Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
This was Tottenham Hotspur’s ninth win in 11 away games. In any normal season, Mauricio Pochettino’s side would be runaway favourites to claim their maiden Premier League crown. But this is no normal season, and neither Manchester City nor Liverpool represent run-of-the-mill competition. Once again, Pochettino’s uncanny ability to conjure magic from comparatively puny financial resources may go unrewarded. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Which is not to say that Pochettino is without fault either. Question marks still hang over the Argentinian’s propensity to change games from the sideline, and some of his tactical choices continue to raise eyebrows. A longstanding preference for a midfield diamond against teams who press, so effective against Maurizio Sarri’s 4-3-3, proved disastrous against Arsenal’s 3-4-3; Pochettino did little to address the obvious mismatch from the dugout.
Having reverted to 4-2-3-1 for the last three league games, all slender victories against weaker opposition, Pochettino turned again to the diamond here. By packing the centre of midfield, Spurs’ passing options would be buttressed, thereby affording easier passage through Marco Silva’s customary high press. Harry Winks, fielded at the diamond’s base, would drop in between his centre-backs to fashion a 3-v-2 in Tottenham’s favour.
That part of the plan worked handsomely, and building attacks from the back was rarely a problem for Tottenham. But, early on in the contest, it still looked like Pochettino would come to rue his decision to opt for a diamond. Tottenham’s defensive shape was poor to say the least, with Moussa Sissoko regularly forced wide to confront Lucas Digne and Christian Eriksen unaccustomed to such responsibilities. It was often left to Winks to quench fires alone, and the young playmaker is no Eric Dier or Victor Wanyama — both absent here due to injury.
Gylfi Sigurdsson, therefore, enjoyed the upper hand on Winks throughout; had Everton been more competitive, the Icelandic talisman would surely have inflicted greater damage on his former club. Although under the cosh for large periods, Everton did fashion two first-half chances, and both stemmed from Sigurdsson prevailing on a Winks error to thread a team-mate through. Richarlison headed the first chance wide, but Theo Walcott did not pass up Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s byline centre.
With Sigurdsson finding holes in Pochettino’s parlous system, Everton’s lead was not entirely surprising. But Marco Silva’s side were also enduring their own set of systemic defensive problems. Richarlison may boast eight goals this season, having adapted quickly to a centre-forward role, but the Brazilian remains a frustrating player. And having returned to the left-flank here, the ex-Watford forward set about demonstrating the drawbacks of using him in such a manner.
Opting not to press Kieran Trippier, a fine technician, is never wise. But exuding such laziness when your defence is playing high is totally unforgivable. Richarlison clearly wasn’t bothered, however, as two of Tottenham’s five big chances stemmed from the Brazilian’s unwillingness to defend. Both saw Trippier loft a simple long ball in behind the Toffees defence for Harry Kane to chase. Kane chipped the first one wide at 0-0, but crossed the second into the Everton penalty-area. Christian Eriksen duly punished Seamus Coleman’s weak clearance to bag his side’s fourth goal just after half-time.
In fact, long balls played in behind Everton’s high defensive line were a regular feature of Tottenham’s game, whether Trippier was the architect or not. Following in Manchester City’s footsteps last weekend, the visitor’s cut through Everton’s initial press with ease and duly found gaps higher up the pitch. Pushed high to keep the side compact, but stranded by the lack of midfield pressure on the ball, Everton’s defence were basically asking for it. So it proved for Tottenham’s equaliser, as Jordan Pickford and Kurt Zouma conspired to Keystone Cop a Kane long ball to Son Heung-Min.
Once again, Silva’s insistence on a haphazard high-block had proved his side’s undoing. And there was more reckoning to come, too. In order to address the 3-v-2 Winks had created, Silva encouraged Tom Davies forward from central midfield to reduce the 22-year-old’s passing options. Showing little regard for the consequences if his press was bypassed, Silva eventually received the reward he richly deserved.
Opting to go long for a change, Hugo Lloris arced the ball towards the halfway line, where Coleman filled Davies’ vacant zone by engaging Eriksen in an aerial duel. Tottenham, numerically superior in midfield as always, predictably won the second ball. And Son, displaying his usual hyper-awareness, duly scampered leftward in Coleman’s wake onto a Sissoko through-ball. Pickford saved the Korean’s initial effort, but Alli arrived first to deposit the rebound from the edge of Everton’s underprotected penalty area.
This, too, is another ongoing Silva issue; a chronic failure to staff the crucial space in front of his side’s defence. Eriksen’s aforementioned goal highlighted the problem perfectly, as Tottenham again transitioned quicker than Everton and reached Coleman’s clearance first. With Silva intent on overcommitting bodies into attack, the presence of two Tottenham strikers only doubled his trouble; any through-ball opportunity gifted by Everton’s AWOL midfield usually came with two ready-made targets attached.
Zouma suffered particularly against Son, fouling the Korean prior to Trippier’s free-kick brush with the woodwork (Kane netted the rebound). But the centre-back also received precious little cover from Digne, who was more concerned with foraging higher up the pitch. Coleman, too, offered little protection to Michael Keane; the Irishman often torn between pressing Ben Davies (in Walcott’s inexcusable absence) and staying tight to his centre-back. That was precisely how Kane nabbed his second goal, Spurs’ sixth, after Davies sent Son to the byline.
Everton had bagged a second goal of their own by that point, when Sigurdsson again evaded Winks (and Davinson Sánchez’s compensatory challenge) to redden Lloris’ face. But the result was never in doubt after the hour mark, when Spurs scored their fifth. In the absence of chief firefighter Idrissa Gueye, Everton again failed to compensate for their criminal lack of structure. Substitute Erik Lamela duly found space between the lines and facilitated Son’s second of the evening with yet another through-ball.
One wonders when the Marco Silva myth will finally lose its lustre. Still 11th after 18 games, Everton are two places and one point worse off than they were at the same stage last season. The Toffees have taken only one win from their last seven games, as their inexplicably highly-rated manager continues to stand guilty of forcing his poorly-coached dogma on situations and players that cannot bear it.
With the exception of Gomes, a silky player clearly born for possession football, Everton’s is a squad tailor-made for the counterattack. Tottenham’s, meanwhile, looks in near-perfect harmony with its highly-coveted leader. But, with the Manchester United gig looming large on the horizon and little prospect of real financial backing in the offing at stadium-hampered Spurs, the question remains: how long more is that going to last?
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112