UEFA’s newly-published technical report is full of interesting insights into last season’s Champions League, but there is one statistic that stands out particularly strongly.
According to its findings, more than half of the goals scored in the competition – 185 out of 366, to be exact – came from possession regained in the opposition’s final third.
It is an eye-catching detail which reflects the growing prevalence of pressing at the highest level of the game. The report specifically highlights the “extraordinary intensity” of Liverpool’s press in their semi-final second-leg win over Barcelona. But Jurgen Klopp’s men were not the only ones to profit from forcing mistakes high up the pitch.
The final, when Liverpool faced Tottenham, was billed as a meeting between two of the best exponents of high pressing. Curiously, though, Spurs went on to record their lowest number of pressures in any Champions League game all season, with 64. By way of contrast, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah accounted for 34 pressures on his own.
An anomaly or a trend?
What felt like an anomaly at the time – Spurs had recorded more than twice as many pressures in their semi-final second leg against Ajax a few weeks earlier – now feels like the beginning of a trend. At a time when high pressing is becoming increasingly prominent elsewhere, recent evidence suggests Spurs are moving in the opposite direction.
So far this season, the high press simply hasn’t been there. Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville described Spurs as “lethargic” during their 2-2 draw with Manchester City last month. They were similarly flat in the 1-0 loss to Newcastle a week later. And while they did counter-attack at speed against Arsenal last Sunday, their pressing game was still oddly absent.
Unai Emery’s side were able to build from the back more-or-less unchallenged at the Emirates Stadium, which was especially surprising given the obvious problems Liverpool’s high press had caused them in their previous game. Klopp’s side won possession in the final third 13 times at Anfield. At the Emirates, Spurs only managed it twice.
In fact, Spurs have only won possession in the final third nine times in four games all season, putting them 16th among Premier League sides. Their average of 2.3 per game represents a considerable drop-off on their usual numbers. Last season, they averaged 4.2 per game, putting them fifth. In 2017/18, their average of 4.4 per game put them third.
Opta’s data for pressed sequences is even more revealing. Pressed sequences are defined as opposition passing sequences of three or fewer passes which end within 40 meters of their own goal. This season, Spurs have forced fewer pressed sequences (31) than any other Premier League side, averaging 7.8 per game compared to 13.2 last season.
It is a small sample size, of course, but it is still alarmingly out of character for a side whose aggressive pressing was once a hallmark. It is not so long ago that returning Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores was comparing Mauricio Pochettino’s players to “animals” for the speed and determination with which they hunted down possession.
Concern for Pochettino
So what’s happened? If it is a deliberate strategy, then it is not working. Spurs have survived away trips to Manchester City and Arsenal this season, taking five points from their first four games, but the lack of off-the-ball urgency has seen them give up a worrying number of chances. Only Aston Villa have faced more shots. Only Norwich have faced more shots on target.
It is also clear that the issues have been a source of frustration to Pochettino. He has cut a disgruntled figure since the Champions League final, complaining that his squad is the most “unsettled” it has ever been since his arrival at the club and alluding to its impact on the team’s performances – specifically their pressing – after the Arsenal game.
“We need togetherness,” he said. “The team wasn’t settled and I told you from day one of pre-season that I wasn’t happy. The most important thing is to all be on the same page and that the players have a clear idea of how we need to move.”
An effective press requires total commitment from every player, it requires team spirit and focus. But with Christian Eriksen’s mind elsewhere, with Jan Vertonghen mysteriously losing his place in the side and with new signings still bedding in, those factors have not been there. Tottenham’s cohesion has taken a hit and recent evidence suggests their pressing has too.
Pochettino hopes the closure of the transfer window – coupled with a pause for the international break – will allow Spurs to get their rhythm back. But a high-pressing approach requires a striker to set the tone. Is Harry Kane still that striker? Is he still suited to playing in a high-pressing system?
It is a conundrum for Pochettino. There can be no questioning Kane’s attacking contribution. He has scored seven times for club and country in the opening month of the season alone. But in the last few years he has suffered a string of ankle injuries and his game is evolving as a result.
Kane is still at his most dangerous in the opposition’s penalty box, but these days he is just as likely to be seen dropping deep as he is playing on the shoulder of the last defender. Instead of running in behind himself, he vacates the space for his team-mates to take advantage.
Kane’s evolution has impacted his off-the-ball work, too. This season, he is averaging fewer ball recoveries and fewer attempted tackles than in any of his previous six campaigns with Spurs. So far this season, he has only won possession in the final third twice in 360 minutes on the pitch.
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A player who once led the press for Pochettino is no longer playing with the same intensity, and it is perhaps no coincidence that, the last time Spurs produced the kind of breathless pressing they have become known for under Pochettino – in that Champions League semi-final second leg against Ajax in May – Kane did not feature at all.
His return to the starting line-up for the final was a welcome boost for Spurs, but as UEFA’s technical report tells us, their intensity suffered.
What now for Tottenham?
Perhaps Pochettino is still hoping that Kane will get back to his old intensity levels. There was encouragement in how he won possession in the opposition half in the build-up to England’s third goal against Bulgaria on Saturday. He then created another opening for Raheem Sterling in similar circumstances against Kosovo on Tuesday.
But the Premier League is an altogether more taxing environment. Kane’s evolution suggests he knows his attributes are changing and Tottenham’s adjusted approach this season suggests Pochettino knows it too. A side whose progress has been driven by high-pressing tactics must find a new way forward. For now, it remains a work in progress.
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