FA Cup Semi-Final Preview – Chelsea

FA Cup Semi-Final Preview – Chelsea


Alright, I am short on time this week but I’ve had a couple of you on twitter remind me that I did say I would put this article out. So here, in a rushed, error heavy, stream of consciousness mess, it is.

In my analysis of January’s league victory at Chelsea we looked at how Pochettino took a risk by going man-for-man with Chelsea at the back in order to disrupt the way Chelsea build their moves from the back. Chelsea, failed, in return to press our defenders in possession and as a result we were able to build moves that exposed Chelsea’s weakness to aerial threats in the left channel.

The result was 3 points for us but it probably wasn’t as decisive a victory as the scoreline would have us believe. Hazard fluffed a couple of quality chances and while we took ours we didn’t create a ton of them. Michael Caley’s xG model has us narrowly coming out on top at 1.1 v 1.0.

Still, we caused Chelsea problems they hadn’t been caused since switching to the 3-4-3 system and it’s only very recently that other clubs have managed the same.

Humble hero of beautiful football and all round nice guy Jose Mourinho may have given us a shot at the title by exposing some of Chelsea’s shortcomings. With a lack of playmakers in the team they’re creatively reliant on a combination of Conte’s positional system and ‘final third difference maker’ Eden Hazard. By dedicating his team to disrupting those patterns and having Hazard very tightly marked; Chelsea were totally stumped for threat.

Mourinho also played two, speedy forwards to quickly counter-attack in behind Chelsea’s wide centre-backs who, like ours, are aggressive in possession.

Is there anything we can learn from this? Not a huge amount. Setting up his team with the primary focus of disrupting the opposition is just something Pochettino doesn’t do, preferring, instead to gamble on his sides’ ability to dominate the game and turn that domination into goals and clean sheets.

Three or Four at the Back?

The big debate this week leading up to Saturday’s game is who starts between Wanyama and Son.

Pochettino himself has said not to focus too much on formation. That our two main shapes are different ways of achieving the same things. Press, posses, risk, repeat.

That’s largely agreeable but there are a couple of minor pros/cons between the two shapes. Essentially, the three at the back is slightly better at counter-pressing and the four at the back is slightly better at sitting back and defending while we can’t get the ball.

Three at the back is better at counter-pressing because it means: 1) Wanyama and 2) Dembele being slightly further up the pitch.

On the other hand, four at the back is better during the defensive phase because of the zones we like to cover in our defensive shape:

It’s hard to be narrow when you’ve got five men in a row. It’s hard to defend the area in front your defence when two of your midfielders are kinda, really, more forwards today.

Also, back fives are really difficult to play offside with, especially if you suddenly jump into that shape mid-way through the season. Our line can be quite wonky.

Since moving to the back three/five shape though we’ve spent very little time stuck in our defensive block because we’ve dominated. Chelsea will have the ball. So our defensive phase is really important.

But our counter-pressing (attack-to-defence transition phase) is really important for being able to remain on top when we have the ball too. So there are no easy answer here.

“What about Son’s form? Surely we can’t dro-” I don’t care.

Team News

Danny Rose is almost definitely out which is obviously a worry. One of the key premises of matching Chelsea man-for-man is that we think we have the better men. I like Davies, I like him creatively and I quite like him defensively but this is not the game for him. There’s a debate to be had over whether we should attempt to improve on Davies but not here.

Meanwhile it looks like Courtois may still be out for Chelsea. Begovic looked more than a little rusty against United so it may be a good idea for Spurs to shoot on sight. Oh wait, we already do that.

How might things be different?

One of the few things we can take from that United – Chelsea game is that Mourinho’s game plan in this match was very similar to the one that was (prior the Herrera getting sent off) working against Chelsea in their cup game from a few weeks earlier. And yet come last weekend Conte seemed totally unprepared for what Mourinho set up to do, would he be the same for us?

Eventually Conte brought on Cesc Fabregas (booo!) which meant Chelsea did start to create some hint of a chance once it was already too late. Conte isn’t hugely keen on Fabregas because his defensive work rate is poor and Conte appears to believe in the creativity of the system over the creativity of the individual (we are blessed with both).

