Everton’s 2016-17 campaign begins on Saturday with the arrival of Tottenham Hotspur at Goodison Park. It will be a battle of former Southampton managers, as Ronald Koeman takes the helm of the Toffees having left St. Mary’s in the summer and Mauricio Pochettino begins his third year in charge of Spurs after leading the Saints’ 2013-14 campaign.
Spurs were the top side in the league for much of last season and in many ways were unlucky to finish only in third place:
Ultimately they were undone by a negative overall finishing skew amongst other bad luck factors and it was Koeman of all people putting the nail in the coffin with a memorable 2-1 victory at White Hart Lane in the penultimate game of the season. I’ll bring up that match again later but for now suffice to say that despite the gut punch of not only missing out on the title but finishing below Arsenal for the twenty-first season running, Spurs have a lot to be proud of.
Importantly for 2016-17, Tottenham have retained almost their entire squad, and with yet another pre-season under their belt getting accustomed to Pochettino’s methods, one would expect them to again be a formidable force. Key depth additions have been made in Victor Wanyama and Dutch forward Vincent Janssen, and to their credit they’ve gone and played the likes of Juventus, Atlético Madrid, and Inter Milan during their preseason, with the latter falling by a 6-1 margin. While the headlines are being made and the extravagancies indulged at top clubs elsewhere in the league, Spurs have calmly managed the offseason and will be looking ahead with a quiet confidence. For more on their 2016-17 prospects, I direct you to James Yorke’s excellent season preview over at Statsbomb, here.
Stylistically, I’m not sure that there is a better analysis of Spurs under Pochettino than that published by Tristan Thomas for Spielverlagerung in February, which can be found here. I recommend giving the whole article a read, but what I want to highlight is that Tottenham are a well-oiled machine, the likes of which aren’t often seen in the Premier League. They have a strong positional structure in attack, a decent pressing scheme, and they are dangerous in transition.
With the ball
Spurs have considerable technical ability all over the pitch and as such tend to build up short from the back, but they are not a Guardiola-style tiki taka side. Amongst the top six last year only Leicester required fewer passes on average to take a shot, reflecting a propensity towards efficient attack rather than possession for the sake of possession. Rather, you’ll see them (1) attempt quick combinations in and around the box to create space or (2) hit a long shot. Both the articles I linked above made a point about Spurs taking a ton of shots from outside of the box—most in the league last year, in fact—and it reflects a stylistic commitment of sorts. This is not a team to aimlessly pass the ball between their centerbacks for minutes on end. The worry with long shots is that inevitably their fruits tend to dry up over time but it helps that Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, and to a lesser extent Harry Kane and Delle Alli are all decent marksmen from range.
Spurs’ second and third goals from the preseason over Inter are representative in this regard (at the 1:46 and 2:16 marks, respectively):
Both goals were fantastic finishes of different kinds and from different locations, but both followed interplay in and around the edges of the box to create space; in the second case there was particularly quick ball movement and good understanding amongst Tottenham’s attacking players.
Without the ball
One of the aspects of Spurs’ play setting them apart from the other top sides last season was their pressing scheme and organization while not in possession. Pressing isn’t just about swarming the ball—as Thomas points out in the above article, compactness is more key here for Pochettino’s men. The goal is to force the ball into less dangerous areas via pressure and numerical advantage. This could mean encouraging the opponent to pass to an isolated teammate, or blocking passing lanes through the midfield and forcing the ball wide, where the touchline becomes another defender.
Pressing is difficult and potentially high-risk, and Spurs’ execution is not always perfect, but in general they tend to do a good job of making life hard for their opponents. Importantly this often forces mistakes which turn into attacking chances for Tottenham. One of the more effective ways to do this is by counterpressing, which is initiating a press immediately after losing the ball.
Below is a clip from Tottenham’s preseason game against Juventus. They’ve lost the ball in the corner, and two Spurs players immediately press the Juve defender while two others cover passing lanes up the flank. The Juve player manages to evade the initial press but can’t find an open man, and his pass is intercepted. Because of Spurs’ compact positional structure, there are three attackers still in the area to pick up the loose ball, and ultimately it results in a shot for Lamela:
It’s not the greatest example in the world, but it is typical of pressing sides and the kind of thing that when done over and over again tends to create good opportunities.
Matching up with Everton
In looking at Tottenham’s games last year against both Everton and Koeman’s Southampton, I noticed an interesting symmetry. In their first game against Spurs, Everton ended with about the same passing and possession stats as their opponents but were badly outmatched in terms of chance creation. The same was true for Southampton’s first matchup with Tottenham. In their rematches, both Everton and Southampton opted for a more counter-attacking style with 40% and 30% possession respectively, and both played much better—Everton came away with a deserved 1-1 draw, and Koeman ran out of White Hart Lane a 2-1 winner, as mentioned above.
This is to say that if I were advising Koeman on this match, I would encourage him not to focus on possession so much as efficiency. The more Everton pass horizontally around the defending and midfield third, the more opportunities Tottenham will have to force a mistake and spring a counter. Instead, Everton might want to sit back a bit and perhaps even indulge Spurs’ tendency to shoot from range. If so, Spurs will likely adopt a high-ish defensive line that could be ripe for counter-attacking, thereby playing right into the strengths of Everton’s attackers, most notably the speedy Gerard Deulofeu.
A second reason to adopt this strategy is the simple fact that Koeman’s system is completely new for Everton’s players. There are recent arrivals likely to line up down Everton’s spine (Stekelenburg at GK, Ashley Williams at CB, and Idrissa Gueye at CDM), and they are running into a manager in his third season with a well-defined style and a settled squad loaded with talent. A possible saving grace for Everton is that Spurs’ system requires high levels of fitness, and typically players do not reach full fitness until a few games into the season. Still though, I think that for Everton to try to take this game to Spurs would be foolish.
There are few worse sides to open up the season against than Tottenham, but on the bright side perhaps it’s best to get them out of the way early and focus on the fact that the rest of the schedule for the first two months is fairly soft. This matchup is not particularly suited to Everton’s strengths but with shrewd management from Koeman and a boost from the Goodison faithful, a positive result is not out of the question. My heart says draw, my head says loss, but either way it’s great to have the season back.