Mauricio Pochettino’s obsession with controlling the central midfield battle against fellow pressers Bournemouth rendered his attack completely toothless and cost Tottenham Hotspur the opportunity to top the Premier League.
Cherries win the first-half pressing
Losing first-choice midfielders Junior Stanislas and Andrew Surman shortly before kick-off did not discourage Cherries manager Eddie Howe, who nonetheless instructed his side to press Spurs in their own half from the off.
Howe’s high-press was super-effective in the opening half-hour, penning the visitors into their own half and forcing several avoidable errors, particularly from Victor Wanyama, who was stationed at the base of Spurs’ narrow midfield.
Pochettino was keenly aware of the need to out-press Bournemouth, opting to start midfielder Heung-Min Son up front instead of Vincent Janssen to help achieve this goal, in the hope of replicating the South Korean’s successful performance in the same role against Manchester City.
Speaking before kick-off, the Spurs manager further underlined his respect for his hosts’ press, stating: “Midfield is the key battle today, so we have brought (Moussa) Dembélé in.”
While not renowned for his final ball, the tenacious Dembélé is an ideal central midfield choice against hard-running opposition, both because he’s adept at winning the ball back and, crucially, because he’s one of the best midfielders in the league at evading challenges by dribbling the football through the centre of the pitch.
An ability to run with the ball paired with a doggedness off it is perhaps also why Pochettino opted to field Erik Lamela in the centre, but this was a far less successful gambit from the Tottenham manager, who was fortunate not to lose the reckless Argentinian to a second yellow card late in the first-half.
Spurs’ congested attack
Regardless, on the rare occasions that Tottenham did bypass the Bournemouth press, their failure to retain possession in the attacking third was more attributable to dysfunction higher up the field, where Pochettino chose to select dual number tens in Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen.
With Alli, Eriksen, Lamela and Dembélé all attempting to play in the same congested central area, Bournemouth’s defence were comfortable, only conceding one first-half shot on target from a deflected Eriksen long-ranger.
Full-backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were unable to consistently provide the necessary width on the overlap, owing to the dual threat posed by Bournemouth wide midfielders Joshua King and Jordon Ibe, who hugged their respective touchlines as much as possible, while also tucking in to help nullify Tottenham’s overmanned central cohort when necessary.
Tottenham’s extreme left-wing focus in the first-half, of which Rose’s runs were surely intended to be an integral component, was further hampered by Callum Wilson’s selfless counter-attacking runs down the inside-right channel, that both troubled Jan Vertonghen and further pulled Rose back towards his own goal.
Tottenham only really looked vaguely like scoring after Pochettino’s two second-half substitutions, when Moussa Sissoko was introduced wide on the right of a 4-2-3-1, finally restoring some balance to the visiting attack.
Four minutes after his introduction, Sissoko created the only shot on target Spurs managed to unleash in the Bournemouth 18-yard box, when his right-wing cross was driven into Artur Boruc’s hands by Rose at the far post, after an uncharacteristically decent piece of hold-up play from the otherwise abysmal substitute Janssen.
By this point however, Bournemouth had ditched the press and settled into a second-half low-block that even a more sensibly configured Spurs attack was unlikely to pierce, especially with the flawless penalty-box defending on display from centre-backs Simon Francis and Steve Cook.
On the basis of this performance, it’s easy to see why Howe’s side strung three consecutive home wins together prior to Spurs’ visit. Led by the tireless midfield hounding of Harry Arter, Bournemouth demonstrated great tactical flexibility by stunting their visitors’ forward mobility with a high-press in the first-half, and walling them out of the penalty area with a low-block in the second.
Pochettino, on the other hand, will surely rue the decision to field six central midfielders in an ultra-narrow 4-3-2-1; a decision that, allied with Bournemouth’s press, choked off Spurs’ congested attack and played into Howe’s hands. The Argentinian’s undue concern with the opposition’s strengths has undoubtedly cost Tottenham two points and a spell at the top of the Premier League table.