Pochettino’s punished for abandoning Tottenham’s defensive stability
12:04 20 October 2014
Spurs correspondent Ben Pearce reflects on Tottenham’s 4-1 defeat at Manchester City on Saturday.
When Mauricio Pochettino sat down to discuss the impending trip to Manchester City on Thursday, he was asked about the relevance of last season’s heavy defeats against the champions.
“The reality is I don’t remember the results,” he said. Perhaps he should have done his homework, because a bit of research would have shown him that Tottenham tend to concede lots of goals against City, including 11 last season.
Given that Spurs were also facing Sergio Aguero – the best striker in the world, according to Pochettino – it surely made sense to put his best defenders on the job.
That meant picking Jan Vertonghen, despite his outings for Belgium during the international break.
Tottenham have been vulnerable at the back for much of the season, and a lack of stability and continuity has not helped.
Pochettino has rotated his centre-backs throughout the start of the campaign, and no pairing has started three consecutive Premier League games to date.
Having picked Younes Kaboul and Vertonghen against QPR and Liverpool, Pochettino switched to Kaboul and Vlad Chiriches against Sunderland and West Brom before reverting to the Kaboul-Vertonghen axis against Arsenal and Southampton.
Many feared the worst as a leaky-looking Spurs travelled to the Emirates but they instantly looked more secure with Kaboul and Vertonghen at the heart of the defence, securing a 1-1 draw – and the Lilywhites then kept a clean sheet against Southampton before the international break, their first shut-out in the league for five games, and their first league victory in the same period.
Finally there seemed to be stability at the back and, although Pochettino had to replace the injured Kyle Naughton with Eric Dier at City on Saturday, it seemed certain that he would continue with Kaboul and Vertonghen at the heart of the rearguard. Indeed, that enforced change to the back four made it even more important that he did so.
Instead he changed it up again, picking Federico Fazio over Vertonghen. His reason? “We have a lot of players and we need to manage them,” said the head coach after the 4-1 defeat. “Vertonghen came back from the national team [after] playing two 90-minute matches. Kaboul and Fazio stayed with us and they were fresh to play.”
It seems Vertonghen was fit but Pochettino decided to give him a rest, opting for two centre-backs who had spent the fortnight with him on the training pitch.
It looked a curious decision at the time and certainly appears to be a mistake in hindsight. Vertonghen may have played two full games for Belgium on the Friday and Monday, but that still gave him more than four days to recover – and probably a full week after that given Pochettino’s penchant for wide-spread squad rotation in Europe.
Perhaps Vertonghen would not have been in perfect condition, but Hugo Lloris and Nacer Chadli both missed their latest international games through injury and were doubts before the trip to City. Both of them started, so why not Vertonghen?
Meanwhile, Kaboul and Fazio had not played a single minute of a competitive game together when they lined up against City and Aguero on Saturday. Who could they have faced in training to prepare them adequately for such a challenge?
Fazio’s skill set was also ill-suited to this game. The Argentine is imperious in the air but slow across the ground. The opposite applies to City’s attacking players – Aguero, David Silva and Jesus Navas.
Perhaps Pochettino was expecting to face Edin Dzeko rather than Aguero, but in that case he based his team selection on a guess which was wrong – and Kaboul is perfectly capable of marking a big man.
Of course, Fazio was not entirely to blame on Saturday but his lack of pace resulted in that key moment in the 68th minute when Navas escaped Danny Rose and Aguero got away from his fellow Argentine in the middle, causing the defender to pull the striker back in a bid to stop him from reaching the cross.
The result was a red card, with Fazio being dismissed on his Premier League debut, and a penalty which put City 3-1 up while giving them a numerical advantage which helped them to pile on the agony with a fourth goal.
Meanwhile, Kaboul also had one of his jittery games, struggling against Aguero and conceding a stupid penalty when he went to ground and tripped Silva.
It was reminiscent of Kaboul’s nervy performances alongside the calamitous Chiriches. He looked more confident and commanding next to Vertonghen, particularly at Arsenal, underlining the point that changing one centre-back affects his partner as well.
Some may point out that Vertonghen had a chance to stop Aguero’s fourth goal, having come on as a substitute, and he was unable to do so.
However, there is a big difference between starting the game and appearing off the bench when your side are down to 10 men, while facing a striker who is full of confidence and has his eye in after already netting a hat-trick.
There were still positives to be taken from Saturday’s defeat. Spurs looked more fluid and potent going forward than they have done for a while - largely thanks to Christian Eriksen, who made a slow start to the season but has now scored in his last two games for Tottenham.
There were more encouraging signs from Ryan Mason, with and without the ball, and Roberto Soldado was more involved than he has often been, linking up well with his team-mates, setting up Eriksen’s goal and winning the second-half penalty – even if he actually went down outside the box.
On the other hand, the £26million Spaniard was bought to score goals and this supposedly clinical penalty box striker continues to struggle badly in that regard. His shooting was errant in the warm-up and, when the golden opportunity came to equalise at 2-2, he fluffed his penalty from 12 yards.
It was a crucial moment in the game and for Soldado as well. He desperately needed a boost of confidence and a goal that his all-round performance probably deserved. Instead, this latest blow could set him back even further.
Pochettino faces an interesting selection dilemma up front with Emmanuel Adebayor, Soldado and Harry Kane to choose from – but his mistake on Saturday came at the other end of the field.
The head coach seemed to have found a successful formula in the defence before the international break, but he abandoned it unnecessarily for the hardest game of the season so far and tried a brand new partnership whose attributes did not match those of their opponents, while also giving Fazio a baptism of fire in the Premier League.
Like Soldado, it must be hoped that the trip to City does not damage the defender’s confidence too much and that he is able to bounce back quickly. The same applies to the team as a whole.
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