With a Champions League semi-final on Tuesday evening, Mauricio Pochettino had a different game plan from his side’s narrow victory over Brighton. In came Ben Davies, Davinson Sánchez, Juan Foyth and Danny Rose for Victor Wanyama, Jan Vertonghen, Kieran Trippier and Fernando Llorente. Meanwhile, Manuel Pellegrini made only a solitary change to his team, with Pablo Zabaleta making way for Ryan Fredricks. This tactical analysis will examine how West Ham were victorious over Spurs despite the home side’s dominance in the first half.
Line-ups (Credit: Wyscout)
Tottenham’s attacking intent
From the opening stages, it was clear how Spurs sought to build from the back given Pochettino’s rotations. As the image shows, Dier (circled) often slotted into a back four alongside Alderweireld, Sánchez and Davies to make sure his side were not vulnerable on the counter.
Meanwhile, Rose (circled) and Foyth provided the width in the home side’s attacks with overlapping runs. The combination of Rose and Davies down Tottenham’s left-hand side caused problems for Antonio in the first half. As seen by the image, Antonio, while a hard-working player, frequently found himself outnumbered by the two Spurs players – both in possession and in the press.
When Tottenham’s full-backs did not take up advanced positions, the midfield’s shape often resembled a diamond, with one of Lucas, Son or Alli dropping deep to form the apex. This was a problem for West Ham’s midfield as they were outnumbered and failed to cut progressive passing lanes. Instead, they often picked up fixed positions in midfield.
West Ham’s defensive frailties
West Ham’s press appeared to be predicated on triggers, one most obvious in this game was when Spurs approached their half. Given the sloppy positioning of West Ham’s midfielders despite their numerical disadvantage, this tactic played into Tottenham’s hand in the first half. As the above image illustrates, Sánchez is granted a wealth of time and space in his own half by West Ham’s attackers.
However, just moments later in Sánchez’s attempt to drive forward, he is pressed by Snodgrass. This allows for Dier to move forward as a passing option for Sánchez to bypass the Hammers’ midfield line and start an attack.
The home side took advantage of West Ham’s pressing strategy, as Eriksen was given the time and freedom to drop deeper and pick a pass to one of Spurs’ attacking three. The poor positioning of West Ham’s midfield (circled) was key to Tottenham’s dominance in the first half.
The directness of this strategy allowed the playmaking prowess of Eriksen to circumvent the away side’s entire midfield. This left the Hammers’ back line vulnerable to aggressive runners like Lucas and Son to be picked out by the likes of Alli.
Alli vs. Rice
An important midfield battle in this game was always bound to commence between Rice and Alli, given their respective roles and positions. But it was the latter that showed signs of winning that battle in the first half. Alli repeatedly found space between the midfield and defensive lines to feed balls through to his onrushing forwards.
Again, Rice failed to cope with Alli’s dynamic runs in the first half, Eriksen plays a well-timed ball down the left channel. The progression of West Ham’s full-backs was also capitalised on by Spurs, as the forwards often made penetrative runs between the full back and each centre-back.
While Spurs did well to carve out their chances, they still lacked the cutting edge in the final third to punish the away side. This lack of ruthlessness is exemplified in the above image where Alli chooses to run and shoot himself when the better option lied with Son’s advancing run into the box.
Gaps in West Ham’s defence
The gap between Fredericks and Balbuena was frequently exploited by either Son or Lucas. The ambidexterity, vision and technical ability of Eriksen meant the Dane frequently found his forwards.
The combination of Rose and Davies down Tottenham’s left was odd considering both players opted to stay wide. This was awkward for West Ham to manage as it dragged and occupied both Antonio and Fredericks, leaving such space for Son to expose.
The gap between full back and centre-back was similarly exposed by Spurs down their right-hand side, with Eriksen committing Masuaku. Inviting such an aggressive forward like Lucas to drive forward typified West Ham’s first-half struggles.
West Ham’s counter-attacking threat
By letting Spurs have the ball, it was clear that the Hammers sought to play on the counter. This proved a potentially fruitful tactic for the away side as Spurs’ full-backs and midfielders were often committed to their own attack. This left Tottenham’s defence exposed on a three-on-three situation against a quick and strong attacking trident.
The second half saw a much more open affair, with the home side keen to make the scoreline reflect their dominance. In their relentless pursuit for a goal, Spurs were often caught on the counter with both full backs out of position.
Tottenham’s second-half formation resembled a 4-2-4 at times, with Dier and Eriksen as a double-pivot, Son on the right, Rose on the left and Lucas and Alli up front. Nonetheless, the attacking four still occupied a myriad of positions across the front line and interchanged with one another. With Spurs’ full-backs committing to virtually every attack, West Ham’s counter-attacks were always a threat.
Tottenham were stiff, laboured and struggled to make any attacks stick past 60 minutes. This was not at all eased by the introduction of Janssen and Llorente – if anything it made the home side much more predictable.
This does not bode well for their Champions League hopes, coming up against a side as free-flowing as Ajax, Spurs will have to do better to ensure they are not so exposed on the counter as they were at times in this game. While this does little to dampen their hopes of making the top four, it was still a disappointing showing from the home side, who suffered their first defeat in their new stadium.
On the other hand, West Ham played well, weathered the first-half storm and looked in control after they scored – particularly with Lucas’ departure. While many would have claimed West Ham do not have much to play for, they have proved those people wrong and look to continue to do so in reaching for a top-half finish.
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