In other words, the floor for Hojbjerg is high, the question is how high is the ceiling. On Sunday we will just start to find out.

Spurs’ defensive positioning

At the height of the Mauricio Pochettino era – when Kyle Walker was still protecting everyone with his wheels – it was a given Tottenham Hotspur were going to play with an extremely high line defensively. With speed like Walker and Danny Rose to cover and one of the best sweeper keepers in the world in a young Hugo Lloris, it made complete sense.

A high line is important defensively if you are going to do a lot of pressing offensively. Having the forward and attacking players constantly chasing the ball, cutting off angles, and pestering the defense in possession is an energy draining task. Even more draining when the field is a full 120 yards. By having the defensive line high and pressing everyone into one half of the field, it reduces the space for both the defense to operate and the offense to cover, increasing the chances of a turnover.

As Tottenham lost some of that cover speed there was a simultaneously relaxing in how the team worked to press from the front. Based on what has been heard in the “All or Nothing” episodes from last season, he wants his team to attack and win the ball. How aggressively they can do so is largely dependent on how big the field is they are playing in. How big the field they are playing in is largely dependent on how high a defensive line is kept while in possession.

Given the lack of pace in the back for Tottenham, it is will interesting to see where in the field Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier are positioned when Spurs have the ball. This is one area of the tactical battle between masterminds Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti.

The Kane and Dele of old

There was a time a couple of seasons ago where the combination of Harry Kane and Dele Alli in the front of the Tottenham attack kept players up at night. While both are still playing at a high level, that same intensity and tenacity has not always been as apparent the last couple of seasons.

Admittedly, both need to think about the minutes of the campaign and cannot go full tilt every second of the match, but the movement and production of both players will largely determine the success of Spurs’ offense.

Kane needs two main things to be successful on Sunday and really on any given day he steps on the pitch, good movement and good service. The service is not something Kane can control, but it can make all the difference. Even if that service just comes one time, Kane is good enough to do the job.

However, for Tottenham to have success offensively, Kane needs to see the ball in the box and a lot more than once. Whether on crosses, through balls, or some other interplay, getting Kane touches, particularly in the attacking third and most importantly in the penalty box, is paramount for Spurs.

While Kane is reliant on others for his service, he does have his movement within his control. Often the best crosses Kane has seen over the last several seasons started when he checked back deep in the midfield and switched the play wide to the winger or back who then in turn ended up getting the ball back to Kane on the cross.

Whether it is checking back to the ball, running the channels from time to time, or chasing down that 50/50 ball, how much movement we see from Kane will have a big part in the flow of Tottenham’s attack.

One of the other constants in Tottenham’s attack the last several seasons has been Dele Alli. While his play over the last couple of seasons has not quite been to the incredible standard he set when he first broke into the squad, when Dele contributes, Tottenham ticks.

Whether it is juggling the ball for a volley goal, or bringing down the long ball to dink the keeper, or hustling to save the ball and get it to his teammate for the pre-assist, when Dele is on and clicking, so is Tottenham Hotspur. If the real Dele shows up, that is good for everyone, especially Harry Kane.

And what is good for Harry Kane is good for Tottenham Hotspur.

Who is the X-Factor for Tottenham?

For Tottenham to truly be successful on Sunday and this season, someone else must step up for Spurs. I am not talking about Heung-Min Son, as his contribution is sort of without question, I am talking about who is going to replace Christian Eriksen or Mousa Dembele, or Fernando Llorente? Who is going to make a play for this team when they really need it?

If you have watched “All or Nothing”, you have likely heard Harry Kane painfully talking about his team shrinking away from the moment time and again after the Manchester United loss. He said something about someone waiting for someone else to make a play.

While Kane, Dele, Son and Hojbjerg are all likely to make some plays, who else is going to? This used to be Christian Eriksen with the occasion free kick or sublime pass. At times it was Mousa Dembele dribbling through the opposition like cheese, or maybe it was Gareth Bale blasting away from wherever he wanted like an indoor pick-up game.

The question now for Tottenham is who is going to be the person to step up and fill the some of the voids left over the last few seasons? This is particularly important on set pieces — ask Leeds and Liverpool. While Leeds worked the ball diligently and quickly to produce their goals on Saturday, Liverpool used the same craft that took them to the title.

Liverpool scored four goals and one could argue NONE were from open play and all were from set pieces. Two penalties and a corner were three of the four goals. The last – Salah’s second just before half – came after Leeds failed to clear the ball off guess what, a set piece.

Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool have learned to make set pieces a true weapon. Can Spurs do the same or find some other player or way to step up? Having someone unexpected or maybe expected but just a bit late – Tanguy Ndombele anyone? – play big will go a long way toward a successful season for Spurs.