However, Cesc has become Conte’s plan B for nearly all circumstances in the latter half of the season and there’s a slight chance Conte will start Fabregas in a matching 3-5-2 to give them a different way of building attacks and to throw us a bit of a curveball.

Conte is also likely to ask more from his front three, in terms of pressing, than he did in the league win. Being pressed 3v3 at the back by City gave us our toughest domestic game of the season and we were forced to switch to a 4 to overcome it. So a tick in the box for 4-2-3-1 there.

One final note on Chelsea is that Costa is out of favour with the fans. The moderate chance that Costa could be dropped for this game would more likely see a shape change (Fabregas or Willian) than see a like-for-like replacement (Spurs’ summer target Batshuayi)

How might Pochettino shake things up? Other than whether he’s going to play 3 or 4, I’m lost for ideas. Not just lost for how Poch might do things but other, bolder plans that I could theorise.

For whatever it’s worth I’d go with 3 and I think Poch will too but it’s hard to base that on anything other than it feels more ‘big game’ and Son does not.

Tottenham 2 – 0 Chelsea Analysis

Having drawn Chelsea in the FA Cup semis I thought I’d do a quick belated analysis of our 2-0 League victory from back in January.

Both teams opted for a 3-4-3 formation and it’s no coincidence. Both teams – due to creativity at the back and physicality in midfield – build their attacks in similar ways.

Chelsea (and Spurs) like to build in something of a 1-4-5 shape.

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This means Chelsea often outnumber the opposition on their defensive line and by forming a horizontal line of 4 in deep midfield become difficult to press.

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Drawing the opposition midfield out towards them Chelsea then make quick, vertical combinations with attacking players who drop into pockets of space in the now vacated midfield and are able to get in behind.

To disrupt this Spurs took a bit of a risk at the back by matching Chelsea man-for-man – with Dier vs Hazard being the biggest scare. Contradictory to what I said earlier Spurs’ shape was actually more of a 3-5-2. Dele and Kane pressed the Chelsea CBs relentlessly, preventing the two wider defenders from advancing into a midfield four. Instead instead they were forced to rush passes into midfield, to the marked wing-backs or to play the ball long.

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Tottenham’s midfield three sat deeper preventing passes into the feet of Chelsea’s attacking three but were very quick to press Kante and Matic who were often receiving the ball with their backs turned.

As the match went on, Hazard, getting frustrated, would then drop deep to get on the ball which succeeded in little more than disrupting Chelsea’s man-to-man threat up front.

Chelsea did not press our centre-backs when in possession but instead sat off allowing them the ball deep preventing them from crossing the half-way line.

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With good movement and passing Spurs were repeatedly able to build the ball from left to right. Often going from Vertonghen pushed into midfield to Walker high-up on the right.

Eriksen caused Matic problems with his movement as he has done on several previous meetings. This time, starting deep and arriving late to receive a pulled-back pass from Walker. Matic repeatedly moved too deep and too narrow too early leaving Eriksen to Cahill who was uncomfortable coming out from his backline.

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Kane could then drag Luiz over to the near post; leaving Azpilecueta and Moses to defend Eriksen’s crosses to Dele at the far post. Azpilecueta’s ability to read the game defensively is very strong but his height limits him. Moses, taller, is simply a poor defender.

Closer to the game I will put together an article on how Conte and Pochettino may adapt to what happened in this game.

Chelsea Preview

Thought I’d expand on my Chelsea preview from my debut on this week’s Fight Cock Extra Inch podcast. We tried to keep that bit brief as we didn’t want to date the episode which was meant to be more of a general tactical overview of Poch’s time at Spurs.

Chelsea’s current setup is all about separating the opposition’s defensive lines with an overload in deep midfield. Sometimes when building from the back their shape can resemble an Ossie Ardiles-esque 5-0-5. chelsea-343-1

This worked brilliantly against Manchester United as explored in this video. Mourinho’s 6-3-1 defensive shape was easily exploited. The wingers were pinned back by the wing-backs and the centre-mids were dragged away from shielding roles in front of the defence.chelsea-343-2

Chelsea could then move the ball across the deep midfield area which the wide centre-backs pushed in to. This created space in midfield which the winger/forwards of Pedro and Hazard could drop into to make passing combinations with the centre-backs to drag United all over the pitch.


