Mauricio Pochettino needs to address the issues in his midfield if he is going to get his Tottenham side performing to his and the club's expectations.
When Nottingham Forest took a deserved lead at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night, something needed to change. Pochettino made a double substitution, taking off Benjamin Stambouli and Pualinho for Ryan Mason and Harry Kane. It was Mason in particular who had the biggest effect, scoring the equaliser with a thumping 25-yard shot and playing a role in the other two goals as Spurs won 3-1.
But it was not more than what Mason did on the ball, it was where he did it. Under their new Head Coach Tottenham have played 4-2-3-1, but apart from against a woeful QPR and a limited Sunderland side the system has not worked and was exposed by both West Brom and Liverpool in the last two league games in North London. Now Tottenham are set to travel to bitter local rivals Arsenal for a game that could make or break them.
Too many cooks
When Pochettino took over he knew a lot of changes needed to be made. Spurs managed to have both a bloated squad and a side that had some pretty obvious defects. Pochettino addressed the left back issue with Ben Davies from Swansea providing competition for Danny Rose, Michel Vorm is an able back up to Hugo Lloris, while Federico Fazio replaces the departed Michael Dawson.
It is in midfield, however, where the greatest surgery needed and has taken place. Spurs simply had too many central midfielders, and too many similar players. Etienne Capoue and Sandro were the holding midfield options, Moussa Dembele, Nabil Bentaleb and Lewis Holtby were the more creative partners without being the real playmaker the Lilywhites have lacked since Luka Modric left, while Gyfli Sigurdsson and Paulinho were a long way from usurping Christian Eriksen for the number ten spot.
With the Icelander back at Swansea, Sandro at QPR and Holtby on loan in Germany, some deadwood was removed but there are still too many players not showing enough to warrant staying in the Spurs midfield. Bentaleb's progress has stalled, Paulinho has looked a mile away from being a Brazilian international, while Dembele continues to frustrate.
Young blood, new setup
Pochettino's system doesn't help either as leads to two players sitting in front of the defence, neither taking responsibility for contributing to the defensive solidity, neither taking the playmaking role, and neither sure of when or if they should be getting forward to support their team mates. This stops Tottenham's play getting anywhere and slows the tempo down to a crawl, the attacking players have to drop deeper to get on the ball, clear cut chances are minimal if not non-existent, and frustration seeps through the crowd.
When Mason came on against Forest not only did he score but he dictated a change of shape. Perhaps it was a result of Spurs needed a goal, but Mason instinctively took up a position 10-15 yards further forward than Bentaleb, Capoue, Dembele or Stambouli had taken in the loss to West Brom on in the Forest game to that point.
Mason was not interested in providing an option to a centre back in possession - Forest were only playing one upfront, so Bentaleb and the centre backs could easily work a way to isolate and ultimately bypass the forward - the first line of defence.
With Spurs moving forward in one pass rather than after dozen square balls, Mason could get on the ball int he opposition half, Kane and Soldado could operate solely in the final third, Townsend could pick the ball halfway in the Forest half rather than on the half way line. Tottenham increased the tempo and worked their way into dangerous spaces a lot quicker, and it was no surprise that chances started to come at a fast rate.
Too much of a gamble
To give Mason his first Spurs start in a derby away to Arsenal might be too much to ask and may be a case of taking a lamb to slaughter, but the positioning of the Spurs academy graduate is something his more illustrious team mates would do well to take note of.
In the medium term Pochettino may give more game time to the 23-yer-old whose Spurs career has been blighted by injury. In the long term the Argentine may cut loose the likes of Dembele and Paulinho and put more faith in the likes of Mason, Tom Carroll and Milos Veljkovic. These players have the ambition to get into more attacking positions, to try the more attacking option, to pass forward and take command, and leave others to take responsibility for their own role and performance.
Spurs have quality players but they are being dragged down both defensively and offensively. When this happens it is often due to a problem in the middle, and Pochettino was given an insight into what needs to be done in the final half hour against Forest in midweek. The derby may come too soon to make those changes, but Mauricio should not hesitate much longer before making big decisions over some big names.
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