Spurs’ “Wembley woes” this season gone, have got fans worried about spending an entire year (or even two if the project is delayed) at the nation’s home ground.
It’s easy to question conclusions drawn from such a small sample and easier still to look into those game and spin the angle. A group stage played out during our weakest period of the season. A German team that play the particular way we struggle with. A talented Monaco side who went all the way to the semis. And at least a little unluckiness against both Gent and Chelsea.
I experienced first hand the change in atmosphere between White Hart Lane and Wembley. On each of the three Champion’s League group games, the people sat next to me probably wouldn’t have been able to name our first choice XI if asked. Even the fans keen to sing the team along had a hard time trying to get any song to build and carry across the stadium due to it’s size and the way it’s built.
What I want to focus on here, though, is the pitch it’s self. This splits into two categories; the composition of the turf, and the size of the ground.
At WHL the grass
is was short and the ground hard. At Wembley the grass is long and the floor is soft. As a result the ball travels in different ways. It travels slower on the Wembley grass, coming to a halt after a shorter distance, and it bounces less high after it hits the ground. Wembley does not lend it’s self to the high tempo that Pochettino likes to play at. These differences seem minor and the effect can be very subtle but in football, a game of inches, it can be everything.
Kane’s free kick here makes the perfect metaphor. The ball hits Courtois’ side as it passes under him but the contact is enough that it catches enough backspin to grind to a halt on the goal line. Courtois can recover and gather the ball into his arms. A two goal deficit in injury time means this probably made no real difference, in the grand scheme of things. But I’d be willing to bet that, on the short grass and hard pitch of The Lane, that ball goes in. Especially in the worn goalmouths of Park Lane and Paxton.
Playing week-in-week-out at Wembley. Regular sessions on our mock-Wembley training pitch. We’ll soon get used to those millimeters that matter. But for the time being it will be jarring enough to rob us of just that little bit of meaningful home advantage.
The size of the pitch, meanwhile, is more tactically complicated. It’s a simplification, but as a general rule, a large pitch favours attacking and a small pitch favours defending.
In attack teams spread out across the width of the pitch, moving the ball vertically and horizontally to move the opposition out of shape and get at goal. In defence teams compress the space, sitting deep and tucking in narrow.
So the Wembley pitch will make us more lethal up top and more flaky at the back? Not exactly. Over the period of Pochettino’s time at Spurs we’ve become the best team in the league at using every inch of the pitch available to us to stretch open defensive sides with our juego de posicion model.
Last season we managed to score 47 League goals in 17 home games. 2.7 goals per game on, what was, the smallest pitch in the league. When Spurs are on top, when we control the game, we tend to get to 4 goals and then take it easy to conserve energy. It’s hard to see an improvement in this area in a way that matters.
Could it weaken us while we’re defending? Yes, a little. But we don’t tend to spend a large amount of time sat deep in our own half. Instead, where it will effect us is in our high-pressing. And this is two-fold too.
Having a larger area to cover means the opposition will have more time on the ball and more space to play. Tottenham press in a very horizontal manner; which means when the ball is on the left we all move over to the left and as a result we leave space on the right for the opposition to switch the ball to. With an extra half-second to control the ball and look up. With extra room to receive the ball in. We may see our counter-press more easily broken.
The other factor in our pressing is a fitness one. More ground to cover = a higher workload. 3 seasons of observing Spurs under Pochettino leaves the impression of a fitness regime that uses the latest physiological science and technology to push our players to the exact limit. Warping the field of play and the distance ran each game has the potential to throw that balance off or see us struggle to last the 90 under our current game plan.
Okay, this has all been very negative so I want to leave it on a high note. None of this really matters. There are disadvantages that come with moving stadium. But Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur are really fucking good. So good that last season we took half the campaign to get going and still finished second.
As of right now, Spurs absolutely have the capacity to win the league. Matters like keeping Dembele fit, retaining our players, improving squad depth and maintaining a constant method of moving centre-backs into wide areas are important. Wembley is just a blip. A tiny black spot in Pochettino’s shining lilywhite cathedral.