Everton also suffered against Conte’s shiny new system. They tried to match Chelsea’s shape with their own back 3. Once again Moses and Alonso pushed back and stretched Everton’s giving them more of a back 5 and left Everton with only 3 lines of defence.


Chelsea were once again able to draw Everton’s midfield out into a place where they were numerically inferior before finding combinations into the wingers feet.chelsea-343-5

This is why I think it’s very important we return to a 4-2-3-1 shape against Chelsea. The 4231 is narrow which leaves Chelsea’s wing-backs unmarked but it in place it returns us 4 lines of defence. This means we can press Chelsea’s midfield without leaving pockets of space for the wingers to drop in to.


Chelsea will instead play out to their unmarked wing-backs which may cause us some problems. We will have to be very quick in shifting our pressing shape from one side of the pitch to the other without letting one of Chelsea’s 3 forwards escape.chelsea-343-7

Man City Preview

In my tactical overview piece at the end of last season I explained how Pochettino, like many modern managers, organises his team to attack the opposition across the five horizontal divisions of the pitch. The wings, the channels and the centre. This spreads the opposition defence wide and opens up space to attack in the middle. Spurs achieve this in a growingly common method. We drop Eric Dier between the centre-backs, bring our wingers inside and push the full-backs into high positions.


Pep Guardiola is an adamant practitioner of juego de posicion which also encapsulates occupying these five zones but he achieves this through a different method. Instead of pushing his full-backs up the pitch he keeps them deep and moves them in centrally. His wingers stay very wide and his central midfielders push-up to so that City can have four attacking midfielders behind their striker.

This extremity has been reserved for games City have expected to dominate

This worked incredibly well for him at Bayern Munich and has already turned in very impressive results at City but the personnel remain imperfect. Despite Kolorov’s outstanding passing range City’s full-backs aren’t ideal inverted full-backs as they aren’t up to the technical and tactical level that Lahm and Alaba were at Bayern.

This leaves them somewhat vulnerable to pressing. And history has taught us the best way to play against Guardiola teams is to prevent them from developing quality build-up play from the back via pressing – especially their deepest midfielder Busquets/Alonso/Fernandinho. Celtic, Swansea and to a lesser extent Man United have caused City issues with their high-pressing.

In total contrast, Pep teams also want to be pressed. By deploying creative passers all the way back to, and including, the goalkeeper City look to invite and pass around opposition pressure to attack the space in behind, essentially counter-attacking without having lost the ball.

But we won’t be the only pressing team, Pep teams are renowned for their ability with the ball, but their ability to win it back with high-pressing is similarly impressive which means once again, because of his unmatched ability to resist opposition pressing, so much balances on whether or not Dembele is fit enough to start.

In at least our last two games we’ve used a 4141/433 shape to increase our midfield presence, to make up for the lack of Dembele and this has worked fairly well but I think we should persist with it regardless of whether or not Dembele starts.

Adding to our deep midfield again will help us against City’s attacking midfield overload which has caused several teams marking issues already. This will also make it easy to move to a back 3/5 which will allow our full-backs to mark the opposition wingers tightly and prevent them from running at us with the ball at their feet.

Christian Eriksen has come under some criticism recently and I remain one of his biggest fans. While I think a lot of what he does goes unnoticed that doesn’t also mean he is immune to having an off day. I think Eriksen should be rested on Sunday and that’s not a reflection of his overall quality or recent performances. Eriksen’s greatest ability is in helping us pick the lock of tight defences. As we’ll mostly be playing on the break, pressing with intensity and, I hope, playing a three-man midfield this game is less suited to his skill-set and the I think the fact that he has started our last three games supports the idea that Poch may be thinking similarly.


Crystal Palace Preview

While you can never take too much from a single game and I do think there will be an occasion for playing Wanyama and Dier alongside one another, the Everton game wasn’t a great advert.

There are also some positives to take from the game in the form of positive in-game tactical changes from Pochettino – aided by his growing squad. Janssen came on which facilitated a change in personnel throughout the spine and Eriksen and Lamela switched to behave more like traditional wingers.

Any one of Dier, Wanyama or Vertonghen could have come off for the change and I suspect Dier was taken off due to the number of minutes he’s played in the last year and also to show a level of support to new signing Wanyama, who had a fairly poor first half to the game.

Kane also looked off the pace last weekend leading to concerns about long term fatigue built up from 2 year of nearly non-stop football. That’s possible, and concerning, but just as likely is that he’s sensibly, slowly building up his fitness at the moment which leaves him a little bit pre-season-y at the moment but is much better in the long term.

There are no shortage of analysis pieces on this game. You can read more in-depth thoughts here, here, here, here or here.

Palace have essentially swapped Bolasie for Benteke. We’ve arrived in the sweet spot in this regard as the latter is unlikely to be ready for Saturday although he may come on as a late sub.

Benteke, although technically gifted, is something of an old fashioned forward in that he thrives from crosses from out wide. Liverpool were not suited to him in that regard and while Palace play out-and-out wingers in Zaha and Townsend, we Spurs fans know just how keen Townsend is to dummy the cross to allow him to move inside for a low percentage long shot opportunity. Zaha is maybe not as bad, but similar.

In the meantime Palace will have to make do with Connor Wickham who provides an out ball and targetman contributions to the build-up play but just can’t put the ball in the back of the net.

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Pardew has apparently suggested he wants to bring a Barcelona style of play to Selhurst park this season (ha!) and maybe by that he means: ‘we don’t have any good strikers so we’ll just play with three wingers and hit on them with pace on the break’

Insisting on starting Yohan Cabaye in a midfield two continues to cause Palace defensive problems when in possession but it’s unlikely that there will be any opportunities for that this weekend.

Back to Spurs and three more games without Mousa Dembele. Alli represents the most similar first XI-er to The Moose so we could line-up similar to the second-half against Everton.

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But creativity is crucial for a home game against a defensive opponent. Perhaps Eriksen will drop alongside Dier as he did against Swansea last season or alongside both Alli and Dier in a 433 (Kane on the narrow left).

Ryan Mason and Tom Carroll remain options to Pochettino, even if this option fails to appeal to most fans. The other option is to bring in Harry Winks. This is an idea I originally questioned but have since completely turned around on. This, perhaps risky, but adventurous approach to the game would be my choice.

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Demebele isn’t the only absentee. Lloris is out for four weeks with a hamstring injury which has reportedly resulted in explorations into the transfer market for a keeper (if we weren’t already looking). Vorm will stand in for the time being.

Vorm seems to have a fairly low reputation with Spurs fans. He’s made a handful of poor errors in the cup games he’s played but he did play well against Everton. In fact the quality of player that arrived from Swansea had many interpreting his transfer as a precede to Lloris leaving. Surely Vorm was too good to play second string at this stage of his career?

Just about any keeper looks poor when his inclusion in the team interrupts a string of Hugo Lloris performances but I suspect Vorm is the type of keeper who (like many) only perform well with regular starts. Without another coming in we can expect Vorm to be approaching his best just in time for the captain to return.

Opinions on Vorm are at best mixed then, but he is the superior passer to Lloris. Making use of Vorm’s comfort on the ball will aid Spurs in the build-up which, if you’re Pep Guardiola, is just about the most important contribution the goalkeeper can make.

Everton Preview

Club football returns but Mousa Dembele does not. Neither, seemingly, does half the Everton squad.

Given time I have little doubt Koeman will instil a defensive stability built upon a back three that progresses in to wide counter-attacks. But for now Everton seem to be coming into the start of the season lacking fitness, depth and practice in the new system.

So instead Koeman will likely settle for the 4-2-3-1 formation that he is also keen on. Given the complexity of fitness issues addressing the Everton line-up is a bit sticky but this would be the best the Toffees can realistically hope for.

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Here’s a brilliant focus by @LukeBBurgess on how to create opportunities against Everton if they do manage to field three centre-backs.

Although Koeman is already a fairly defensive coach I think that focus will be doubled for this opening game. A clean sheet will give them something to build off and the talent in the squad will mean they will always be a threat on the break.

Still, Baines and Coleman are not defensive full-backs. By using Walker and Rose to pin back the Everton wingers; Spurs can concentrate on isolating Lamela and Alli against the opposition full-backs.

Belgium wasted Lukaku this summer using him almost exclusively as a targetman. Romelu is powerful forward but his game is much more well rounded than that and when he is on poor form his touch can be atrocious. Koeman is surely the superior coach to Wilmots but his football is often reliant on wide crosses into a tall forwards. Although this method of attack can generally be quite fruitless Tottenham are one of the teams most vulnerable to it with Jan Vertonghen especially pone to losing out in the air.

Meanwhile Spurs face the first in four Dembele conundrums. The obvious replacement is new signing Wanyama. Wanyma offers physicality and defensive reliability. Otherwise Pochettino seems to remain confident in Mason in the 8 role while fans do not.

I sent out a tweet the other day addressing the excitement around youngster Harry Winks. Comparing that excitement with the disdain for Mason despite, what I suggested was, a similar playstyle and set of strength and weaknesses.

I was quickly, and rightly, shot down. Winks, despite being younger seems to have become physically superior to Mason over the summer and boasts a better defensive understanding of the game. So I’ve shamelessly gone full circle and would quite like to see Winks get at least a few minutes on Saturday.
More on Winks v Mason by @jake_meador

Winks represents the most creative option to start in Dembele’s place and as Everton are likely to play a low/medium-block defence, starting Wanyama along side Dier may leave us desperately lacking creativity from deep.

On the other hand fielding two defensive mids gives more licence to Walker and Rose to get forward, stretch the opposition and provide more space for Eriksen to playmake from.

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While we’re on Wanyama. At the beginning of the window I said that there are always unexpected drop-offs between seasons and Spurs should at least attempt to improve the first team in order to maintain. I’d like to give myself a bit of a get-out for that. Although we’ve not likely bought a player who will enter the first XI we have provided Dier and Kane with rest – which makes them better players. I also specifically labeled Wanyama as a poor target due to being overly limited and I’m starting to think I’m wrong about that too.

I feel there’s a bit of negativity in the predictions going in to this game from Spurs fans, at least in my corners. Maybe it’s been so long since we played that we’ve reset to the Spurs default of pessimism. Maybe we’re still struggling with last season’s finish. But we’re good, honest, if you don’t remember, now’s a good time to re-read my season review.

Finally, a bit of admin. Due to other commitments in both my writing and real life I might not be able to put out an article ahead of every game this season although I will make sure major games are covered and try to get a few videos out again too.

Spurs v The 2016 Summer Transfer Window Preview

Mauricio Pochettino, Daniel Levy and Paul Mitchell. A trifecta that puts Spurs fans in a position that is fairly unique for clubs that are in and around the top 4 of the Premier League.

While Man United, Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Woolwich fans will be holding out for big names and even bigger expenditure. Spurs will recognise that after Alderweireld, the majority of, and perhaps in fact the best, signings over the last two years have been of largely unknown youngsters.

With one summer of exception that’s been the case for some time but there’s been a tone change. Although Tottenham remain much more financially restricted than their rivals that’s no longer the main identity of ENIC’s spending methods. Spurs aren’t buying young so much because they have to but because they’re really good at it. And not just in recognising and securing young talent but turning that talent into a top level team.

Maybe this is just a maturity from within myself but speculating transfer prospects seems more pointless than ever now. I don’t expect to recognise our signings’ names from before we were linked with them. I don’t even want to.

A back-up striker and a back-up central/defensive midfielder. That, I think, is the general consensus amongst Spurs fans. Squad depth certainly seems to be the theme this summer and with a season of Champion’s League football (whey!) to balance with the usual Premier League and domestic cups, our super-high-intensity playstyle means that having 20 reliable players seems close to necessity.

I’d actually go as far as saying that this season Tottenham have lacked capable back-ups to Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld.

At face value that’s five purchases and a busy window. Unlikely to happen. But maybe some of these birds can be killed with a single stone. There’s cross-over between Dier and Dembele and there’s cross-over between Dier and Toby. Five players sharing three roles should be sufficient cover.

So what kind of player do Tottenham need to play second-string in the middle of the park?Someone who’s defensively capable, who has enough physical presence and technical ability to be able to retain possession under pressure and, ideally, someone who can trump both Dier and Dembele in the realms of creativity. Well Spurs already have that player and his name is Nabil Bentaleb.

Between injuries, a scattering of weak performances and rumours of both contract issues and attitude problems Nabs has had a Lamela-Season-One tier year. But there’s no doubt a talented player in there. The player we saw in the 14/15 season would be perfect as competition to both Dier and Dembele. He presents himself as a more creative option who isn’t a dramatic drop-off from Dier’s defending or Dembele’s dribbling.

If Bentaleb, for whatever inside reasoning, isn’t suitable to Spurs and is on his way out this summer then I find it hard to see Spurs needing any less than two new players for the deep-midfield zone of the pitch. I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Eriksen gets away with being the only weak physical presence in the first XI by being an excellent force of creativity. Players of his ilk are far from common and even rarer is one that would be able to keep up with our pressing tempo or sit on the bench and wait his turn. Maybe, freed from being needed deeper on the pitch one of Mason or Carroll can fill this role rather than offloading both. Neither are on good terms with Spurs fans right now and neither may seem like great options but I struggle to imagine us being able to better them. Could Alex Pritchard make it his role? A creative type who can play out on the left, as a 10 or a little deeper, that’s certainly makes him Eriksen Jr. but I think there are questions over his work rate and ability to fit in to our high-tempo game.

Kane is similarly difficult to replicate. His mixture of versatility and quality is pretty unique world-wide. Someone who can play as a targetman but isn’t limited to it. Maybe that’s why almost all the forwards we have been linked with so far are all quite different to Kane. Quick and skillful forwards who can play on the wing but are shorter and weaker with little ability to play with their back to goal. I can understand the perspective of wanting to have an alternate method. But I think we already have that between Son and N’Jie. The retort might be that neither of them have done the job but I don’t think that’s down to a lack of general quality. I think Pochettino’s direct style requires a forward who can compete in the air and hold-up the play and I’m worried we’re not looking for one.

There’s also an unhappiness amongst Spurs fans with Vorm. I rate Vorm highly and have done since before he joined Spurs but perhaps there’s an argument that he needs consistent game time to perform to the required level. Or maybe any keeper that comes in for Lloris is going to fail to compare.

But all of this is talk of squad depth. I don’t want to sound entitled or demanding but I don’t think that’s enough. I’m a firm believer that in football you must always at least attempt to improve in order to maintain. Time and time again the Premier League sees it’s champion fail to improve over the summer and suffer for their arrogance. Spurs might not have ended champions but they do have achievements to protect – and I do think having a similar season to the one just passed is the objective.

Yes we have a young team, yes we have an outstanding coach. But the already discussed Bentaleb presents a clear warning that these drop-offs spring from nowhere. Someone in that rock solid XI will become unfit, have a fall-out, suffer personal issues or just fall out of form.

Which raises the question ‘In which area of the pitch can we reasonably attempt to improve?’. I have an answer and I don’t think it’s going to be a popular one but then what answer could be?

It’s back in that deep-midfield. I think we can improve on Dier. Not because Dier isn’t a great player. Not because he hasn’t played incredibly well, he really has and I love him for it. But because between Dier and Dembele there is a tactical limitation. We lack creativity.

I mentioned in my season review that Dier is surprisingly creative and I know it must seem counter-intuitive to then say he’s lacking. But that’s because my initial praise comes from the angle of perceiving him as center-back first and foremost. Dier is great in midfield, for a defender. Dier is surprisingly creative, for a defender. Dier is good with the ball at his feet, for a defender.

I would like to see Spurs look to the transfer window for a player who is similar to Dier defensively but offers just a little more in possession. Someone who’s great in midfield, for a midfielder (and that’s not Wanyama by the way). What about you?